U.S. Is Unraveling Bin Laden Network
By Michael Grunwald and Vernon Loeb
Eleven months before the deadly bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a former personal secretary to international terrorist Osama bin Laden quietly moved from Nairobi to Arlington, Tex. Almost immediately, the FBI brought him in for questioning.
What can you tell us, FBI agents asked Wadih el Hage, about bin Laden's top military commander? As far as he knew, el Hage replied, the commander was "alive and well and living with bin Laden in Afghanistan."
According to court documents filed last week in New York, that was a lie, and the FBI agents knew it. They knew that the commander had drowned, along with more than 500 other people, in the sinking of a Tanzanian ferry in Lake Victoria in May 1996. They also knew that el Hage and his housemate had visited the accident scene to search for the commander's body. In fact, they seemed to know quite a bit about the Kenya cell of al Qaida, bin Laden's worldwide network of Muslim militants.
On Aug. 7, that close-knit terrorist cell allegedly blew up the embassy in Nairobi, killing 253 people, including 12 Americans. A nearly simultaneous blast in Dar es Salaam claimed 10 lives. In large part because the FBI and the CIA had monitored bin Laden and his Kenya operations, the investigation of the truck bombings has progressed with remarkable speed. In six weeks, the FBI's largest overseas investigation in history has identified a steady stream of suspects, illustrating some of the results of an intense American effort to gather intelligence on bin Laden over the last five years.
So far, two alleged members of al Qaida have been charged with the Nairobi bombing and are awaiting trial in New York. El Hage's old housemate has also been charged in that attack, but has eluded capture. El Hage himself was arrested last week for allegedly lying to the FBI, and may be charged with terrorist crimes this week. A high-ranking bin Laden lieutenant was also detained last week in Germany, apparently while en route from Sudan to Turkey, and may soon face charges in the United States. A German official said yesterday the arrest came after a U.S. tip.
"It's been an amazing run," said one FBI official. "Hey, every once in a while, we do something right."
But the early successes of the investigation have also raised questions. Some critics have asked if the bombing plans could have been detected, since American officials were apparently tracking bin Laden's Kenya cell as early as 1996. The el Hage arrest has heightened fears about bin Laden disciples in the United States, but the FBI has not addressed the issue publicly except to confirm their presence here. And it is unclear how the arrests figure in the broader war they have declared on bin Laden.
The high-profile arrests and other developments have sent an implicit message that the FBI is unraveling bin Laden's far-flung network, but no one is sure how much of a dent law enforcement ultimately can make on his operations. A grand jury in Manhattan has returned an indictment charging bin Laden with crimes unrelated to the East Africa attacks, but for now he is believed to be beyond reach in Afghanistan.
"Obviously, with any criminal enterprise, you need to take out the leaders," one FBI counterterrorism official said. "You can take 20 drug pushers off the streets today, and they'll have 20 new pushers in their place tomorrow. It's the same way with terrorism."
The parade of suspects in the embassy investigation reflects the keen interest of American officials in bin Laden since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. By all accounts, the FBI has relied heavily on its sometime rivals in the CIA, which runs a "station" devoted to bin Laden out of its Counterterrorist Center. The probe has also benefited from the largess of Congress, which provides about $6.7 billion a year for counterterrorism operations. The FBI's counterterrorism budget and staff have doubled since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, up to $286 million for about 2,650 employees.
The CIA bin Laden unit has helped foreign governments arrest 40 suspected terrorists, mostly bin Laden loyalists, and has accumulated a wealth of information about his network, officials say. Intelligence work may be responsible for the FBI's access to a videotape of el Hage and his housemate, Haroun Fazil, at the scene of the Lake Victoria ferry disaster.
"Remember, there was a great deal known about bin Laden's group long before the embassy bombings," said Gene Gately, a retired CIA official who is vice president of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. "This is a high-intensity investigation, but it's really an investigation that has been going on since the World Trade Center.
The FBI has enjoyed unprecedented cooperation from authorities in Kenya, Tanzania and more than a dozen other countries that have assisted in the probe, a sharp contrast from some of its previous investigations of terrorism on foreign soil. Investigators have been able to combine previous intelligence on bin Laden with fresh interviews and other evidence gathered in Africa, including computer disks and paper files. The complaint against el Hage, for example, includes the first public references to bin Laden's top military aides: Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, who drowned at Lake Victoria, and Abu Hafs al Masry, who took his place.
