In attack, suspicion turns inevitably to bin Laden

Terrorism resembles previous bombing in New York City

Terrorism Strikes American

The Response

September 12, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Yesterday's suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington, while unprecedented in their destruction and sophistication, recalled previous anti-American strikes by radical Islamic groups and prompted U.S. officials to focus on terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden as a top suspect.

No credible claims of responsibility emerged for the devastating crashes, and officials in Washington stressed that investigation of the incidents was in its earliest stages.

Muslim groups also cautioned against jumping to conclusions, recalling the blame erroneously attached to radical Islam after the 1995 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City.

But U.S. officials and terrorism scholars said that few radical groups -- if any -- except bin Laden's have the wherewithal to launch an operation as complex and deadly as yesterday's.

The scale of the attacks also suggests that Iraq or some other hostile nation might have been involved, perhaps with financial assistance for the terrorists, analysts said.

"There are indications that people with links to Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization may have been responsible," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's too early to make a judgment.

"But this attack required planning, orchestration, resources and infrastructure that an organization like bin Laden's would have."

Al Qaeda, Arabic for The Base, is bin Laden's Afghanistan-based organization that U.S. officials say trains, finances and inspires anti-American terrorists worldwide.

Bin Laden is an exiled Saudi Arabian millionaire who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later declared holy war against Israel, the United States and U.S.-backed secular regimes in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch told CNN that FBI officials believe bin Laden might be behind yesterday's attacks.

"I do have some information," the Utah Republican said of his FBI briefing. "They've come to the conclusion that this looks like it may be the signature of Osama bin Laden, that he may be the one behind this."

Bin Laden, who U.S. officials say is sheltered by Afghanistan's radical Taliban rulers, is tied to a long string of attacks on Americans.

In May, four men were convicted of conspiring with bin Laden in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people.

One of those convicted, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, was scheduled to be sentenced today in a federal courthouse near New York's World Trade Center, which was destroyed in yesterday's attacks. Owhali's sentencing could have prompted the place and timing of the attacks, terrorism specialists said.

The World Trade Center was the target of a previous attack by Islamic radicals, one of whom, Ramzi Yousef, later said that the lack of sufficient explosives was the only reason the towers didn't tumble in the 1993 truck-bomb strike.

Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and several other militant Muslims were convicted on charges related to the bombing, which killed six people and injured about 1,000.

Law enforcement officials have said that those involved in the 1993 attack are allied with bin Laden. Rahman's sons are said to be members of Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden also is suspected of involvement in last year's bombing attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors, as well as in several failed attempts at terrorist violence.

"Bin Laden is the only one who has consistently been calling for attacks of this nature: killing Americans," said Larry Johnson, managing director for BERG Associates, a Washington security and antiterrorism consultant.

Abdel Bari Atwan, a reporter for Al-Quds al Arabi in London who interviewed bin Laden two years ago, said he heard secondhand three or four weeks ago that bin Laden was "preparing something big."

Taliban officials condemned yesterday's attacks and disputed suggestions that bin Laden was behind them, saying he didn't have the means.

This summer a lengthy videotape has been circulating in the radical Islamic world showing bin Laden praising the attack by a bomb-laden dinghy on the Cole.

In the tape, bin Laden wears a traditional Yemeni knife and recites a poem about the bombing, chanting, "And in Aden, they charged and destroyed a destroyer that fearsome people fear, one that evokes horror when it docks and when it sails."

Bin Laden is about 45 years old, the youngest son of a Saudi construction tycoon. If he is the author of yesterday's attacks, he has overcome intensive U.S. surveillance of his operation and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to surrender him to Western authorities.

Law enforcement officials have said that numerous bin Laden agents were arrested in several European nations this year, at Washington's behest.

The United States also has tightened sanctions on the Taliban and pressed Pakistan and Russia to apply pressure on the regime to turn over bin Laden.

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