WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say they believe that a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile, coordinated a terrorist plot that targeted Western and Israeli tourists in Jordan in December.
Officials said the man played a critical role in directing the operation from Pakistan, and fled to Afghanistan a day or two after Jordanian authorities foiled the plot and arrested 13 people.
U.S. and Middle Eastern investigators believe the suspect, Abu Zubaydah, was also in contact with Algerians who have been charged in a separate attempt to bomb unspecified targets in the United States in December. It is not clear whether Zubaydah played an active role in that plot, the officials say.
But they say that the emerging evidence about Zubaydah provides an important development in their effort to establish that bin Laden is a commanding figure in terrorist plots against the West.
The investigators say bin Laden and his group were trying to land two blows at once against Western interests. The attacks would have been the group's first large terrorist actions since the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, for which bin Laden has been indicted.
Investigators began working on the theory that bin Laden was behind the alleged plots as soon as arrests were made in Jordan and the United States. They found that some of those held in Jordan had been trained in camps operated in Afghanistan by the Saudi exile. They also found that the Algerians in Canada had taken direction from a Mauritanian related by marriage to bin Laden.
But investigators said the role of Zubaydah is the most significant evidence to date that bin Laden was directly behind the two operations. Zubaydah is a trusted member of bin Laden's inner circle, they said.
Middle Eastern intelligence officials describe Zubaydah as the coordinator of bin Laden's terrorist activities outside Afghanistan. Bin Laden has been using Afghanistan as his base and haven.