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Investigators making progress in 'worldwide puzzle'

By Manuel Perez-Rivas
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The investigation into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington has spread far and wide from the United States' borders in the three weeks since September 11. It has jumped U.S. borders to Europe, the Middle East and other corners of the world.

It has grown quickly into a global case. In addition to the more than 400 people with suspected ties to terrorism who have been detained and arrested in the United States, another 150 have been arrested overseas in 25 countries, President Bush said this week.

"What we're looking at really is a worldwide puzzle," said CNN consultant Mike Brooks, a former investigator with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. "It's a matter of getting all the pieces to fit together."

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The broad international scope of the investigation is just one of the challenges facing United States investigators as they try to piece together a case in which the known perpetrators -- those aboard the hijacked airliners -- were killed along with their victims.

Another challenge is the shadowy nature of the al Qaeda network, an organization headed by Saudi millionaire fugitive Osama bin Laden, who the United States has named as the prime suspect in the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

The existence of al Qaeda cells in dozens of countries, operating independently of one another, has made international cooperation critical and has added to the challenge facing U.S. investigators as they try to pin down bin Laden.

"Given the global dimensions of the investigation, given the global reach of the organization being investigated, clearly that makes it more challenging," said Frank Cilluffo, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who is an expert on transnational crime and terrorism.

"It changes the dynamics. In a sense, it changes the very nature of the investigation," said Steve Pomerantz, a former chief of the FBI's counter-terrorism section.

There are language and cultural barriers to be overcome, Pomerantz said. Additionally, investigators face logistical challenges of moving resources and people abroad. And results often depend on the cooperation of officials and law enforcement agencies in the host country.

"Here in the United States, investigators are only subject to the law. Thatís the only real restriction. Overseas, it's a whole different matter," Pomerantz said. "You can only operate overseas to the extent that the host country will cooperate."

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Law enforcement efforts often depend on diplomatic relations. Pomerantz cited two terrorist acts at U.S. targets -- the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed -- as contrasting examples of relations between U.S. and local law enforcement.

"In the Pan Am 103 case, we got total and complete cooperation," he said. "In the other case, even though Saudi Arabia is one of our allies, we didn't get anywhere near 100 percent cooperation."

Pomerantz and other experts interviewed for this story said they believe the current investigation is going well, in part because of the willingness of many nations to help.

According to the Bush administration, more than 30 countries have offered support in conducting criminal investigations against terrorism since the attacks, and more than 100 countries have offered increased intelligence support. In addition, the White House said, the United States has intensified counterterrorist operations with more than 200 intelligence and security services across the world.

Much of the international effort has been focused on tracking the money trail that investigators believe will lead from the hijackers of the four passenger jets used in the terrorist attacks all the way to bin Laden and possibly other terrorist groups. Bush has taken steps to freeze terrorist funds, he noted Monday, "and not only to do that at home, but convince others around the world to join us in doing so."

The president said $6 million from terrorist accounts has been frozen. "We've frozen 30 al Qaeda accounts in the United States and 20 overseas, and we're just beginning," he said.

Part of the reason for international cooperation, some experts said, is a perception among countries that the September 11 attacks were not just aimed at the United States.

"The reverberations were felt all over the world," Cilluffo said. "This was seen by people in other countries as a crime against humanity."

U.S. bolsters effort overseas

Another factor helping cooperation is the pressure being placed by the United States to build a coalition, not just for a military response, but also to boost counterterrorism and increase law enforcement cooperation from overseas.

Additionally, the experts said the United States has learned from past terrorist acts against Americans abroad and moved to improve its abilities to conduct investigations abroad.

Cilluffo noted that part of the problem in the Khobar Towers case was a lack of sufficient understanding of the local culture. "We sort of came in like a bull in a china shop," he said. "In each investigation since, we've gotten better and better and better."

Part of that improvement has been an increase in recent years in overseas criminal justice efforts, not just because of any particular events, but also because of the increased globalization of crime, experts said.

To that end, CNN consultant Mike Brooks said the FBI's network of legal attaches in embassies was well positioned even before the attacks to hit the ground running.

In addition, he noted that bin Laden was already a suspect in some of the biggest terrorist attack on the U.S. in recent years, such as the embassy bombings in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole. So, in effect, a case against him already was underway, providing more pieces of the puzzle to fit together with the newer pieces.

"Yes, we have a new case here," Brooks said. "But we also have an ongoing case against Osama bin Laden."


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