'Our Target Was Terror'

THEY CALLED IT OPERATION INFINITE Reach. To keep it a secret, the planning was done by a group of top officials so small that it code-named itself the Small Group--"SG," to those few in the know. Membership was limited, in bureaucratic parlance, to "principals only." Later, Defense Secretary William Cohen mused that he was the only person in his own office who knew about the operation. The planners knew what they were looking for thanks in part to intercepted telephone calls, and by early last Thursday the intended targets appeared to be right in Washington's cross hairs. At 1:30 in the morning, Bill Clinton called CIA Director George Tenet from Martha's Vineyard to ask if "there was any new intel," a source told NEWSWEEK. Tenet assured him nothing had changed. At 3 a.m., Clinton gave the order to go ahead.

Later, in the Arabian Sea, five U.S. warships--four surface vessels and a submarine--fired a barrage of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan. In the Red Sea, two other warships fired 20 cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was thought to be making an ingredient for the deadly VX nerve agent. The operation went off perfectly, the missiles slamming into their Afghan and Sudanese targets at almost the same moment. "Our target was terror," Clinton declared on television, suddenly looking presidential again. He said the attacks were aimed at Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But questions remained. Were the cruise-missile attacks justified? And would they do any good in the war on terrorism?

Clinton said the United States had "convincing information" that Bin Laden was behind the embassy bombings and many other atrocities. He said there was "compelling evidence" that the Saudi-born multimillionaire's terror network was planning further attacks on Americans. "You cannot overstate the imminence of what was about to happen," a White House official told NEWSWEEK. A day after the bombardment the president's national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, reported "moderate to heavy damage at each of the targets" and said the terror network's operations had been significantly impaired.

But Bin Laden managed to be elsewhere in Afghanistan when his training camps were hit, despite Clinton's claim that "a gathering of key terrorist leaders" was supposed to be taking place at one of the target sites. "By the grace of Allah, I am alive," Bin Laden said in a radio message. His spokesman released a statement warning: "The battle has not started yet. Our answer will be deeds, not words." Privately, administration officials acknowledged that another terrorist attack, somewhere in the world, was a near certainty. "The networks are out there," said one official. "They can choose their own time and place."

Just before the cruise-missile attacks, Bin Laden told a Pakistani journalist he had "nothing to do" with the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. His host, Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, insisted Bin Laden had clean hands. "There is no camp of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan," he said. "We have already closed his camps." He added: "We can never hand over Osama to America." Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said the U.S. attack was designed to overshadow the Monica Lewinsky scandal; he called Clinton "morally decrepit." Anti-American demonstrations in many Islamic countries echoed the same "Wag the Dog" theme; a Turkish newspaper headlined its story THE MONICA MISSILES.

But U.S. intelligence, and its helpers in other countries, had assembled an impressive dossier of evidence against Bin Laden. A key piece came from Muhammad Sadiq Howaida, a 33-year-old Palestinian who was arrested by Pakistani officials on Aug. 7, the day of the embassy bombings, as he attempted to slip into Afghanistan on a fake passport. The details of Howaida's confession to the Pakistanis were obtained by NEWSWEEK's Zahid Hussain. His report:

"I did it all for the cause of Islam," Howaida said of the embassy bombings. He confessed to working for Bin Laden. "He is my leader, and I obey his orders," Howaida said. He told investigators he built a bomb for the embassy in Tanzania on orders from Ali Saleh, an Egyptian extremist long linked to Bin Laden.

Howaida (who has also used the surname Odeh) was born in the Saudi Arabian town of Tabuk to Palestinian parents. He was educated in Jordan, where he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization, and in the Philippines, where he made contact with radical Muslim groups. In 1990 he went to Afghanistan to help fight the Soviet invaders. There he met Bin Laden--and learned how to build bombs. In 1994, he said, Bin Laden sent him to join a terrorist network in Kenya. Howaida settled in a small town called Witu, married a Kenyan woman of Arab extraction and opened a furniture shop.

