Fitting together the puzzle of Osama bin Laden's network as arrests reach 150

Friday, October 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Investigators are trying to discover whether the suspected terrorists in Osama bin Laden's network disguised their plotting and planning on the Internet before the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks. President Bush says 150 people believed to be linked to bin Laden are in custody.

There is growing evidence that the hijackers and their accomplices went to some lengths to make it difficult to track their communications on the Web, law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday night.

One official said the evidence indicated messages for various terrorism plans were disguised as innocent communications, in some cases using code language or pictures.

Newly unsealed court documents revealed the details of yet another cell phone call by a victim aboard one of the doomed jetliners, the one piloted by Mohamed Atta which crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

A flight attendant aboard Flight 11 contacted an American Airlines employee at Logan airport in Boston to say that several men of Middle Eastern descent in the area of rows 9 and 10 were armed with knives and had wounded other passengers and were hijacking the plane, an FBI affidavit stated.

Atta was assigned seat 8D and another hijacker, Abdulaziz Alomari, was in 8G, the court papers released in Portland, Maine, stated. The FBI used the affidavit to obtain a search warrant for the rented car that Atta left at Logan.

According to the affidavit, Atta's bags that didn't make it onto Flight 11 contained a hand-held electronic flight computer, a simulator procedures manual for Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft; two videotapes relating to ``air tours'' of the Boeing 757 and 747 aircraft; a slide-rule flight calculator; and a copy of the Quran.

The court documents also revealed that a handwritten document in Arabic in Atta's luggage was titled ``In the name of God all mighty, Death Certificate.'' It instructs that ``When I die, I want the people who will inherit my possessions to do the following,'' according to the FBI affidavit.

Regarding communications for the attacks, the hijackers also used public locations like libraries and hotels to access the Internet, making it difficult to track their whereabouts or identities. Several Internet providers here and abroad have received subpoenas to turn over information about the communications.

Alexis Debat, a former French Defense Ministry official, said one man arrested in connection with a plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris had a code book for reading disguised messages. The suspect is believed to be a part of bin Laden's network.

``It would be a major breakthrough'' if authorities were able to decipher terrorist codes, said Debat, adding that the information had been passed to U.S. intelligence officials.

Debat said the book was found in the apartment of Kamel Daoudi, 27, a former computer student believed to have played a key role in a network of Islamic extremists linked to bin Laden that was plotting an attack on the U.S. Embassy. Daoudi has been placed under formal investigation in France for suspected links to a terror network.

Debat also said French officials believe terrorists would have received their final instructions for the plot as a hidden message on the Internet.

According to Marc Enger, former director of operations for U.S. Air Force intelligence, some U.S. agents have reported bin Laden has used steganography _ the art of hiding a message in plain sight.

``These messages can be hidden in e-mail or in a downloaded picture,'' said Chet Hosmer, president of WetStone Technologies, which has been one of the companies providing the FBI with the means to detect the hidden messages.

Bush said U.S. and overseas authorities have rounded up 150 people thought to be part of al-Qaida, bin Laden's group. The fugitive Saudi multimillionaire is the prime suspect in the attacks, in which terrorists crashed hijacked jetliners in New York, Washington and southwestern Pennsylvania, killing more than 6,000 people.

The number of people arrested or detained in connection with the terrorism investigation grew to 580, the Justice Department said Friday.

The British government said Thursday that at least three of the 19 suspected hijackers had links to al-Qaida and one had played a key role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. Furthermore, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants has admitted al-Qaida's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Bin Laden was indicted in the United States for the embassy bombings and is suspected of masterminding the attack on the Cole in Aden, Yemen.

The British report released by Blair did not name the hijackers. Two suspected hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, met with a bin Laden associate believed to be involved in the Cole attack in January 2000 in Malaysia, law enforcement officials have said.

The British report also said the senior bin Laden lieutenant acknowledged he oversaw the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. officials say Mohamed Atta, suspected of flying one of the hijacked planes that crashed in New York, wired money to Shayk Saiid, believed to be bin Laden's top money man.