INVESTIGATORS BELIEVE Al Qaida-trained terrorists are behind two recent foiled bomb plots - including one in this state - as well as the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and the 1996 bomb that killed 19 U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia.
JALALABAD, Afghanistan - The passenger, indistinguishable from his fellows in beard, turban and baggy pants, was whisked through security at Jalalabad airport on the strength of a flimsy rectangle of cardboard.
The pass identified the holder simply as "Mr. Mauritania" and made clear he was not to be questioned or detained.
"It was a very important card. It was like cardboard and had a Taliban stamp on it," recalled the airport manager, Abdullah, referring to the strict Islamic militia that controls 90 percent of Afghanistan.
It was good Mr. Mauritania had the pass. He was carrying eight pistols, six satellite phones and three suitcases stuffed with riyals, the Saudi currency, said Abdullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name.
Mr. Mauritania is believed by international authorities to be a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi financier who has declared holy war on the United States.
But at the shabby, single-runway airport here, Mr. Mauritania is simply the most prominent traveler among the many hundreds wearing paths to the Afghan camps where bin Laden's Al Qaida group trains terrorists.
Investigators believe Al Qaida-trained terrorists are behind two recent foiled bomb plots - including one in Washington state - as well as the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and the 1996 bomb that killed 19 American airmen in Saudi Arabia.
Authorities emphasize no evidence links bin Laden directly to the plots. Yet a global inquiry keeps pointing to Afghanistan and the wealthy Saudi renegade.
On Tuesday, Jordanian officials told reporters the two thwarted bomb plots were connected and that interrogation of 14 suspects in Jordan helped U.S. authorities apprehend alleged conspirators in Washington state, New York and Canada.
Port Angeles arrest
Ahmed Ressam, 32, was stopped Dec. 14 trying to enter Port Angeles by ferry from British Columbia in a car packed with bomb-making materials. Ressam and three other young Algerians are now in American and Canadian jails for allegedly plotting to blow up unidentified U.S. targets around New Year's Day.
The suspects have many compatriots among the new arrivals flocking to Afghan training camps. In three months, Abdullah said, 15 Algerians have flown into Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, where Afghan sources say Al Qaida - Arabic for "the base" - runs at least three camps.
The Algerians came in groups of two and three, Abdullah said, and all carried satchels of U.S. dollars. They, too, flashed Taliban identity passes - "but just pieces of paper . . . not special like Mr. Mauritania," the airport manager said.
At the camps, bin Laden's trainees learn to use explosives, heavy weapons, light arms and chemical weapons, a Taliban commander confided.
"Everywhere there is training," he said. "The Arabs are coming and going. There is a big house in Jalalabad where they get their documents. I saw it myself."
A young Afghan who trained this winter at a camp in mountainous Kunar province, in northeastern Afghanistan, said he saw men from Chechnya, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. The North Korean, he said, had brought chemical weapons, which were stored in caves and in the dozens of sunbaked mud-and-stone houses.
"Myself I saw 10 satellite dishes," said the Afghan. "There were doctors, engineers, chemical engineers. . . . Everyone was speaking different languages," among them French, English, Persian, Arabic and Pashto, the main language of the Taliban.
The apparent links between the Afghanistan camps and the alleged bomb plots are many.
For three weeks before his arrest, Ressam shared a motel room in Vancouver, B.C., with Abdelmajid Dahoumane, another 32-year-old Algerian who is now a fugitive.
Ressam and Dahoumane trained at bin Laden camps before traveling to Canada, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counter-terrorism chief working as a security consultant in McLean, Va.
Dahoumane "is very close to Osama," said Janullah, an Afghan journalist with Wahadat, a newspaper in northwestern Pakistan.
Others entangled in the alleged Ressam plot include:
Abdel Ghani Meskini, 31, an Algerian whose Brooklyn, N.Y., phone number was found in Ressam's pocket, arrested Dec. 30. Janullah says Meskini was known as Bola Imam while training in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
Mokhtar Haouari, 31, Meskini's childhood friend, arrested Jan. 10 in Montreal. At his bail hearing, Canadian investigators said Haouari sent Meskini to Seattle to help Ressam, then, after Ressam's arrest, ordered Meskini back to New York to destroy evidence of his trip and change phone numbers.