After his arrest in Karachi, Howaida initially refused to talk. Then he was handed over to the Army's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), in whose hands he finally broke down. He told ISI investigators that the leader of Bin Laden's group in Kenya was another Egyptian named Salah Abdullah. He said the attack on the embassy in Nairobi was organized by Ali Saleh and four other men: an Egyptian named Abdur Rehman, a man from the Comoros named Haroon and two Kenyans of Yemeni extraction named Fahd and Sheikh Bahamand. Howaida said his team in Tanzania included three other men: an Egyptian named Mustafa and two Tanzanians of Omani origin named Ahmad Khalfan and Abdullah Ahmed. The bombs were actually driven to the embassies by locally hired Tanzanians and Kenyans, he said. And all of the plotters except Saleh and Haroon were told to get out of town by Aug. 7.

The investigation of the bombings was moving far more rapidly than such things usually do. In a meeting of the Small Group on Aug. 12, Clinton had set a tough standard of proof. He didn't demand evidence that could be presented in a court of law; the need to protect sources and methods would almost certainly preclude anything like that. What Clinton said he needed, before he could authorize military action, was evidence that Berger and other members of the Small Group (including Cohen, a Republican, and Gen. Hugh Shelton, the hard-nosed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) would regard as conclusive. Howaida's confession was one building block. At almost the same time, sources said, U.S. intelligence came up with another: an intercepted mobile-phone conversation between two of Bin Laden's lieutenants that clearly implicated them in the embassy bombings.

The pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, known as El Shifa, was a late addition to the U.S. target list. The factory's lawyer said it had no connection to Bin Laden. And Sudanese officials insisted the plant made innocent medicines for both humans and animals. But sources said that when U.S. intelligence obtained samples of products made by El Shifa, one of them turned out to be a "precursor" to the VX nerve agent. It was "barely a step away from VX itself," said a U.S. official. Another source identified the substance as "an ethyl-methyl-phosphorus compound unique to VX," adding: "There's no way in hell you'd ever use that in pharmaceutical manufacturing." Senior U.S. officials also assert that Bin Laden has been talking about using chemical weapons against U.S. targets.

The intelligence breakthrough on El Shifa also benefited from the defection, around the first of the year, of Bin Laden's top money manager, Muhammad bin Moisalih. Sources said the Saudi government lured him away from Bin Laden with a large sum of money. Since then Moisalih has provided what one expert describes as "priceless" information on Bin Laden's tangled and mysterious finances. That included companies in which he had invested money, one of which was El Shifa. Last week Clinton signed an executive order barring U.S. companies or individuals from doing business with any concern linked to Bin Laden. Most of his financial connections are Islamic, and a senior U.S. Treasury official concedes the freeze is partly symbolic.

After the embassy bombings on Aug. 7, Clinton authorized his national-security team to explore the military options for retaliation. From then on, Berger deliberately worked outside the usual retinue of Clinton's political aides. "We all knew there would be cries of "Wag the Dog'," said one senior official. Even the president himself was insulated from the planning process until a meeting on Aug. 12, when Shelton ran through the options he had considered and discarded: an attack by ground troops and raids by manned aircraft. Clinton concurred in the choice of cruise missiles--less painful, both militarily and diplomatically.

Clinton approved the strike plan in principle on Aug. 14, three days before his grand-jury testimony on the Lewinsky matter. The Zhawar Kili complex in Afghanistan was chosen because of intelligence reports that top Bin Laden lieutenants, including some coming in from Pakistan, planned to meet there last Thursday. But Bin Laden's own whereabouts weren't known. "Truth was, we didn't know who was in the camps," said one official who was in on the planning. Over that weekend, the Sudanese factory was added to the list. Clinton had concerns about both targets. He had to be reassured that the attack on the factory wouldn't spread a plume of poison gas over Khartoum. Planners decided that burning the plant to the ground would incinerate any toxic materials; extra cruise missiles were added to the mission to ensure total destruction. The president also stipulated that if the Zhawar meeting was canceled or postponed, there might be other, better targets to hit in Afghanistan. When nothing had changed in the intelligence picture by 3 a.m. Thursday, he gave the green light.

