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A Pair Of Quick Arrests

The FBI brings home suspects in the Nairobi bombing, but the evidence in Sudan is shaky

By Douglas Waller/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, Sept. 7) -- It was the CIA's worldwide spy network that fingered Osama bin Laden as the likely mastermind of the Kenya and Tanzania bombings; then the Pentagon's $750,000 cruise missiles severely damaged his command center. But now it's old-fashioned detective work that is rounding up the bin Laden devotees accused of carrying out the attacks. Last week the FBI delivered two suspects in the Kenya bombing to a New York City federal court. Mohammed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, who was riding in the truck packed with explosives, was nabbed by FBI agents who had been checking Nairobi hospitals for a suspect who might have come in after the Aug. 7 blast. Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, accused of helping plan the bombing, was delivered by Pakistani police who caught him slipping into their country with a suspicious passport.

Bombing investigations can often take months of sifting tiny bits of debris to piece together who the suspects are, so the bureau was beaming that it had two key arrests just three weeks after the embassy attacks. The rest of the Administration was relieved as well. It hadn't been a good week for the credibility of Washington's fight against the forces of evil. Scott Ritter, a former Marine who headed the United Nation's inspection team in Iraq, resigned. He was frustrated that while the U.S. talked tough about opening Iraq's weapons facilities to inspectors, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright secretly pressured the U.N. to back off intrusive checks that might spark another confrontation with Iraq. The two-faced policy created "the illusion of arms control," Ritter complained in his resignation letter. Albright bristled at charges that she was being soft on Saddam Hussein: "It is not for nothing that I have earned from him the sobriquet of 'snake' and 'witch.'"

There were holes as well in the Administration's evidence against Sudan's el-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant, which cruise missiles flattened in the Aug. 20 retaliatory attack. The White House had to dial back earlier claims that the plant produced only chemical-weapons precursors and that bin Laden had financed its operation. It turns out that el-Shifa manufactured much of the antibiotics, malaria and tuberculosis drugs sold in Sudan. And the CIA had evidence only that bin Laden had put money into Sudan's military industry, not the plant specifically.

Clinton aides still believe the plant also produced dangerous chemicals. CIA agents scooped up soil samples there that contained traces of a compound called EMPTA, which is used to make the VX nerve agent. Iraqi chemical-weapons scientists had been regular visitors to the plant. A U.S. intelligence report also alleged that one of the plant's senior officials lived in a house owned by bin Laden.

Al-'Owhali and Odeh have implicated bin Laden in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings, according to federal-court documents. The FBI says they were part of al-Qaida, an international terrorist organization that bin Laden heads, and had been trained at a camp in Afghanistan. Federal prosecutors in New York are drafting a broader terrorism case against him that will include the East African bombings.

The White House, meanwhile, has ambitious plans for a larger military, diplomatic and covert war against bin Laden, senior officials tell TIME. The Treasury Department is looking at ways to block bin Laden's $300 million empire from financing his terror network. At future U.N. conferences and economic summits, Clinton will lobby foreign leaders to seize bin Laden assets found in their countries. Friendly foreign-intelligence services, acting on CIA tips, have begun rounding up bin Laden operatives in different parts of the world to harass his network. The agency has succeeded in breaking up a bin Laden terror cell operating in Albania. The Pentagon is readying more strikes on bin Laden operatives before they attack. "We're going to take you down before you take your gun out," a planning officer on the Pentagon's Joint Staff vowed.

Brave talk. The Administration has yet to prove it can deliver. Most of bin Laden's hidden finances have been impossible to find. Pentagon officials admit they're not flush with big fat targets in bin Laden's network, which is a collection of highly mobile terror cells with no central headquarters. Sending in commandos to snatch him in Afghanistan would be too bloody an operation, and the country's ruling Taliban is so far in no mood to turn him over to the FBI.

"We're not fooling anybody here," says a senior Clinton aide. "This is going to be tough, and we'll have to be in it for the long run." It took 24 years for Abu Nidal, the world's deadliest terrorist of the '70s and '80s, finally to end up in the custody of Egyptian authorities. It could take just as long to bring the man who's becoming the terrorist of the '90s to justice.

--With reporting by Clive Mutiso/Nairobi, Elaine Shannon and Mark Thompson/Washington

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 7, 1998

Free Fall
Stormy Weather
Starr's Report To Congress: Author! Author!
A Pair Of Quick Arrests
Essay: Go, And Spin No More
Notebook: Giving Newt A Hand


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