No Time To Stand Down

It was a rare moment of relaxation for Lance Cpl. Antonio Sledd of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. On a break from a live-fire exercise in Kuwait last week, Sledd and some buddies were playing baseball on a makeshift diamond. That's when two Kuwaiti men, in civilian dress, ran toward third base and sprayed Sledd and another Marine with bullets. Sledd died. The other soldier was wounded. The assailants, whom Kuwaiti investigators have since linked to Al Qaeda, were gunned down as they turned their weapons toward home plate. Kuwaiti officials later told NEWSWEEK there was surprisingly little security in the area. "It was a soft, soft target," observed one official familiar with the incident.

The attack was a grisly reminder that it's dangerous to stand down in the war on terror. The message was reinforced later that day when Al-Jazeera broadcast Al Qaeda's Ayman Al-Zawahiri threatening new attacks against America and the "lifelines of its economy." Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, boasted of a series of strikes the group has been able to pull off since September 11, including the bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia and an attack on French nationals in Karachi. Last week American investigators were increasingly convinced that an explosion that crippled a French oil tanker was the work of terrorists. (On Saturday investigators were looking at two bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali for possible ties to Islamic terrorism.)

For months, U.S. investigators and intelligence officials had believed that the string of relatively small-scale attacks was a sign of Al Qaeda's weakness. But now, officials tell NEWSWEEK, they believe the terror network--even in its more decentralized form--remains as dangerous as ever and bent on perpetrating a spectacular attack against U.S. interests. "Al Qaeda has a demonstrated ability to learn from previous attacks, apply patience and ingenuity, and take advantage of security gaps," according to a recent intelligence report obtained by NEWSWEEK.

Those fears were intensified by what investigators have learned during recent interrogations of Qaeda operatives. Abu Zubaydah, the senior bin Laden lieutenant captured by U.S. forces last spring, has laid out in detail how Al Qaeda's tactics continuously evolve. One example of Qaeda entrepreneurialism: plans for an explosive jacket detonated by a suicide bomber to bring down a civilian airliner. Abu Zubaydah has told U.S. interrogators about conversations he had with members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in which they discussed how explosives would be placed in an "ordinary but thick winter or rain jacket" after the insulation had been removed. "At the base of the jacket would be two wires, one red and one black, which the bomber would cross at an opportune time to detonate the device," according to Abu Zubaydah's account, obtained by NEWSWEEK. The terrorist planners, Abu Zubaydah went on to say, had used their own metal and explosive detectors to determine which materials would elude airport safety.

U.S. officials have uncovered other threats in recent weeks. One alleged plot that has investigators worried is an 18-month planning effort to attack U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Yemen. The Qaeda operative believed to be organizing the plot is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who U.S. officials say directed the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. As each new scheme is uncovered, U.S. investigators are reminded again of Al Qaeda's patience--and its ability to adapt.