Investigators have made some progress in the Dar es Salaam bombing as well as the Kenyan blast, but American officials are not sure any of the five men taken into custody by Tanzanian authorities were involved in the attack. The FBI has ruled out an initial theory that the bomb was carried on an embassy water truck; sources say it was on a second vehicle that pulled up behind the water truck immediately before the explosion.
In the Kenyan case, the investigation has provided an emerging portrait of the bomb plot and al Qaida's activities in Africa, woven together from the alleged backgrounds and activities of the major suspects:
Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a Palestinian from Jordan, was arrested the day of the bombings in the Karachi airport for using a false passport, and reportedly confessed to Pakistani authorities under interrogation that he helped plan the Nairobi attack. He allegedly joined al Qaida in Afghanistan in 1992, helped train Islamic fighters in Somalia in 1993, then moved to Mombassa, Kenya, where he set up a fishing business with al Qaida money and was visited by top al Qaida commanders, including al Banshiri and al Masry.
Odeh denied involvement in the bombings to the FBI, and claims the Pakistanis bullied him into a false confession. But he has admitted he is an al Qaida member, and that he attended al Qaida meetings in Nairobi's Hilltop Hotel in the week before the bombing. He is awaiting trial in New York for allegedly helping to plan the Nairobi attack, and sources say he is considered a possible link to the Dar es Salaam bombing as well.
Mohammed Rashed Daoud al Owhali is the lowest-level al Qaida member named so far; he allegedly was a passenger on the truck that carried the bomb to the Nairobi embassy, and expected to die in the explosion. He allegedly confessed to the FBI that he received training in explosives at bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.
Fazil, a native of the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros, allegedly played a leading role in planning and executing the Nairobi blast, and a reward of up to $2 million is being offered by the United States for information leading to his arrest. He allegedly received paramilitary training from bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1994, and was an "active member" in al Qaida's Kenya cell.
Fazil allegedly rented the villa where the bomb was built, attended the Hilltop Hotel meetings, cased the embassy with Owhali in the days before the bombing, and drove a white pickup truck that led the bomb-laden vehicle to the embassy gate. He returned to his home in the Comoran capital of Moroni a week after the attack, but apparently caught a flight to Dubai before the FBI arrived and raided his family's homes. Sources say he is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
El Hage, a U.S. citizen who is married to an American and has seven children, is the most puzzling figure to emerge so far. He allegedly served as bin Laden's secretary while he was living in Sudan until 1994, and played a leading role in the Kenya cell of al Qaida until 1997. A Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam, el Hage also reportedly studied city planning in Louisiana, and lived for a while in Kuwait.
In an interview with the FBI last month, el Hage denied knowing Odeh, and said he did not recognize his photograph. But Odeh has told the FBI that he considered el Hage "a very close friend, like an older brother," that el Hage once helped him get an ID card, attended his wedding in 1994, and sent him on a mission to Somalia for bin Laden last year.
Prosecutors are preparing to bring additional charges against el Hage, and sources say he is a suspect in the embassy bombings. He seemed to be leading an ordinary life in Texas, working in a tire store and living in a modest apartment, but the FBI has clearly been watching him. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh recently warned that bin Laden has operatives in the United States, and the el Hage case could well stoke fears of domestic terrorism.
"You don't want to be alarmist, but this is a very serious situation," said Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former FBI official in Dallas and Washington.
Mahmduh Mahmud Salim, who was arrested Wednesday night by a special operations squad of the German anti-terrorist police, was described by sources as an high-ranking lieutenant in bin Laden's worldwide network. There is no public information about his background or his possible links to the Africa bombings, but sources described him as a key financial aide who also helps bin Laden procure weapons. A German official said yesterday that police were alerted to Salim's travel plans by U.S. authorities and expected to extradite him to the United States.
Several American officials described the Salim arrest as a major victory, but none predicted that it would paralyze bin Laden's efforts to terrorize Americans. Earlier arrests of four bin Laden operatives in Albania have been cited as a possible motive for the East Africa bombings.
"That's the frustrating thing about terrorism," one U.S. official said. "It's a race, and there's no finish line."
Staff writer William Drozdiak in Berlin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Co.