Terror Watch: Like Clockwork

A little-noticed investigation by Swiss federal police has uncovered the existence of an apparent terror-support network with ties to the upper levels of Al Qaeda--including an operative believed to have played a role in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the May 2003 bombing of a housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The discovery of a largely invisible Al Qaeda network in the peaceful alpine nation has gotten virtually no public attention outside of Switzerland.

But criminal charges outlined in a July 30 Swiss prosecutor's report--obtained by NEWSWEEK--seem to confirm the worst fears of many U.S. counterterrorism officials: that, despite a concerted assault by Western intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, Osama bin Laden's organization has maintained a resilient operational structure that has a global reach, even larger than had been previously suspected.

The Swiss case began with a startling, and previously unreported, piece of evidence discovered in late May 2003: one of the suspects in the devastating Riyadh bombing had a cell phone with 36 Swiss mobile-telephone numbers recorded in its memory. Following up on those numbers, Swiss police over the next nine months arrested 10 suspects--mostly Yemeni and Somali natives who were found to have been engaging in mostly low-level criminal activity, including forging documents and human smuggling.

One of those suspects, a Yemeni exile named Abdelhamid al-Fayek, 56, a Bern resident who was allegedly the "instigator" of the ring, had been smuggling foreigners into Switzerland in order to clean up their identities, according to the Swiss report. The document says al-Fayek was giving clients the chance at "acquiring a new virginity"--a process designed to allow the foreigners to pass unnoticed either in Switzerland or other European countries. The report also charges that another associate of al-Fayek acted as a "financial intermediary" who transferred money to unidentified recipients in several Persian Gulf countries.

According to the Swiss prosecutor's report, the police also made another significant discovery that caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorism officials. Al-Fayek and another suspect named Jabr Rajeh Hassan al-Said, alias Abou Bakr, were in "close contact with several members of the hard-core bin Laden movement," the report states. One alleged bin Laden associate with whom they were known to have made contact is a little-known but apparently significant figure known as Owaiss, alias al-Kini Abdallah, whom the Swiss called an al-Qaeda "operational agent."

According to the Swiss document, Owaiss was arrested in Qatar and then extradited in May 2004 to Yemen, where he appears to be cooperating with authorities. (One indicator: Owaiss identified a picture of one of the Swiss suspects as somebody he had known who had undergone training in explosives at Al Qaeda's al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan.) But Owaiss's information could prove more valuable than that. The Swiss document says he has been a close associate of high-level figures such as Saif al-Adel, Al Qaeda's military chief--currently believed to be living in Iran, who has been indicted in the United States as a key planner of the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, and "Khallad," the one-legged Afghan fighter who is considered an architect of the Cole bombing. The Swiss report also alleges that Owaiss has ties to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the notorious Jordanian terrorist now believed to be behind many of the deadly terrorist attacks in postwar Iraq.

A U.S. government official said that American intelligence officials agree with many of the allegations made about Owaiss in the Swiss document, including his ties to Al Qaeda leaders and his possible involvement in the Cole attack. But the official said that U.S. agencies were uncertain whether Owaiss played an actual role in the May 2003 Riyadh bombings--despite what the Swiss report asserts was voice mail and e-mail contact with the people in Switzerland whose phone numbers were contained in the Riyadh suspect's cell-phone memory.

The Swiss report is the work off that country's chief deputy federal prosecutor, Claude Nicati. It is, in effect, a criminal referral that is sent to the federal investigating magistrate in Geneva. He must then initiate his own judicial investigation--in Swiss law, the next step before actually sending the defendants to trial.

Regardless of what is ultimately shown about the precise connections of the suspects to particular Al Qaeda attacks, the true importance of the case may be the evidence of a remarkably efficient transnational terror operation. According to the Swiss report, the Yemeni and Somali document forgers were in contact with confederates literally across the globe--in France, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Maldives. The United States isn't mentioned, but U.S. officials take no comfort in that. They fear that similar rings are still operating within American borders--as yet undetected.