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U.S. Fears Network Has Regrouped, Fanned Out

May 18, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Recent attacks and a wealth of new intelligence show that the Al Qaeda leadership -- declared all but dead by many experts -- is reinvigorated, now based in Iran and Pakistan, and orchestrating terrorist strikes around the world, U.S. officials said Saturday.

Some U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, have in recent weeks described the central command of the global terror network as being crippled and unable to coordinate significant new attacks. Several noted that Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden's public call to arms before the Iraq war appeared to have gone unheeded.

But information uncovered in last week's bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, implicates members of the Al Qaeda top command structure, according to several knowledgeable U.S. officials and other counter-terrorism authorities. They said they believe those Al Qaeda leaders also have played a direct role in other significant plots underway in East Africa, South Asia and elsewhere, some of which appear to be "imminent."

Those U.S. officials, interviewed Saturday, also said they are investigating whether Al Qaeda -- particularly its leaders -- played a role in Friday's attacks in Casablanca, Morocco. The preliminary investigation indicates that the bombings, which killed at least 41 people, bore the signatures of an Al Qaeda operation, said two U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"Major operations for Al Qaeda have always been done with the knowledge, support, blessing and backing of the Al Qaeda leadership," said one U.S. official. "At least in the Saudi case, I don't think it's anything different. We're pretty confident that it was senior leadership who were behind it. It didn't just spring up out of nowhere."

A second U.S. official agreed, saying the CIA and other counter-terrorism authorities have become dismayed in the last week at what they view as fresh evidence of the Al Qaeda leadership's destructive capabilities and intentions, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in East Africa, South Asia and other locations.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has focused on trying to "cut off the head" of Al Qaeda, to separate the leadership's command-and-control structure from the scores of cells operating in as many as 98 countries, the official said. The goal was to prevent the cadre of veteran terrorists at Al Qaeda's helm -- who have the money, operational experience, connections and troop loyalty to cause catastrophic damage -- from coordinating, financing and orchestrating attacks.

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'Extensive Reach'

"When you knock out the leadership, the hope is that you've atomized the group and made [the local cells] go off on their own to find resources and do their planning on their own," said the second official. "What this wave, which we may be in the early stages of, shows is that this remains an organization with planning and operational capability and extensive reach.

"Even when the good news articles came out about what we were doing to the Al Qaeda leadership, we knew there were a lot of the good people still out there and planning attacks," said the official. "What may be most disturbing about this is that the command-and-control structure is there, their ability to direct from above. Senior leadership clearly does have a role."

In the Riyadh bombings, U.S. and Saudi officials are focusing on several men they believe are linked to Al Qaeda leaders.

The CIA now believes that one of the key planners of Monday's attacks may have been a senior Al Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia named Abu Bakr al Asdi, who is about 30 years old and has links with alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

U.S. officials also believe Asdi has ties to Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of participating in the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen. Asdi, they think, may have replaced Al Nashiri as Al Qaeda's top operative in Saudi Arabia and perhaps the entire Arabian peninsula since Al Nashiri's capture several months ago.

Saudi officials are also searching for Khaled Jehani, a 29-year-old Saudi who appears in an Al Qaeda martyrdom tape recovered by the U.S. in Afghanistan, and Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, 23, who is believed to have trained in Afghanistan before being dispatched by Mohammed to the Mideast last year.

One ranking member of the Saudi royal family said last week that Bin Laden himself was involved in plotting the Riyadh attacks. But U.S. officials say it is too early to directly implicate Bin Laden, whom U.S. officials believe is hiding out in Pakistan's rugged North-West Frontier Province, near the border with Afghanistan, with his top aide, Ayman Zawahiri.

U.S. officials did, however, confirm Saturday that they are scrutinizing with renewed interest an audiotape purportedly made by Bin Laden in February, in which he specifically warned Arab leaders not to ally themselves with the United States in what was then an anticipated war against Iraq.

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