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The Search for Suspects

September 30, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For more now on the progress of this investigation we’re joined by two journalists following it. Robin Wright is the global affairs correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about the Middle East; she is the author of Sacred Rage, the Wrath of Militant Islam. And Elaine Shannon covers the FBI and the Justice Department for Time magazine. Robin, help us understand this investigation, very confusing looking. It looks as if there are almost two investigations going on.

ROBIN WRIGHT, Los Angeles Times: There are two very separate investigations, in fact, and one predates the bombings in Africa by almost three years. In early 1996, because of information that the CIA and the FBI gleaned from the investigations of the World Trade Center bombing and some plots to blow up some landmarks in New York, it became increasingly clear that Osama bin Laden and his money were playing a major role in these acts, as well as other acts. And so the CIA set up a special unit to investigate bin Laden, and many of the arrests, both directed – related to the bombings, as well as to his broader network, really have come from that operation. But there is, of course, the very separate track of trying to nail down who were the operatives that actually carried out the two bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, when they’re arresting people who were just part of his network – I mean, how do they arrest them, on what charges?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, in Britain, they have something called the Prevention of Terrorism Act. And so they have used that. In the United States there is the issue of lying to a grand jury. In different places it’s under different acts. But the interesting thing is that in each case they have — whatever part of the world –they have been related to a U.S. tip-off, all dating back to this CIA investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Elaine, how close are they to actually nailing the people most responsible for the bombings, themselves, the ones who planned it and executed it?

ELAINE SHANNON, Time: Well, those are two different issues. We think that they do have the man who was the passenger in the truck at Nairobi, the driver is believed to have died. The driver is believed to have died in Tanzania. They’ve picked up some people who may be associated with a truck. In the Kenyan bombing —

MARGARET WARNER: We saw a picture of him –


MARGARET WARNER: — before he was the passenger.

ELAINE SHANNON: Yes. And they picked up the guy who they think rented the villa where they made the bomb in Nairobi. So the facilitators are there. The most significant arrest, to me, has been Mr. Salim, who was picked up outside Munich, because he’s believed to be a founder of al Qaida , the organization that Robin is talking about. He’s believed to have traveled all over the world handling finances for the organization and also buying arms and explosives and attempting to acquire even nuclear components, and some chemical weapons components, or something like that. So he knows many cells, instead of just one little cell in one little country.

MARGARET WARNER: So how important, how big do they think this network is, and at what level are all the players who have been arrested?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the operation so far has involved arrests on four continents. And that explains the tentacles of al Qaida and how far it’s penetrated from the United States, even some believe that there are cells in Latin America, all the way to Southeast Asia. The critical component in all of this is the money, and that’s why Mr. Salim is the critical key, and why the United States’ strategy really is aimed at undermining, getting at the money sources, getting at the people who control it so they can basically take away the prop that makes these organizations possible.

MARGARET WARNER: You said you found another — we were talking earlier – a particularly interesting moment was this American who was arrested. He’s a U.S. citizen, he lives in Texas, indicted for perjury. What do they really think he knows?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, they say that he was the personal secretary at one time for Osama bin Laden, so he could know a lot. They need to penetrate this organization. They’ve got some informants. They need a lot more. It’s a lot bigger, as Robin says, and a lot broader than they really had thought, and they need to find out what’s myth and what’s really provable there.

MARGARET WARNER: What do the people, the men, I guess they’re all men arrested — is there anything that they share in their personal history? I mean, are they all former Afghan freedom fighters? Is there anything that they share?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, one of the things that is most interesting about this is that a lot of them actually didn’t fight in Afghanistan. They’re what’s called the second generation. They did training under bin Laden, with bin Laden and his allies after the Afghan war, Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. But most of them are religious fanatics. Many of them are anti-American or anti-West in their attitudes, and their primary goal, obviously, is to undermine the western presence in the Middle East specifically but American domination virtually anyplace.

