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How to catch a terrorist half a world away

Despite early progress in USS Cole case, Yemeni recalcitrance slows investigation.

Ali Mohamed knew he was in trouble. Canadian police had found his driver's license on someone arrested trying to cross into the United States on a false passport. So the Egyptian native and naturalized US citizen - recently retired from the US Army - admitted lots of things.

Yes, he knew Osama bin Laden. He'd helped him move from Sudan to Afghanistan. He'd helped train Mr. Bin Laden's bodyguards. He knew Bin Laden had an organization, Al-Qaeda, which was building a freelance terrorist army.

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But he hadn't seen the man in years. And he hoped this little matter of the license could be dealt with quietly.

"He was in the process of applying for a job as an FBI interpreter and did not want this incident to jeopardize the application," according to US court documents.

No such luck. Seven years after he first came to the attention of US authorities, Ali Abdelseoud Mohamed, aka "Omar," does work for the FBI. But he's a witness, not an interpreter. He has become one of the US government's most potent weapons in an incredibly hard task: the effort to hold Bin Laden and other alleged terrorists accountable for their actions in American courts of law.

Such investigations are to domestic police work what 3-D chess is to checkers. Yet they may be the only way to squelch freelance, nongovernmental terrorist acts.

"It's arduous and it's difficult, but I don't see any alternatives," says Ray Takeyh Soref, research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The US probe into the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, is if nothing else a classic example of the promise and problems of the effort to bring terrorists to justice.

Leads in the USS Cole case

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Fast, basic detective work broke open a number of leads in the case. Yemeni investigators have identified where they believe the bombers lived, in a ramshackle two-story apartment overlooking the harbor, and have traced the movements back to a rural area where the Bin Laden network has personal, business, and even governmental connections.

The FBI has important forensic evidence, in the shape of tiny pieces of fiberglass believed to have constituted the small boat that carried the bomb.

Even the tiniest such fragment can be pivotal: Shreds of clothing that had been wrapped around the bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103 were traced back to a shop in Malta, where a clerk fingered suspects from a photo lineup. A sharp-eyed Scottish policeman picked up the Pan Am 103 bomb's timer, no bigger than a fingernail, which has become pivotal evidence in the current trial of two Libyans for the attack.

But US authorities are encountering problems in Yemen, as well. Yemeni authorities will neither allow them to question witnesses nor even submit queries. Their movements have been constrained to the point where FBI teams were moved to Navy ships at sea in protest.

Lack of cooperation can also be pivotal. Saudi authorities never allowed American investigators access to suspects in the bombing of US barracks near Dharhan, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. Some involved in the Pan Am investigation believe reticent German authorities slowed research into where the luggage that contained the bomb was loaded onto the plane.

Three things are needed to track down terrorists, says Stanley Bedlington, former senior analyst at the CIA's counter-terrorism center: intelligence, evidence, and international help.

"International terrorism is an international problem and needs international cooperation," he says. "We're not getting that in Yemen."

All signs indicate that Bin Laden's organization may well have been behind the USS Cole attack. In public, however, US officials say nothing is proven. They say that considering the skill of Al-Qaeda, and the fact that the bombers died in the explosion, nothing may ever be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Perhaps. But if ongoing legal proceedings against six men the US has charged with participating in the 1998 bombings of embassies in Africa are any guide, American authorities know more about Bin Laden than a casual glance at headlines would indicate.

The exploits of Ali Mohamed

Ali Mohamed is one big reason. Following his release in 1993, he continued to work for Al-Qaeda, according to court papers, conducting surveillance of possible bomb targets in Kenya. He was arrested after the US embassy bombings, and subsequently struck a plea bargain, agreeing to testify for the US. He is now a star witness for the US government, which has issued a series of indictments against Bin Laden and others in federal court in New York for their alleged role in the Africa attacks.

Among other things, Mr. Mohamed has testified that Bin Laden looked at one of his surveillance photos and pointed to the place where a truck bomb could do the most damage.

Court papers indicate that the US also has at least one, and possibly as many as four, confidential informants who remain active in the Al-Qaeda network. They also intimate that the US has been able to track the movements of many Al-Qaeda members from the US to Africa and Afghanistan, perhaps via electronic-eavesdropping capabilities.

Among the tidbits disclosed in court papers: Bin Laden associates have set up diamond and fish businesses as fronts. They have obtained blank passports from Sudan and work closely with some Middle Eastern relief organizations. One of Al-Qaeda's top military leaders died in the sinking of a ferry in Lake Victoria in 1996.

Al-Qaeda members often shave their beards off before traveling, to attract less attention.

Whether Bin Laden himself will ever stand trial is, of course, problematic. Snatching him from Afghanistan would be a dangerous covert operation. International pressure is unlikely to force Afghanistan's Taliban rulers to give him up.

And the US public pursuit of him as the personification of world terrorism could be something of a mistake.

"The US has made a folk hero out of him [in the Arab world]," says H. Ibrahim Salih, a political scientist at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.

Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society