Terror cells immersed in U.S. life

Suspects surprise Americans with ability to blend into community

`Sophisticated operations'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - A wooden welcome sign decorated with a blue picket fence and a heart-shaped floral bouquet hangs in the doorway of Apartment 1504, a nondescript rental complex on Dotterel Road. It looks almost patriotic.

Yet federal officials believe that for at least four months behind this door lived two men who plotted to kill thousands of people, and succeeded in killing 44 when the United Airlines flight they hijacked crashed into rural Pennsylvania.

Why Saeed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alnami, who have been linked to the apartment by public records and FBI agents, would hang such a sign, a wrenching picture of innocence and good cheer absent from the American landscape for almost two weeks, has troubled neighbors since the attacks Sept. 11 on New York and Washington.

Beyond any final insult that might have been intended, the sign suggests to neighbors not only an uncanny ability to blend in, but a determination so intense that the two affixed to their door an image of the American dream and yet were not seduced by it.

As law enforcement officials search the country for those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the notion of terrorists living everyday lives - working out in local gyms, shopping at supermarkets and opening frequent-flyer accounts - is raising new questions about how many other terrorists might be in the United States, perhaps living as these men did.

"Apparently the chances [of living next to terrorists] are a lot greater than winning the Powerball lottery," said Larry Johnson, a former State Department terrorism specialist. "The reality is there may be many networks."

"We need to recognize that the motivation here is religious separatism," Johnson said. Terrorist cells "have found a way to maintain their own culture and co-exist here with the added twist that they need to purge and cleanse themselves of evil, and we are that evil."

Nothing new

Most experts believe that terrorist cells have been in the United States for many years - responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and a plan, thwarted by the FBI, to blow up the Seattle Space Needle and possibly part of the Los Angeles airport last New Year's Eve.

Border agents arrested one man, Ahmed Ressam, in connection with the millennium-eve plot after he tried to smuggle 130 pounds of bomb-making material across the U.S.-Canadian border.

Federal authorities believe Ressam linked up with a network of others living in the United States to attempt the two-pronged strike.

Those groups, however, have never appeared to intelligence officials to be as well organized, broadly based or resolute as the network that carried out the attacks Sept. 11.

"Clearly, there has been a dramatic shift in direction, of terrorists willing to commit tremendous mass casualties without regard to retaliation," he said.

The terrorists in the attacks, who appear to have been highly motivated and disciplined, seem to have merged seamlessly into the communities they chose, shopping at local stores, frequenting pizza shops and visiting video stores.

But they and a number of possible associates whom federal agents have been tracking did not wander haphazardly.

They chose communities that were ethnically diverse and transient in nature, such as this sunny resort town on Florida's east coast, places like nearby Vero Beach, Fort Lee, N.J., and Laurel. They moved frequently, and stayed within their own networks of friends and comrades, rarely, if ever, socializing.

And while some might have entrenched themselves for years in their American lives, they never seem to have invested in them. They seem never to have joined community groups or owned property. When the time came to walk away from their new home, they left behind only strip malls, graceless apartments and forgettable bars.

For the most part, the number of cells operating in American communities has largely been a matter of speculation - sometimes based on stereotypes or poor intelligence.

The pattern of these terrorists, analysts say, is reshaping the long-held view of a terrorist cell, from that of a loosely connected group of lone avengers to that of a sophisticated network on the order of the one that carried out the recent attacks.

"This group was able to blend, waiting sometimes four or five years before the attack," said L. Paul Bremer, former ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism who headed the National Commission on Terrorism. "Unlike past examples, they had an idea of what they were going to do, enrolling in flight schools, training and waiting for a signal."

Typical of a trend

Bremer said their actions are typical of what appears to be a growing trend among the followers of Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials consider the mastermind of the attacks.

Terrorist cells arrived in Africa five years before the bombing of two American embassies there in 1998. In a few cases, he said, operatives in those incidents married local women, became fishermen and opened shops.

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