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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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Investigation ties attack to '93 bombing

By Charles M. Sennott and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 9/16/2001

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators say they are establishing links between the 19 hijackers who carried out the attack on America and Osama bin Laden's terrorist enterprise Al Qaeda.

Since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, authorities believe Al Qaeda has methodically developed a sophisticated operation to evade American intelligence and ''finish what they started,'' as one former CIA official put it.

The Tuesday attack, which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and struck at the Pentagon, has to be seen as originating with Al Qaeda's attack eight years ago, investigators say. The 1993 attack was a cruder attempt to take down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb that was detonated in a parking garage beneath the towers.

The trail from New England to Afghanistan that points to Al Qaeda includes: placing one hijacker at a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan as recently as 18 months ago; an affiliation of another hijacker with an Egyptian terrorist organization that merged with Al Qaeda; and a seemingly endless flow of money that officials say probably came from bin Laden's inherited fortune.

The sophisticated operation succeeded, investigators say, because the hijackers took elaborate steps to cover their tracks. They shaved their traditional beards, drank cocktails, and chased women at bars. That behavior, strictly forbidden by their centuries-old and puritanical interpretations of Koranic law, appears to have been intended to throw authorities off their trail.

Investigators say they are also tracking bank transfers to see if the hijackers shuttled messages and funds from bin Laden through Islamic charities to evade extensive surveillance and intercepts that the CIA had on satellite phones in Afghanistan. It is in Afghanistan where bin Laden is said to be hiding, harbored by the ruling Taliban.

From the first World Trade Center bombing to Tuesday's devastating attacks that killed more than 5,000 people, Al Qaeda meticulously created a more professional and highly secretive core of terrorists. If not directly guided by bin Laden, these terrorists were inspired and funded by him through Al Qaeda, according to dozens of interviews with federal investigators, elected officials closely connected to the US intelligence community, former CIA offcials, and terrorism specialists.

''They were out to finish what they started,'' as Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism investigator who has researched bin Laden for over a decade, put it.

Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who has for years served on various intelligence committees and wrote a recent book on terrorism titled ''The New War,'' said in an interview: ''They have been planning this since the World Trade Center bombing. Each step has been a learning process, piece by piece. ... My judgment is that bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization has been planning this ever since then. Every finger points in that direction.''

Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for ''The Base,'' planned for years to recruit and train pilots, and to develop the so-called sleeper cells that carried out the attacks. Chilling glimpses of the group's growing sophistication were readily available to federal agents from US State Department reports, classified documents on the organization, and extensive federal court transcripts from several trials of members of Al Qaeda in recent years.

An intelligence source said Wael al-Shehri, 24, left one of bin Laden's Al Qaeda bases, known as the Farouk camp, about 18 months ago and entered the United States two weeks before the deadly attacks. If confirmed by federal investigators, that would be one of the first direct links between Tuesday's attack and bin Laden.

A separate intelligence source confirmed that the camp, which is near the eastern Afghanistan region of Khost, was hit by American cruise missiles in 1998 after the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which federal officials say were carried out by bin Laden's Al Qaeda. But the source said that more recently, camps in that area were reestablished and were training Al Qaeda recruits.

Federal investigators also confirm that Mohamed Atta, 33, identified as one of the hijackers who commandeered American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston and crashed it into the north tower of the World Trade Center, was a member of the Egyptian terrorist organization Islamic Jihad. That group, which seeks to overthrow the government of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has been aligned for years with Al Qaeda.

Atta, who investigators believe may be a central coordinator of at least two of the four hijacked planes, lived in Hamburg for several years and attended the Technical University in the German port city. He also shuttled back and forth to an apartment in Florida, where he took four months of pilot training at the Huffman Aviation International Flight School in Venice.

German newspapers reported that when in Hamburg he was seen hanging out at Sharky's Billiard Bar, which advertises itself as ''The Bar With Mega-Possibilities.'' Atta also was seen the Friday before the attack at a Hollywood, Fla., Shuckhums Oyster Pub, drinking vodka and orange juice and arguing about the bill before he unfurled a wad of $100 bills and contemptuously paid his tab, according to the restaurant's manager.

''It was a front,'' said one state trooper who is part of the FBI-led task force investigating the Boston hijackings. ''These guys were drinking and chasing broads so people like us would look at them and say, `Well, they can't be terrorists because they're drinking booze and chasing broads.' It was just part of their training.''

Another indication that this may have been an Al Qaeda operation was the hijackers' seemingly unlimited access to cash. That, investigators say, would have required the resources of bin Laden's inherited fortune. The hijackers paid more than $30,000 for flight simulator classes and rented houses in Florida at more than $1,000 a month, investigators said.

Bin Laden is said to be worth roughly $300 million, money largely derived from his father's construction company, which had benefited from lucrative contracts with the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His family has since disowned him and he has been exiled from Saudi Arabia.

