To military and security officials, few things have been more difficult to plan than a strategy against modern terrorists. The random bombings and hijackings of the past were bad enough. Now, however, the emergence of more sophisticated networks like that allegedly run by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden has raised more disturbing questions about tactics, the weapons terrorists will employ and how to fight them.
SENIOR U.S. COUNTER-terrorism officials, who like other officials spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. is aware of “other bin Laden-like cells around the world.” These well-armed, well-financed Islamic fundamentalists, who are not as prominent as as bin Laden, no doubt have been taking note of his successes and failures.
The central challenge for the U.S. and other nations targeted by such groups, these officials said, is that the terrorist threat increasingly will come from diffuse networks of cells. Bin Laden’s success, in part, comes from his ability to manage those cells. In effect, officials said, bin Laden began as a terrorism “venture capitalist” and has slowly moved toward the role of chief executive officer.
A MOVING TARGET
As networks solidify into syndicates with clear leaders, they become easier to counter. However, before that stage, they are very difficult to deal with. Senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials say that despite a year of intense focus on bin Laden, only a few cells of his network have been destroyed and a few more disrupted. Altogether, his guerrilla operation remains a potent and very real threat to the United States and its allies.
Indeed, just a week before the anniversary of the twin East African bombings that killed more than 250 people last Aug. 7, a new set of alerts warning of attacks against U.S. interests was issued by intelligence agencies.
Officials from intelligence, military, emergency management and national security policy agencies said bin Laden also may be planning assassinations using “contact poisons.” There were also reports he had obtained “rudimentary” chemical and biological materials and was continuing to try and obtain radioactive materials.
“I wake up every night and that is my nightmare. We know he is going to strike. We don’t know where or when. We expect something at any time,” said one top U.S. national security official.
“He has regenerated some cells and started new ones,” said a Pentagon official involved in tracking bin Laden. “We will be dealing with him for a long time because his organizational capability continues to improve. Does it suck being Osama bin Laden? Yes. He is on the road all the time. It is hard to conduct business. He can’t touch a phone. He is constantly on run. But he is still out there.”
Yet another official, from U.S. intelligence, added, “We keep stopping him; he keeps coming back. We are picking up signals all over the region. He’s definitely planning something.”
NO PATTERNS TO FOLLOW
However, the official said his network’s efforts to obtain such materials is “scattershot and unfocused...all over the board” without a pattern to indicate what he might be planning.
“He is looking for all sorts of stuff,” adding that bin Laden’s German operation was the victim of a sting operation in 1993 when it tried to buy highly enriched uranium on the Russian black market. Moreover, Russian intelligence has told the United States that they believe bin Laden has been working with Chechen rebels to obtain radioactive material for a “radiological dispersal device” or “dirty bomb” that would spray the material over a small area. An official involved in planning emergency response to a terrorist attack says the U.S. has taken the intelligence seriously, noting how at the height of Russia’s war against the breakaway province, the rebels obtained cesium-137, a radioactive isotope and placed it in Moscow’s popular Izmaylova Park.
However, officials cautioned that there is “no sense of a technical sophistication” in bin Laden’s camp and that “this stuff is much more difficult to use than people think. After all, Saddam Hussein spent $8 billion on nuclear weapons and came away with bupkis. He doesn’t know how to do this. He is spending every night in a different mud hut, so we’re not too worried that he is reprocessing plutonium.”
On the other hand, the official added that “if he is stumbling on something, there is no doubt he will use it.”
Bin Laden’s biggest problem remains communications. “He’s stopped using satellite phones,” an official said. “Although we’ve caught many of his couriers, it only takes 50 bucks to buy someone in Afghanistan.”
Other officials said bin Laden’s couriers often carry encrypted floppy disks and meet in third countries with couriers from target nations.
Still, said the official, “He is planning several hits and at some point he’s going to break through.”
The question is where. In general, say officials, bin Laden’s best infrastructure remains in Africa. Witness the July closing of the Mozambique embassy. But there are other places where he is seen to be strong: the Gulf states, particularly Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir, and Chechnya.
“Think of what his main focus is - the removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia,” said one official. “That is where his operations are going to be focused as well.”
But he continues in attempts to branch out geographically. Chechnya has been a particular focus recently, said one official. Another region bin Laden has tried, but failed, say officials, is in Central Asia.
“He has tried to establish cells there, but he does not have nearly the infrastructure there that he would like.” One reason is that we have good relations with intelligence organizations in those states —particularly Uzbekistan.”
The U.S. has some new information one official called “fascinating” about how bin Laden may be returning to an old strategy: assassination. The official involved in tracking bin Laden says the man officials call “the terrorist prince” has been obtaining “contact poisons ... KGB pellets” that would be used in assassinations and, in some cases, are difficult or impossible to detect in an autopsy. The official noted that in the early 1990’s bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network was involved in assassination plots on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Pope John Paul II. He was also implicated in plans to kill President Bill Clinton.
The official noted that public U.S. intelligence reports on bin Laden’s training camps have noted the network has instructed terrorists in assassination and kidnapping.
The contact poisons are among “rudimentary chemical and biological stuff” bin Laden has obtained recently.
WHERE TO NOW?
Overall, the U.S. does not expect the standoff with bin Laden to end quickly.
“We are serious about going after him,” said one official. “He is serious about going after us. If I can nail his ass, I am going to. But it is going to be action and reaction for a long time.”
“We are getting better at finding him,” the official said. “There are days and days where we don’t know where he is.” On other days, the official said, the U.S. has “different degrees of specificity as to where he is. Does he move every night? Not every night ... but he moves a lot.”
Another counter-intelligence official, looking ahead, said that frustrating situation is something the U.S. should get used to. “Bin Laden may get his in the end, but he’ll leave a legacy. He’s taken terrorism beyond the IRA, beyond the PLO to a new place. And it’s a harder place for (the U.S.) to deal with.”
Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer based in New York.