The results were mixed. The plant in Khartoum was razed, along with a candy factory nearby. Casualties were mercifully light: about 10 injuries and possibly one death. Angry Sudanese demonstrators took to the streets--blaming America, not Bin Laden. Amid the rubble, a visitor to the factory found a metal label, apparently from a cruise missile. It said the device had been inspected in 1993 by "Tammie" and added: MADE IN THE U.S.A., WITH PRIDE.

A U.S. spy satellite spotted the flashes as cruise missiles exploded at Zhawar. At least 21 people were killed in the Afghan camps, according to the Taliban government, but Washington could not confirm the number or identity of the casualties. Although Bin Laden survived, Cohen said afterward that killing him was "not our design." U.S. officials said the raids may have deterred another terrorist attack. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters: "It is very likely something would have happened had we not done this."

Something grim could still happen. American officials said that before the raids, attacks were imminent on U.S. embassies in Albania and Pakistan. "We think we stopped one in Albania," said a senior White House official. Threats were reported to other embassies in Malaysia, Yemen, Egypt and Uganda, among others, and new precautions were taken everywhere overseas, as they were back in the United States.

Outside the administration, some experts doubted the official rationale. "The timing was a little suspect," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA expert on counterterrorism. "If an operation were imminent, it's pretty clear that the resources would already be on the ground." He concluded that the cruise-missile strikes "did very little to hurt Bin Laden and probably initiated a new round of violence." The surest way to stop the violence is to kill the terrorists who perpetrate it, but that is hard to do at long range. "A cruise missile isn't an instrument of assassination," said Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of State and an expert on the Arab world. "Smart bombs are never quite as smart as you think."

Last week's attacks aroused anger against the United States across the Muslim world, though Clinton insisted in his TV speech that the cruise-missile strikes "were not aimed against Islam." Only a few Muslims support the random violence advocated by Bin Laden and his ilk. But many share a sense that Muslims are under attack by the United States, which supports Israel, maintains military forces on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia and seems more willing to bomb or boycott Islamic wrongdoers than those of other religions. The radicals hope to capitalize on this anger. "This is a holy war," says Adel Abdel Bary, an opposition Egyptian lawyer now exiled to Britain who has ties to some of the militant Islamic groups. "We are poor. We are weak now. But we are not stupid. We can use any technology. We can do anything." He also maintains: "Americans can destroy a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki, but they cannot fight this kind of fight."

"I think it's important for the American people to understand that we are involved in a long-term struggle," Albright said last week. "This is, unfortunately, the war of the future." It will be a messy war, with potentially a great many casualties. Americans don't like close, bloody conflict, understandably preferring the safe standoff warfare that can be waged with cruise missiles. But it won't be long before some terrorists gain access (if they haven't already) to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The war of the future is one Americans will have to learn how to win.

Osama bin Laden has funded Islamic terrorism and militant groups from Algeria to Tajikistan. Much of this shadowy world is a mystery, but some of his activities have been more conspicuous:

1 Sudan: Expelled in 1996 under U.S. pressure. May still own numerous businesses there, including share of drug plant.

2 Afghanistan: Fought in U.S.-backed war against Soviets in 1980s; set up training camps and helps bankroll the Taliban.

3 Kenya and Tanzania: Clinton cited "convincing information" that Bin Laden plotted the Aug. 7 bombings that killed 263 people.

4 Saudi Arabia: Birthplace--and source of a multimillion-dollar inheritance. Stripped of passport, has vowed to topple the ruling dynasty.

5 Pakistan: Led meeting of Islamic extremist groups in Peshawar in June. Decision made to "hit American interests."

6 Yemen: Father's homeland. Son formed alliances with tribal chiefs, set up training camps.

7 Somalia: Supplied troops to fight U.S. forces in 1993. "We inflicted big losses on the Americans," he later boasted.

8 Egypt: Funded Egyptian extremists and is suspected of backing attempt on President Hosni Mubarak's life in 1995.

9 Britain: Allegedly financed London-based Algerian group suspected of numerous bombings in France.