Investigators were also intrigued to learn from cellphone calls made by passengers on the Newark flight that the hijackers who commandeered that jet donned red bandanas before they took over the plane. Red bandanas have been a signature of Islamic Jihad in its attacks on Western tourists and Coptic Christians in a bloody insurgency against the Mubarak government throughout the 1990s.

Passengers on the Newark flight apparently rushed these hijackers and fought with them before the jet crashed in rural Pennsylvania, the cellphone calls indicated, according to the sources.

''They're wearing red bandanas,'' Jeremy Glick, a New Jersey man who was on the Newark flight, said in a mobile phone conversation with his wife in the moments before the plane crashed, a source who reviewed the transcripts of the conversation said.

Al Qaeda was founded in the mid-1980s by bin Laden as part of the US-backed Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden set up training camps for Arab volunteers who came to fight the Soviets, backed by billions of dollars in covert American aid. That money was funneled to the resistance to fulfill US policy goals of undercutting the Soviet Union in what became its Vietnam.

Bin Laden brought these volunteers together from various Islamic militant organizations out of dozens of countries, including Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. He united them in their fury toward the United States for its backing of what they see as brutal and corrupt governments, and stoked their dreams of overthrowing them and replacing them with sharia, or Islamic law.

The network includes the Egyptian groups Islamic Jihad and Gama Islamiya; Algeria's Armed Islamic Group; the Islamic resistance group Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza; Lebanon's Shiite Muslim guerrilla fighters of Hezbollah; and various groups in Pakistan, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and the Philippines, according to a State Department report.

Bin Laden was particularly keen on developing dissident groups lined up against the ruling kingdom in his native Saudi Arabia. Investigators say it appears that almost all the hijackers had Saudi identities, although agents were still sorting out whether some of these may have been aliases.

Bin Laden believes the House of Saud has defiled the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina by allowing US troops to be stationed there since Saudi Arabi formed an alliance with the United States in the Persian Gulf War.

President Bush said yesterday, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week, that bin Laden is the prime suspect at the center of this operation. But those close to the investigation say that bin Laden has to be seen more as the inspirational leader of this terrorist network, and not necessarily the man who was pulling the strings on every individual cell.

''The way to think of bin Laden is as a CEO of terrorism,'' said one intelligence official in Washington. ''He was the inspiration to franchises all over the Muslim world where poverty and despair gives him an endless supply of followers.''

Testimony in a trial last year of four men connected with Al Qaeda who carried out the embassy bombings in Africa offers a window into Al Qaeda's recruitment methods. Volunteers are barraged with continually running videotapes of Muslims suffering at the hands of the West - Palestinian youths shot down by Israelis; Bosnian Muslims massacred by Serbs; Chechens brutalized by Russian troops; and endless images of Iraqi children dying in a hospital from the effects of the US-imposed sanctions on Iraq.

But Al Qaeda's membership was shaped by more than just propaganda drummed out to disenfranchised Muslims. It also was increasingly a high-tech operation, and one that was heavily backed with bin Laden's fortune, according to the court records.

In 1995, bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda began acquiring a network of satellite telephones to avoid detection. They received sophisticated computer training, and since 1996, have been able to forward information about their jihad, or holy war, to members around the world. By 1997, they often were communicating with encryption devices that could evade intercepts. The group had members who specialized in making false passports, allowing members to travel around the world under differing identifies, according to trial evidence.

Daniel Benjamin, director of transnational threats at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, said Al Qaeda also was using charities, including Maktab Khidmat, or Services Bureau, and another called Mercy International Relief Organization, to relay messages and funds for its operations.

In February 1998, bin Laden announced a new alliance of terrorist organizations, the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders. Through the front, he issued an Islamic decree calling upon all Muslims to attack Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world. Bin Laden's interpretations of the religion of Islam have outraged Islamic scholars, who fear that Americans will misinterpret the faith.

The job for investigators now is to trace backward the lives of the 19 hijackers, back to the days before they boarded the four doomed flights last Tuesday morning to the moment when authorities believe their lives intersected with bin Laden's organization.

Authorities say there is much that is not known about bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

This has something to do with the lengths to which bin Laden and his associates have gone to avoid detection. It also has to do with the protection he has secured from the rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban government, and especially from the country's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

And it has to do with the isolation of Afghanistan itself. Outside of the United Nations and a handful of private charity groups, few Westerners are allowed into the country. Bin Laden and about 200 heavily armed associates are believed to change bases almost nightly, traveling in four-wheel-drive vehicles through the rugged, mountainous terrain - the same treacherous area that American military planners are studying as they move toward an avowed offensive on bin Laden and the infrastrucure of his Al Qaeda organization.

John Donnelly, Elizabeth Neuffer, Stephen Kurkjian, and Michael Rezendes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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