Tracking Bin Laden

The Kafkafa security prison sits high on a summit among the craggy hills of northern Jordan. It's visiting hour, and Khalil Deek is smiling broadly through an iron-mesh screen dividing prisoners from their families. "Thank you for taking an interest in the case," he says, fingering his bushy black beard. The "case" places Deek, a naturalized American citizen born in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, at the center of a conspiracy to attack American and Israeli tourists in Jordan last New Year's. With a wave of his hand, Deek dismisses the charges as "all this hocus-pocus." A devout Muslim, he says he had been living a quiet life in Anaheim, Calif., working as a computer technician and designing Islamic-culture Web sites when, in 1997, he traveled to the Pakistani-Afghan border. Not, he says, to join Al Jihad, but to preserve the writings of a revered Muslim cleric on CD-ROM. "America is a homeland to me," he says, "more than any other country."

Evidence gathered by the FBI and Jordanian intelligence suggests a much darker tale. Police say the CD-ROM they seized from Deek's home near the Afghan border, for instance, didn't contain sacred writings, but elaborate bomb-building instructions. And Jordanian agents say they penetrated a cell that included Deek just in time to thwart the millennium attack on tourists. That successful operation, in turn, produced a windfall of new intelligence about a global campaign of terror against Americans. Most important, FBI sources say, Deek's arrest offers a crucial link in the chain of evidence directly tying Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden to attacks against American targets. "We've pinned the tail on the donkey," says one senior law-enforcement official.

Deek claims he has never met the notorious Saudi who allegedly masterminded the attacks in 1998 on two U.S. embassies in Africa: "I know him [only] from the media." But U.S. and Jordanian sources say Deek met regularly with bin Laden and helped him coordinate operations. In Pakistan, Deek shared a bank account with Abu Zubaydah, described by a U.S. intelligence source as bin Laden's CEO. Abu Zubaydah, now in hiding, allegedly ran the House of Martyrs, a Pakistan-based clearinghouse for terrorist recruits. He enrolled them in bin Laden training camps and then dispatched them to the organization's international cells. Deek denies the joint bank account had anything to do with the Jordan plot or any other terrorist operations. (He claims he was helping a friend hide assets from his ex-wife and asked Abu Zubaydah to cosign the account "in case anything happened to me.")

Deek has a harder time explaining the "Encyclopedia Jihad" he gave to a man named Abu Hosher. Police found the encyclopedia--a military-training manual replete with bomb-building specs and other advice for insurgents--when Abu Hosher was arrested last December along with 12 other alleged co-conspirators in the Jordan bomb plot. Deek admits that he gave the manual to Abu Hosher, but says he was set up by the Pakistani police. "They have done a sting operation on me," he protests.

Was bin Laden preparing a one-two terror punch? U.S. law-enforcement agents believe he was, by coordinating the Jordanian plot with a separate attempt by a group of Algerians to bomb a U.S. target around New Year's. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian arrested Dec. 14 as he crossed the U.S.-Canadian border in a car packed with explosives, knew Deek from bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan. Both men, the FBI says, have links to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group. Ressam is in American custody. Deek, meanwhile, pines for his quiet life in sunny California. If the FBI can help it, it's a life he'll never know gain.