Terror Strikes
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  Continued From Page Two

A massive investigation followed, leading authorities to focus on a group of radical Muslims living in the United States. Using a federal informant, agents eventually nabbed a dozen or so individuals involved in the blast and a subsequent plot to bomb New York City landmarks. Primary among the suspects was a blind Egyptian cleric named Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, whose New Jersey mosque had attracted a following of young Muslims, and an electrical engineer named Ramzi Yousef, who had also plotted but had never carried out an attack against 12 U.S. jumbo jets over the Pacific.

Shiek Omar
Abdel Rahman
  Like previous perpetrators, Rahman and Yousef had been angered by U.S. policy in the Middle East. Rahman, who investigators charged had exhorted his followers to commit violent acts in New York, had publicly denounced the United States for its support of the secular Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak – a man the cleric regarded as an anathema. Meanwhile Yousef, who fled the country and was later captured by authorities in Pakistan, had stated his desire to avenge U.S. policies supporting the state of Israel.

The convictions of Rahman and Yousef on conspiracy charges in 1995 and 1996 brought little relief for the U.S. government. Like the Hezbollah attacks a decade earlier, the World Trade Center blast had shocked U.S. officials, most of whom had not expected that attacks could come from Muslims living in the United States, intelligence analysts say.

The World Trade Center blast moved Congress to once again boost counterterrorism funding for the FBI, which had oversight over domestic incidents. (By 1999, the FBI's annual budget for counterterrorism investigations had reached $301 million and included more than 1,300 agents, up from $78.5 million and 550 agents in 1993).

Despite the added manpower, attacks against American targets continued. And chief among the perpetrators, according to intelligence officials, would be a rogue Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden
  A veteran of the 10-year war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, bin Laden by the early 1990s had gained a reputation as an able financier and organizer of terrorist acts in the name of Islam. Similar to Rahman, bin Laden also had built a large following of supporters through his "al Qaeda" network of terrorist groups and individuals.

Like many Islamic fundamentalists, bin Laden had been upset over the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War – a campaign that he said desecrated the country's Muslim holy sites. His anger translated into action in December 1992, when he attempted the bombing of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, which housed 100 U.S. military personnel. The blast, which killed three people (none of them U.S. servicemen), would be the first in a series of anti-U.S. attacks that intelligence officials would pin on the Saudi millionaire.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
June 1996
  Bin Laden's name surfaced again in a destructive November 1995 car bombing of a building occupied by American military trainers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Four Saudis found guilty of delivering the bomb would name bin Laden as their inspiration for the attack. Bin Laden and Iranian-backed Shiites would also be suspected by U.S. intelligence of plotting the June 1996 fuel truck bombing of a U.S. military complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American soldiers and wounded 500.

The Saudi Arabia attacks led U.S. authorities to conduct a greater focus on bin Laden, leading to the establishment of a CIA task force dedicated to tracking him. During the same period, Washington also passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, one which provided $1 billion over four years for federal counterterrorism efforts by law enforcement and other agencies.

Nairobi blast
Kenya & Tanzania
August 1998
  Nonetheless, attacks against U.S. targets continued. On August 7, 1998, two near-simultaneous explosions rocked U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 and injuring some 5,000. Weeks later, after a massive investigation by the CIA, FBI and other agencies, investigators formally accused bin Laden and his followers of planning and executing the blasts.

Evidence against bin Laden was considered strong enough that the United States retaliated on August 20 with surprise cruise missile strikes against sites purportedly linked to the Saudi millionaire: paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. The strikes killed dozens and destroyed the plant, but missed bin Laden, who was believed to be at one of the camps in Afghanistan.

By early 1999, intelligence agencies were reporting some success in breaking up and infiltrating bin Laden's network of cells worldwide. Following the bombing, officials arrested Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a top bin Laden financial official and weapons procurer, one of a dozen or so individuals who have been charged with the blasts. The CIA also participated in the identification and arrest of individuals associated with bin Laden's network in Albania, and those in allied groups like Egypt's Gamaa Islamiya and al Jihad, according to U.S. officials.

Bin Laden's whereabouts, however, remain unknown.

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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