Danger: Terror Ahead: Osama Bin Laden's Network Is Growing. So Is the Danger to Americans. A NEWSWEEK Investigation

Newsweek, February 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Danger: Terror Ahead: Osama Bin Laden's Network Is Growing. So Is the Danger to Americans. A NEWSWEEK Investigation


American counterterrorism experts have been hunting Osama bin Laden for years. They have spent millions of dollars, countless man-hours and considerable diplomatic capital in order to track down the mastermind blamed, indirectly or directly, for terrorist incidents ranging from last fall's suicide attack on the USS Cole to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. Last week CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that bin Laden's global terror network is "the most immediate and serious threat" to U.S. national security.

So it may seem more than a little strange that, only a few weeks before Tenet's testimony, a NEWSWEEK reporter sat down with one of bin Laden's alleged associates in the comfort of a London hotel coffee shop. Yasser el-Sirri, a slight wiry man with a full beard, was genial and relaxed. He openly boasted that the Egyptian government had sentenced him to death for various crimes of terrorism. He denied U.S. charges that he raised money and recruited operatives for bin Laden, but he cheerfully confirmed that he was close to some of bin Laden's most feared henchmen. And he admitted that he has recently received--and made public through an entity he operates called the Islamic Observation Center--messages from "people who are close" to bin Laden.

Yasser el-Sirri is only one of several bin Laden associates who hides in plain sight, openly working to support a holy war against America. Intelligence services often prefer to keep suspects out in the open, where they can be watched, rather than driving them underground. And it is true, as America's top spies have long proclaimed, that we rarely hear about their victories--the terrorist attacks quietly thwarted by close coordination between the United States and its allies. Still, bin Laden's fast-moving international network seems to be outpacing international efforts to destroy it. There is an uneasy feeling in the upper levels of the U.S. government that the threat posed by bin Laden is growing--and coming ever closer to home.

Intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK that they believe bin Laden, the Saudi billionaire who is thought to be hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan, could strike at any time. The real question is where: since its formation in the early '90s, bin Laden's Al Qaeda group has recruited terrorist cells in countries all through the Middle East and North Africa--and possibly in East Asia, Europe and North America. "You break up a cell, and another one grows. This is [no longer] one man. If Osama bin Laden were to fall off a cliff in Afghanistan, we would all cheer, but his organization would still be in place," says a senior U.S. official. "From his perspective, he's got a 100-year program. He's probably eight years into it... and you can't expect to get too far in the first 10 years. But he's consolidating Afghanistan. He's fighting a war in Chechnya that has bled the Russians, and now they're making inroads in the Philippines and Indonesia, and here." Lately bin Laden seems to be forging ties with Palestinian terrorists. A U.S. official told NEWSWEEK that U.S. intelligence recently has picked up indications that bin Laden's Al Qaeda has been trying to increase its influence and contacts not only with Lebanon's Hizbullah but with two radical Palestinian groups that operate inside Israel and the occupied territories, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Last year, according to U.S. intelligence sources, Israeli security forces "broke up" an Al Qaeda cell on the Gaza Strip. U.S. officials fear the election of hard-liner Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel could heighten the terrorist threat not just against Israelis, but against Americans. "Does [Sharon] in and of himself get the extremists excited?" says a senior U.S. official. "Yes, he does."

With the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the end of Bill Clinton's intense diplomatic involvement, the Bush administration had hoped to be able to step back from the troubled region. …

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