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A Resilient Al Qaeda Regroups and Plots

U.S. fears the network may use untraceable operatives for attacks on such targets as subways.

June 01, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Shrewd recruiting of new, young militants has allowed Al Qaeda to reestablish itself here in Osama bin Laden's homeland and around the world as an elusive and resilient threat that is seeking to launch new attacks in the United States and other countries, many U.S. officials now believe.

Al Qaeda has not only survived the U.S.-led crackdown against it, but it has also found weaknesses in the tactics of its pursuers and is exploiting them, according to interviews with U.S. officials here and in Washington.

Of particular concern, these officials say, are indications that the terrorist network has infiltrated an unknown number of essentially untraceable operatives into the United States. Some of them are believed to be planning suicide bombings against "soft targets" such as subways within the next several months, U.S. officials said.

The assessment is based, in part, on information gained over the last two weeks by U.S. and Saudi authorities jointly investigating the May 12 bombings in the capital of this oil-rich kingdom. The synchronized blasts killed 34 people at three residential compounds frequented by Westerners. Those who died included eight Americans and nine suicide bombers.

"At the same time we have learned a lot about how Al Qaeda has operated, they have done their homework and figured out ways to get people in who can evade scrutiny and the techniques that have been successful in the past," said one senior U.S. official. "They're bringing in these people because they know they're not known to law enforcement and intelligence [officials]. It gives them the opportunity to operate under the radar screen."

U.S. authorities believe that the names of members of such new "operational cells" don't appear in the database listing suspected Al Qaeda operatives, supporters and even sympathizers that they have built in the 21 months since the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

The database, which is used by law enforcement, intelligence and immigration agencies, cross-references many thousands of names gleaned from abandoned training camps in Afghanistan, safe houses raided elsewhere, electronic intercepts, interrogations and other sources.

"We thought we had a really good picture of it," the senior official said of Al Qaeda's current membership. "But what we're now seeing is that there are a lot of new cells, many of them beyond the penetration of the CIA. They're ciphers."

Some authorities and terrorism experts caution that new recruits may never amount to more than Bin Laden "hero worshipers" who will never actually do anything. Other authorities, including the senior U.S. intelligence official, said the new waves of recruits may be even more dangerous than those who joined Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks. Al Qaeda has purposely chosen many locations, such as Riyadh, in which the local Muslim populations are boiling with anger over worsening economic conditions and what they perceive to be a U.S.-led campaign to smash Islam under the guise of the war on terrorism, he said.

Officials believe that the suicide bombers here belonged to one of several Saudi-based Al Qaeda cells, and that several dozen hard-core members are plotting further attacks within the kingdom. Last week, even after the Saudis announced the arrest of 21 people who they said were linked to the bombings, U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan ordered all "nonessential" U.S. Embassy employees to leave the country by Friday.

"There is a real and palpable Al Qaeda threat here," said one top-ranking diplomat here who has access to classified intelligence cables. "The lethality of the threat, I think, is extraordinary."

U.S. officials said they were investigating whether bomb blasts in Morocco that occurred just four days after the Riyadh attacks are linked.

Initial indications are that the 14 men who launched the five attacks in Casablanca, killing 43 people -- including 31 bystanders -- were local militants who might have received financing from Al Qaeda or one of its regional affiliates.

But U.S. officials said their concerns about an Al Qaeda offensive and its apparent emphasis on using relatively new recruits were a factor in the decision to dispatch a team of FBI agents to Casablanca.

Another Saudi-based Al Qaeda cell might be trying to sneak into the United States to launch attacks, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, told reporters here recently, citing evidence from the investigation.

The Riyadh investigation represents the first time FBI and CIA agents have been given on-the-ground access by Saudi Arabia, an Al Qaeda recruiting and staging center that played a central role in the Sept. 11 attacks and other plots.

Investigators say they have uncovered details about current Al Qaeda activity in the Persian Gulf, including evidence that its members are getting large amounts of weapons smuggled in from Yemen and even Iraq.

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