MARGARET WARNER: Elaine, how close are they to connecting bin Laden to these bombings? Is that part of, for instance, we’ve reported that there’s a sealed indictment against him, but that predates the bombings. Have they – have they been able to make that connection and add these bombings actually as something they can indict him for?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, there’s a lot of evidence with his footprints or shadows, I should say, all over it. All of the people that they picked up, some of them have admitted, yes, I went to the lectures, and I had training at the camps. None of them, to our knowledge, have come forward and said my orders were to go back and say Mr. Bin Laden, okay, the eagle’s landed, we did it. So I think that they probably need a little bit more evidence, however, they may feel that they have enough circumstantial case to put together the big conspiracy indictment that they’re working on, and it could be coming out pretty soon.

ROBIN WRIGHT: One of the things that so interesting about bin Laden is that he really is not the mastermind who draws up this is where we’re going to attack. He leaves a lot of it to the various organizations, be it Islamic Jihad, which operates in Egypt, or some of the other cells. They pick the targets. They are the ones who carry it out. He’s more the charismatic leader. He’s the one who organizes the religious edicts, the so-called Fatwas, which dictate or allow anti-American attacks. He’s not the traditional mastermind like Carlos was in the 70’s.

MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned a big conspiracy indictment you think is going to – well, that involves bin Laden, in other words, naming him.

ELAINE SHANNON: They want to do that. But this is a very good point — under our law you have to have knowledge that somebody is committing a criminal act because you’ve – not just because you’ve inspired ’em – if you go and say, well, I sure would like the World Trade Center to fall down — that’s not causing somebody else to foment that crime. So this is a problem for – under our law. And we believe in our law, not just getting people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now he is already under indictment for possible involvement in other things. Are they actually – are U.S. authorities actually looking for him to arrest him?

ELAINE SHANNON: Of course. They’d love to get their hands on him. I mean, that’s one reason —


ELAINE SHANNON: Yes. And I think there are some military discussions underway as well. And we don’t know exactly what and when, but it is assumed by I think everybody in the law enforcement community and I suppose everybody in the intelligence community that the bin Laden sympathizers are going to strike again, maybe in multiple places, and it is assumed that we’re going to try to get in wherever we can.

MARGARET WARNER: Robin, how did they make so many arrests so quickly? I mean, you pointed out that they had the investigation underway for a time, but do they have informants? Are there paper trails? What is it? Why do they have so much information? How can they arrest so many people?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think there are a lot of reasons, not all of which we know.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, that’s probably true.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Some of them, in some cases they have turned people who worked for his organization, they get them on some charge and they turn them into collaborators, providing them witness protection eventually or whatever. But there are incentives provided to cooperate with American intelligence. I think they’ve also, through electronic eavesdropping, listening into the airwaves, they’ve managed to pick up the money trail, figuring out where things are. And also bin Laden actually is quite a big businessman. He has holdings in Africa and in the Middle East and South Asia and trying to track the movement of these companies, what they do with their profits, what they produce, has also been very helpful.

MARGARET WARNER: This may be an impossible question to answer but I’m going to ask you anyway. Just from the arrests they’ve made so far and the other steps they’ve taken, have they made any appreciable dent in bin Laden’s network, or its ability, for instance, to carry out extra taxes Elaine mentioned they think are being planned?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, in terms of followers in general, there are estimates of anywhere from 2500 up to 6000, which is probably pretty high — people who have worked with him, who might be tapped to cooperate or collaborate in some kind of effort. And that — when you look at those numbers, the numbers arrested so far are pretty small. And most of the people I have spoken with indicate that this really is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a long way to go to get them all.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s the big obstacle to, for instance, really penetrating this financial network, or undermining his ability, his network’s ability to carry out attacks?

ELAINE SHANNON: Finding specific information, as Robin suggests. Death is very cheap. You can give two or five thousand dollars to somebody, and they can go buy enough components to buy a bomb or certainly a number of guns, and they can murder quite a number of people with that. And they can be very easily concealed. So as one FBI agent said to me, tracing $2,000 or $5,000 through the bin Laden organization is like finding $2,000 or $5,000 in AT&T. It’s huge. We need very specific evidence that only comes from human beings who are willing to tell you where it is.

MARGARET WARNER: And how soon do you think we may see trials of any of the people arrested?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, they’re going through the process in New York. Obviously, the Feds want them all to cooperate. Mr. Salim, who is the key figure, may not be cooperating at this point. Obviously, they’re going to try to persuade him that it’s in his best interest, in the world’s best interest. Will he listen? I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.