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  U.S. Team Begins Hunt for Bombers

U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Charles Stith inspects the damage outside the embassy. (AP)
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 1998; Page A01

Among the first to be awakened in the predawn hours yesterday, after grim calls from ruined embassies recounted the twin explosions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, were members of a modern-day posse of scientists, lawmen and intelligence agents. Assembling at Andrews Air Force Base, they set out before noon on a long hunt for the killers that the Clinton administration expected to lead far beyond the continent on which they staged their attacks.

Nothing in the cordial American ties with Kenya or Tanzania, national security officials said, suggested stakes that could motivate yesterday's lethal attacks. And nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa, they said, is there an organization known to be capable of terrorism of the scale and sophistication that sheared the faces off two large structures simultaneously some 450 miles apart.

"The theory that this has nothing to do with Africa is a good place to start," said one administration official whose job involved full attention to the bombings yesterday. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, in a brief interview, acknowledged that "we're looking very heavily outside of Africa" but added that "we're also looking inside."

Two officials with access to operational intelligence said the most promising lead in the first hours of the highly classified investigation was one that surfaced Thursday in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat. A written statement published there by Egypt's Islamic Jihad vowed revenge against the United States for orchestrating the arrest and deportation to Egypt of three Islamic fighters who sought to join forces with Albanian Muslim rebels in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

American sources confirmed that U.S. operatives located the three Islamic Jihad fighters in northern Albania and persuaded Albanian authorities to arrest them on June 28. The three men were dispatched to Egypt, where one of them, Ahmed Ibrahim Najjar, faced a death sentence in connection with a previous attack on a tourist market in Cairo.

"We wish to inform the Americans . . . of preparations for a response which we hope they read with care, because we shall write it, with the help of God, in the language they understand," the statement said.

Counterterrorist officials took the Islamic Jihad threat seriously, according to one senior military officer. But heightened alerts were sent only to the Middle East and southwest Asia, the officer said, adding: "We thought the theater of interest was most likely in Saudi Arabia."

Government officials warned against jumping to conclusions, emphasizing that they were in the first day of what they expected to be an arduous manhunt. The investigation, one law enforcement official said, starts with "low tech, hands and knees, crawling through rubble" and will progress to "the most sophisticated forensic analysis we can bring to bear."

"I'm terrified of instant speculation," said Charles Englehart, director of international investigations for Kroll-Ogara, a business security firm. "After the Oklahoma City bombing, everybody started pointing fingers at shadowy Middle Easterners, and it turned out to be a twisted white kid. There are a whole lot of people who hate America."

The FBI, which maintains the government's computer database of terrorists, faced the dispiriting proposition of beginning with a list of 200,000 suspect individuals and more than 3,000 organized groups.

President Clinton pledged to "use all the means at our disposal to bring those responsible to justice, no matter what or how long it takes." His national security spokesman, P.J. Crowley, made bold enough to put it as prophecy: "Ultimately, whoever is responsible for this attack will be brought to justice."

But that seemed to overstate historical experience. None of the relevant government agencies admitted yesterday to keeping statistics – several agreed to furnish data only on successes – but an anecdotal survey suggested authors of the most serious terror attacks on American targets are approximately as likely as not to remain at large.

The nearest recent precedent for yesterday's attacks was the June 25, 1996, blast that killed 19 American airmen in the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Though there have been some arrests, none of those detained remain in custody and Saudi-American tensions have been considerable in the stalled case.

"The investigation is really limited by the cooperation of the host country," said former FBI deputy director Weldon Kennedy, vice chairman of Guardsmark, a security firm. "Saudi Arabia didn't provide much cooperation, and that's been a real problem. Pan Am 103 was a real joint investigation, and look what happened."

But the latter precedent, too, remains troubling.

There the crime was the Dec. 12, 1988, bombing of an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. After lengthy debates and public leaks blaming foreign powers including Syria and Iran, the U.S. government settled on Libyans – specifically, two intelligence officers, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah – as the culprits.

But nearly seven years after American and British authorities indicted the men, they remain beyond the reach of either country's courts. Recent efforts to arrange a trial under British law in the Netherlands have showed no sign as yet of persuading the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, to permit their extradition.

Three of the bloodiest bombings ever – of the U.S. embassy, the embassy annex and a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 – have yet to produce any suspect in custody. The only suspects ever tried in the 1976 murder of U.S. ambassador Francis Meloy, also in Beirut, were acquitted in a Lebanese court in 1996.

There are impressive successes, as well, in the shadowy hunt for terrorists.

In June 1997, more than four years after he killed two Central Intelligence Agency employees on Virginia's Route 123, Mir Aimal Kansi was captured in a late-night raid in his native Pakistan. Agents bundled him back to the United States, where he faces the death penalty.

A list prepared by the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism also includes the arrests and convictions of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and others for the World Trade Center bombing; of Tsutomu Shiosaki for a 1986 rocket-propelled grenade attack on the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia; and of Mohammed Ali Rezaq for a 1985 hijacking.

Staff writers Thomas Lippman, Bradley Graham and Michael Grunwald and researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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