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Sunday, December 24, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Millennium terrorists had planned three-pronged attack, official says

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON--Islamic militants headed by Osama bin Laden appear to have planned a spectacular three-country attack last January that would have included multiple bombings in Jordan and the United States and the sinking of a U.S. destroyer in Yemen, the Clinton administration's chief of counterterrorism says.

"I think (bin Laden's) Al Qaeda network was going for a three-country attack at multiple locations," Richard Clarke, national coordinator for infrastructure protection and counterterrorism, said in an interview last week. "What if January last year had started with 1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world? We came very close to having that happen."

The attacks planned for last January either failed or were thwarted by arrests--including the arrest of Ahmed Ressam last December in Port Angeles, Wash. U.S. investigators still do not know what sites Ressam had targeted.

U.S. officials won't comment on current potential threats. But U.S. facilities and military forces are operating at a heightened state of alert throughout the Arabian Peninsula after the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden and the increase in threat reports.

As a result of the Cole investigation in Yemen, Clarke and other U.S. officials say they now more fully understand and appreciate the extent of last year's planned terrorist attacks, which were aimed at disrupting millennial celebrations.

Details of those plans have been previously reported. But Clarke, for the first time, offered what he called his own "theory" of the planned attacks, based on all available intelligence--bombings in Yemen, Jordan and the United States, all to take place on Jan. 3, 2000, which was a day of special religious significance during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan.

A person who helped plan the suicide bombing of the Cole has told investigators that a terrorist cell in Aden planned to bomb the USS The Sullivans during a refueling stop last Jan. 3, Clarke said. The plot failed when a fiberglass skiff loaded with explosives sank.

Members of a terrorist cell linked to Al Qaeda, who were arrested in Jordan last December, have told investigators that they planned to use explosives on Jan. 3 to flatten the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman "like a pancake." They also planned to attack American tourists at Mount Nebo and at a site on the Jordan River, according to Clarke and his deputy, Roger Cressey.

As for Ressam, the Algerian arrested at Port Angeles, though investigators do not know his targets, Clarke said, they theorize that there may have been three targets because components for three bombs were found in the trunk of Ressam's car.

In a wide-ranging discussion of the Clinton administration's counterterrorist campaign, Clarke and Cressey also said that the problem of terrorists "hiding in plain sight" in Afghanistan goes far beyond bin Laden's mountain hideaways and includes housing, bases, training facilities, laboratories and testing ranges for dozens of other Islamic terrorists.

"This is `Terrorism Incorporated,' with campuses," Clarke said.

Clarke manages the government's campaign against bin Laden. He helped pioneer a global disruption strategy in which the CIA and the FBI have worked closely with foreign intelligence and law-enforcement services to hunt down bin Laden's operatives around the world.

"Overall, I give them very high marks," said Robert Oakley, who served as the State Department's ambassador for counterterrorism during the Reagan administration. "The only major criticism I have is the obsession with Osama, which has made him stronger."

Clarke acknowledged that the administration, in its zeal, has focused its rhetoric on bin Laden in a way that has elevated his stature in the Arab world and has confused many U.S. allies.

"We say `Osama bin Laden' as shorthand for the Jihadist networks--the Jihadist networks that are present in somewhere between 45 and 55 countries," Clarke said. "By using that shorthand too much, we have confused some people into thinking that the problem is one man when the problem is not one man, though he plays an important role and certainly had an extraordinary role in creating this series of networks."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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