50 Countries Detain 360 Suspects at CIA's Behest

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2001; 12:35 AM

At the urging of the CIA, foreign intelligence services and police agencies in 50 countries have arrested and detained about 360 suspects with alleged connections to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network or other violent terrorist groups, according to well-placed sources.

The massive, aggressive international roundup mirrors, in part, the broader detention program carried out by the FBI in the United States that has netted more than 1,100 people, including a small number believed to have information about terrorists and a far larger number of Middle Eastern nationals held on immigration violations.

The growing number of foreign detentions, part of the "unseen" war on terror that President Bush has frequently alluded to, shows the degree of cooperation other nations are quietly providing to the U.S. effort to crush al Qaeda.

The number of overseas arrests has grown considerably from what has been previously acknowledged -- on Oct. 21, President Bush said more than 200 suspected terrorists had been rounded up overseas. An exhaustive search of English-language newspapers worldwide turned up the names of only 75 foreign terror-related arrests since Sept. 11.

In one CIA case, intelligence reports indicated the general whereabouts of a suspected terrorist who may have had advance knowledge of previous attacks. Only a handful of suspects fall into that category -- a key group that is targeted because its members might be involved in future attacks.

But one country balked at providing the information the CIA needed to pinpoint the terrorist's location. Time was critical, so a covert CIA team broke into a facility overseas and stole the information. Within 12 hours, the suspected terrorist was located and the details were passed on to a fully cooperative foreign intelligence service, which had the individual arrested by one of the country's law enforcement agencies.

As part of the deepening relationships between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, agency officials abroad are increasingly sharing sensitive intelligence on suspected terrorists, supporting overseas investigations and initiating -- in several cases virtually insisting on -- arrests.

The foreign effort reflects the continuing concern of the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and the CIA that bin Laden and his network may have future terrorist attacks already planned in the United States or against U.S. facilities abroad.

The total number of people detained worldwide as part of the Sept. 11 probe is unknown, as are the identities and significance of most. In addition to the 360 foreign arrests generated by the CIA, the FBI through its own contacts and legal attache{acute}s overseas has helped produce a separate, unknown number of arrests. Dozens of countries have also stepped up their counterterrorism programs and have arrested on their own many more suspects, possibly in the hundreds, without any encouragement from the CIA or the FBI.

Of the 360 suspects arrested or detained abroad at the CIA's instigation, there were more than 100 in Europe, more than 100 in the Near East, 30 in Latin America and 20 in Africa. Officials said those arrests may have thrown some known al Qaeda groups off balance, but it is not clear whether any terrorist attacks in the United States have been disrupted or aborted. Four planned attacks, including a highly publicized plan to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris, have been aborted abroad since Sept. 11.

The CIA is rapidly developing information on suspected terrorists and working intensely with foreign intelligence services to turn that information into arrests. In addition, the agency, which had been accused of timidity, is undertaking some high-risk operations of its own to track suspected terrorists.

Since Sept. 11, a number of countries where the authorities thought al Qaeda did not have a presence have received a loud wake-up call and discovered cells or operatives within their own borders, several sources said.

The CIA effort is part of the work of a substantial foreign intelligence coalition involving dozens of countries assembled by CIA Director George J. Tenet. A senior White House official said recently that the intelligence coalition is as important as the military and diplomatic coalitions involved in the war on terrorism, particularly in the war's initial phase in Afghanistan.

"Intelligence may be more important down the road," the official said, "when we can't bomb or send in the [U.S.] Special Forces and have to operate covertly to root out" the terrorists.

Two senior diplomats in Washington involved in assisting the CIA said that the intelligence-sharing and the pressure to detain suspected terrorists in their countries are remarkable. "We can't get away from these [CIA] people," said one European diplomat, adding that the agency inundates his country with information, lists and requests.

On Oct. 1, Bush made reference to the foreign arrests in a speech at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington.

The president said that the American people "aren't going to see exactly what's taking place on their TV screens," but he added that "slowly, but surely," progress was being made.

Since Sept. 11, intelligence-sharing and cooperation among foreign services worldwide have flourished, several sources said.

The Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) has been involved in more than a dozen arrests. The CIA provided the name of one of the eight suspected al Qaeda members arrested in Spain earlier this week.

In another example, shortly after the terrorist attacks, two suspected al Qaeda members were picked up in Bahrain. The two were sent to Saudi Arabia for questioning, and they provided authorities there with an al Qaeda contact telephone number in the country.

After several weeks spent tracing calls from that number to other phone numbers, Saudi authorities tracked down and arrested a senior al Qaeda figure who uses various aliases, including "Abu Ahmed." He and five other al Qaeda members were arrested while attempting to leave the country.

Ahmed is believed to be the highest-ranking al Qaeda member to be held for questioning, and is one of the people believed to have had advance knowledge of previous terrorist attacks.

Sources said that he has provided information about the alleged involvement of a Yemeni intelligence officer in the October 2000 terrorist boat-attack on the destroyer USS Cole at a Yemeni port, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed. Ahmed reportedly had details of the planned attacks that were thwarted in the United States before the millennial celebrations of December 1999.

One source said Ahmed also knew some of the 19 hijackers who took over four planes on Sept. 11 and carried out the worst terrorist incident in U.S. history, killing about 4,000 people. Ahmed's information is considered a critical link between the hijackers and al Qaeda, and both the FBI and the CIA have been given limited access to him and his interrogation sessions, the sources said.

The Egyptian foreign intelligence services have been particularly active and helpful to the CIA. Egypt has among the most formidable and ruthless intelligence services in the Middle East, and several of those arrested in other countries as part of the Sept. 11 roundup have been sent to Egypt for interrogation or trial. According to evidence gathered for a 1999 trial in Egypt of more than 100 defendants from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which had merged with al Qaeda the previous year, the intelligence agents regularly used torture to obtain confessions from suspected terrorists.

The possibility of torture has raised some concerns within the Bush administration, according to one source, who also said there are worries that the wide-ranging terrorist roundup might be used by repressive regimes to crack down on their political opposition.

In his Oct. 1 speech at FEMA, Bush, as he has often done since Sept. 11, tried to lay out publicly and in general terms what was going on behind the scenes.

"You see, we've said to people around the world: 'This could happen to you, this could have easily have taken place on your soil, so you need to take threats seriously, as well,' " Bush said. "We're beginning to share intelligence amongst our nations. We're finding out members of the Qaeda organization, who they are, where they think they can hide. And we're slowly, but surely, bringing them to justice."

Staff researchers Jeff Himmelman and Margot Williams contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company