Picking Up Terror's Trail

The terrorists didn't give up without a fight. When intelligence agents in Karachi, Pakistan, cornered a group of Qaeda operatives in an apartment building last Wednesday, the suspects opened fire, setting off a three-hour gun battle. Two of the gunmen were killed. The rest were hauled away in handcuffs. It wasn't until days later, however, that law-enforcement officials realized how big a catch they'd made: among those arrested was Ramzi bin al-Shibh--a "most wanted list" Qaeda fugitive who has boasted about his role as the coordinator of the 9-11 attacks. Authorities believe al-Shibh, who once roomed with lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in Hamburg, was originally supposed to have been the 20th hijacker, but the State Department rejected his repeated attempts to obtain a U.S. visa. If he talks, al-Shibh could--inadvertently or not--provide investigators with valuable information about how the strikes were planned and the whereabouts of other missing Qaeda leaders. "It's like everything is finally coming together," said one administration official.

That optimistic view was reinforced two days later, when FBI agents rounded up five men in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., and charged them with providing "material support" to Al Qaeda. The men, all U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent, allegedly attended a terrorist-training camp in Afghanistan, where they learned to use weapons and listened to a speech by Osama bin Laden. The Buffalo arrests seemed to illustrate the administration's warnings that Qaeda "sleeper cells" may still be operating in the United States, awaiting orders from overseas.

Yet last week's law-enforcement victories also seemed to underscore how hard it has been for investigators to roll up Al Qaeda's global network. A year after the attacks, al-Shibh is only the first 9-11 planner to be caught. And though FBI agents painstakingly followed and watched the Buffalo Five for months before their arrest, they could find no evidence that the men were planning to carry out any terrorist acts. Still, administration officials urge patience, saying that with every arrest they learn more about how the terrorists operate--leading them to new suspects and helping to unravel potential future plots.

Al-Shibh's arrest--on the anniversary of the September 11 strikes--was especially satisfying for law-enforcement agents. In an Al-Jazeera television interview aired last week, al-Shibh seemed to taunt his would-be captors, bragging about the terror attacks and the heroism of the hijackers. Now administration sources say al-Shibh could be the first Qaeda operative to be tried in a military tribunal, under new rules authorized last year by President Bush.

Over the last year, investigators assembled a detailed profile of al-Shibh's alleged role in the plot. When he failed to get into the United States, he took on a larger role in planning the hijackings. In the months before the attacks, al-Shibh sent money to Zacarias Moussaoui and traveled extensively around the world, working to finance and coordinate the attacks. FBI sources allege that he worked closely with one of bin Laden's top moneymen, Mustafa Ahmed Al-Husawi--who is still being hunted by U.S. investigators. In the summer of 2001, al-Shibh met with Atta in Spain, where the two allegedly made final plans for 9-11.

The men arrested in Buffalo don't have those kinds of terror credentials but may pose a more unsettling problem: how to root out Qaeda terrorists who are U.S. citizens? One encouraging sign: officials say it was Yemenis in Buffalo who gave them the crucial tip that the suspects had been to the Afghan camps. For law-enforcement agents, it was an encouraging reminder that they aren't the only ones working the beat.