Mohambedou Ould Slahi, native of Mauritania and brother-in-law of Mr. Mauritania. Worked with Haouari in Montreal before leaving in January when investigators closed in. Detained and questioned in Senegal, then Mauritania, at request of U.S. investigators, based on his activities in Canada and frequent telephone calls to Mr. Mauritania; released Feb. 19.
Abdel Hakim Tizegha, 29, Algerian arrested Christmas Eve at Blaine, Whatcom County, for immigration violations; linked to Meskini through telephone records.
U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agents sharply disagree whether the highly suggestive evidence of links between bin Laden and the plotters arrested in the U.S. bomb plot amounts to proof.
Speaking privately in Washington, some intelligence officials suggest Slahi is the plot's key connection: He spoke frequently by phone with Mr. Mauritania and worked closely with Haouari, who gave Meskini his marching orders for Seattle.
No solid proof
But law-enforcement officials say the evidence doesn't come close to proving links to bin Laden; they note the phone calls between Slahi and his brother-in-law could have been innocent family business.
Bin Laden's network is a shadowy affiliation of associated groups constantly evolving in name, location and personnel but always sharing the ideology of international "jihad," or holy war, terrorism experts say.
It is this fluid structure that makes tracking terrorist plots - and determining their targets - so confounding.
"It doesn't take very many people who have the intention of doing bad things to do harm," Jonathan Winer, a former assistant U.S. secretary of state, said in Washington. "Most criminal activity in the world today - that includes terrorist activity - tends to be diffuse in nature. It tends to be cellular."
Some cells "accept the authority of Osama bin Laden" and place their members "at the disposal of his global fight," said another terrorism expert, an instructor at France's War College.
Individual groups "lend some members of their network to connect with the bin Laden apparatus and hit where (he wants) to hit," said the French expert, who has contacts within Algerian terrorism investigations. He likened bin Laden's network to a holding company, which "asks a local company to do this or that."
The bomb plot uncovered in Jordan in early December - whose targets likely included the U.S. Embassy, a five-star hotel and a site along the Jordan River where John is believed to have baptized Jesus, according to Jordanian press reports - also indicated links to bin Laden.
Jordanian authorities arrested 13 men in Amman and a Jordanian-American named Khalil Deek living in Pakistan near the Afghan border. Deek "is certainly one of (bin Laden's) top deputies," L. Paul Bremer, a former counter-terrorism officer with the U.S. State Department, said in New York.
Fourteen other suspects remain at large, a Jordanian security official said Tuesday.
Among them is Mohammed Abu Zubayda. He is a member of bin Laden's inner circle, said a senior Middle East security official, who added there was credible information that Abu Zubayda had directed the Jordanian terrorist cell from Pakistan under bin Laden's instructions.
In addition, Zubayda held a joint bank account in Pakistan with Deek, the security official said.
In mid-February, bin Laden traveled to Jalalabad and met several men from Jordan to discuss financial help for the alleged conspirators, according to a translator in contact with Abu Daoud, an Al Qaida instructor based in Jalalabad.
Separately, a Taliban security officer said he attended meetings of Al Qaida's executive committee where the Jordan plot was discussed. Those meetings were held in November and December in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.
The attacks were to come in two phases, he said, first hitting Jordan over the holidays, then staging attacks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries with ties to the United States at least through June.
The Taliban officer refused to allow use of his name. Asked why he was willing to speak to a reporter, he said: "I am strongly opposed to terrorism. The Taliban oppose it. This is not what we believe, to kill innocent people."
The United States wants the Taliban to surrender bin Laden for trial in the African embassy bombings. The Taliban refuse, saying Afghan culture forbids handing over a guest to his enemy.
They also insist the United States helped create bin Laden's network by bankrolling the Afghans' 1980s war against Soviet invaders. The war drew Islamic militants from around the world, eager to defend Muslim Afghanistan.
"During the jihad, he was a freedom fighter and he was given weapons and money," said Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. "Today they call him a terrorist. Where is the proof?"