Bomb Suspect Details Anti-U.S. Terror Ring
By Kamran Khan and Pamela Constable
According to notes taken by Pakistani intelligence officials who spent a week questioning the man -- identified by them as Mohammed Sadiq Howaida and by U.S. officials as Mohammed Saddiq Odeh -- he told them that bin Laden controls a network of 4,000 to 5,000 militants from a number of Muslim countries. From among these, the suspect said, bin Laden has sent operatives to take part in armed actions abroad, including the 1993 hit-and-run attacks on U.S. forces in Somalia. He called the Somalia operation his group's biggest triumph.
The Pakistani officials, who spoke to a Post correspondent in Karachi this week and shared their notes on condition of anonymity, said Odeh described bin Laden as possessing a large arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, mortars, rockets and tanks that are stored all over Afghanistan. He said the organization operates full-time in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Odeh's claims could not be independently verified, but much of his account is consistent with what Western intelligence agencies and media reports have said in the past about bin Laden. Odeh's detailed accounts appeared to support suspicions by U.S. law enforcement officials that bin Laden was involved in the bombing at the Nairobi embassy and a nearly simultaneous one at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The notes provided little new information about the Nairobi bombing, however. According to Pakistani intelligence sources, Odeh told them he was an engineer who had been sent to the Kenyan capital by bin Laden to provide technical and logistical support for the bombing but that he had been instructed to leave Kenya hours before the blast, which killed 247 people and wounded more than 5,000.
Odeh, 34 -- said by the Pakistanis to be a Palestinian from Jordan -- was detained at Karachi International Airport on the day of the East Africa bombings because the ID photo in the Yemeni passport he was carrying did not resemble him. He was held for a week and then turned over to American and Kenyan officials, who flew him back to Nairobi for questioning.
[Odeh told the Pakistanis that he was one of seven bin Laden operatives in Nairobi who returned to Pakistan after the bombing, and security sources here said early Wednesday that they had taken into custody another Arab man they believe was a member of that group. The sources did not name the second suspect but said he was a foreign national who aroused suspicion as he tried to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan Monday at the Towr Kham border crossing point, which lies along the Khyber Pass. The sources said he was being interrogated by security officials in Islamabad and would eventually be turned over to Kenyan authorities.]
According to FBI officials and other U.S. government sources, Odeh has not offered them or the Kenyans any of the information he purportedly gave the Pakistanis. That discrepancy has raised questions about whether he may have made false statements under duress or whether the Pakistanis may have concocted the information to please U.S. officials.
But this week, the Pakistani sources said they were not surprised that Odeh had failed to repeat his story once out of their hands. They said that while he was in Pakistan he had sought to gain the sympathy of his captors, who were fellow Muslims, but that once in American or Kenyan custody he knew he could be prosecuted and possibly sentenced to death for his actions.
Odeh "was fully aware that his on-the-record admission of anti-U.S. guerrilla operations would take him to the gallows," said an official who met repeatedly with Odeh while he was in custody in Karachi.
The sources said Odeh had been promised by the Pakistanis that he would not be extradited and that his information would not be conveyed to the Americans. The Pakistanis technically handed Odeh over to Kenyan authorities for return to Nairobi, but U.S. officials took part in the transfer and have been involved in his subsequent interrogation.
According to the officials and their notes, Odeh mentioned several armed operations abroad in which he or others participated with support from bin Laden. They included:
An urban guerrilla attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, in support of clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed, which resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. troops. Odeh said he and a group of guerrillas remained in Somalia for a full year and considered the humiliation of U.S. troops there a major victory.
The 1989 assassination of a Palestinian intellectual, Abdulla Yusuf Azzam, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Azzam, who had devoted years to promoting the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation, was killed with his two sons in a massive car bombing. Odeh reportedly told his Pakistani captors last week that bin Laden ordered the killing because he suspected Azzam had ties to the CIA.
Operations in the Philippines that Odeh refused to describe in detail.
In an interview with CNN last spring, bin Laden said that some Muslim guerrillas who had fought in Afghanistan had participated in Somali "resistance . . . to the American invasion" in Mogadishu. "They participated with their brothers in Somalia against the American occupation troops and killed large numbers of them," bin Laden told interviewers. He did not say he was directly connected to that effort, however.
Odeh reportedly described bin Laden's organization as highly secretive and compartmentalized, so that its members had little knowledge of operations in which they did not participate. He said it had an especially large number of members in Saudi Arabia and implied they had been involved in attacks on two U.S. military compounds there in 1995 and 1996, but he said he was not familiar with the group that carried out those bombings.
U.S. officials have linked bin Laden to both attacks, which killed a total of 24 Americans, but bin Laden has denied involvement, telling CNN the attacks were "a big honor that I missed participating in."
In Islamabad today, speculation intensified that the United States may be planning a military strike at bin Laden's compound in eastern Afghanistan, possibly using Pakistan as a base. The rumors were based largely on the hasty evacuation from Pakistan of more than 180 American citizens, including more than half the U.S. Embassy staff, on a chartered plane from the capital to Washington today.
Neither U.S. nor Pakistani officials have been willing to comment on the mounting public perception here that the United States may be planning to attack or seize bin Laden, possibly with Pakistani assistance. U.S. officials in Islamabad continued to assert that the evacuation of Americans was solely a response to unspecified threats received against Americans in the wake of the Aug. 7 bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
"We are naturally sensitive in the wake of the bombings," U.S. Ambassador Thomas W. Simons Jr. told reporters as he accompanied departing diplomats and their families to the airport today. "These threats are not Pakistan-specific."
In Washington, the State Department issued public warnings of threats received over the past week to embassies in Egypt, Malaysia, Yemen, Mongolia and Pakistan in the wake of the East Africa bombings.
President Clinton notified Congress today that 200 Marines and 10 Navy SEAL commandos had been deployed Sunday to enhance security at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, after officials received threats of a possible attack there similar to the Aug. 7 truck bombings. All but 50 Marines were withdrawn from the embassy on Monday and rejoined a training exercise being conducted with Albanian troops, Clinton said in a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). The U.S. forces had been flown to Tirana from ships already in the Adriatic Sea for the exercise.
American law enforcement and intelligence sources said that the last several days had brought an "abnormal" surge in threats to American installations around the world, not just in Pakistan. The sources said they believe the rash of threats was linked to the news of the suspect's arrest in Karachi and that they are concerned about possible reprisals.
"There's been a real noticeable increase," one source said. "It's a very tense time."
Khan reported from Karachi, Constable from Islamabad. Staff writer Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.
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