Bombing probe slowly traces tortuous path of terrorism Investigation of blasts at embassies in Africa could go on for years

October 18, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The call came to FBI headquarters from the State Department at 4: 30 on the morning of Aug. 7, describing two major explosions at U.S. embassies in East Africa with a large loss of life. Director Louis J. Freeh's response was crisp.

"Whatever you need, get it. Get it over there fast," he told his assistant director, Tom Pickard. Freeh's order set in motion the largest overseas investigation ever conducted by the FBI, sending 471 employees to Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to document the carnage, interview witnesses and collect physical evidence.

That was more than two months ago. Since then:

The FBI, with cooperation from 13 other countries, has sketched the outlines of a radical Islamic terrorist network active in 20 countries that sought to wage war against the United States with everything from home-assembled explosives to weapons of mass destruction. The network, which employed front companies and fake identities, had ties to Iran and Sudan, terrorist groups in Egypt and the killers of 18 U.S. troops in Somalia in 1993, FBI officials say.

Four men, all believed to have links to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the bombings. Three of them are being held in New York and a reward has been offered for the fourth.

Indications have emerged that bin Laden's men tried to obtain chemical weapons and the fuel used in atomic bombs.

Authorities have begun to penetrate the upper ranks of bin Laden's terror network with the arrest and indictment of a former secretary to bin Laden, Wadih el Hage, who this month was charged with conspiracy. They are also seeking the extradition of two other men described as key figures in the organization, one in London and another in Germany.

More than 1,000 witnesses have been interviewed in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere. Investigators have collected 7 tons of evidence, from cotton swabs to metal, rubble and dirt, and stored it all in vaults on two floors of FBI headquarters.

But despite these signs of progress, it may take years before the FBI is in a position to bring to justice the man believed from the start to be responsible for the bombings: bin Laden, the multimillionaire Saudi Arabian who lives in exile in Afghanistan.

"We have not connected bin Laden from a law-enforcement viewpoint to the bombings," a senior official said last week. Although the Saudi's name already figures prominently in court papers, "to take that and say he directed, he controlled, he financed -- we're nowhere near that."

The bombs killed 213 people in Nairobi, including 12 Americans, and 11 in Dar es Salaam. An additional 5,000 were injured.

Investigators are looking into bin Laden's network -- known as al Qaeda, or "the base." Al Qaeda is less a hierarchical organization than "a loose-knit affiliation of individuals," the official said.

"It's a new challenge for us, as far as trying to develop the links and understand the organization," he added. "It's not an organization that we're used to seeing."

The difficulty of the challenge is evident. Even as authorities were briskly pursuing suspects in Africa, Britain and Germany, U.S. officials say they uncovered a plot last month to attack the U.S. Embassy in Uganda, a neighbor of Kenya. Twenty suspects were arrested, some of them believed to have ties to bin Laden.

"Terrorist organizations are the most resilient organizational bodies in the world," says Bruce Hoffman, Washington director for the RAND Corp., a think tank that conducts major studies for the Pentagon. "They are generally small, with not a huge chain of command, and innovative, because their survival depends on staying one step ahead of the authorities."

Yet a roundup of people with suspected links to the network, in Europe and Africa, has drawn complaints of guilt by association and abuse of human rights.

The political heat has been strong enough in Kenya for its government to willingly allow the two suspects captured there, Jordanian Mohamed Sadiq Odeh and Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, who held a Yemeni passport, to be tried in the United States. Tanzania, however, wants to try the Dar es Salaam suspects itself.

What's more, the Clinton administration can't shake skepticism about the president's decision to launch retaliatory raids against a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons plant in Khartoum.

The controversy over whether the United States bombed

legitimate targets highlights a key dilemma for officials in fighting terrorism, which the administration calls one of the biggest threats facing the United States.

Lengthy investigations allow terrorists to escape punishment for years, giving them time to plan and execute other crimes. Yet striking at them quickly opens officials to charges of shooting first and asking questions later.

"I do not believe that in a situation like the bombing on Dar and Nairobi that law enforcement can act by itself," said Samuel R. Berger, the president's national security adviser.

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