In a setback for accused international terrorist Osama bin Laden, Jordanian authorities working with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies indicted 28 of his followers Tuesday for allegedly plotting attacks against American tourists and others at sites across Jordan in December.
The terrorist group allegedly planned to kill Westerners crossing into Jordan from Israel, to bomb a hotel popular with U.S. tourists and to attack buses, archeological ruins, a Christian shrine and other public targets during the Christmas season and millennium celebrations in the tiny Mideast kingdom.
But counter-terrorism officials said the investigation may be most noteworthy because it has produced a treasure-trove of computer disks concerning the global terrorist network that Bin Laden is said to lead from his redoubt in rural Afghanistan. The disks contain details about Bin Laden's training camps, logistics and financial operations, officials said.
Investigators also discovered that the previously unknown Bin Laden cell had stockpiled huge caches of weapons and explosives, including detonators and other bomb parts, assault rifles and silencers, hand grenades, antitank rockets, artillery shells, communications equipment and chemical weapons. The group also had forged passports and immigration stamps.
"It was eye-opening, just in terms of the quantity of stuff they had," a senior Clinton administration official said. "We found storerooms, not closets, of weapons and explosives."
U.S. and Jordanian officials said the seized computer disks already have proved valuable. A Western official said U.S. and Canadian investigators used data from the disks to help identify, track and arrest suspects after an Algerian man was arrested in December while allegedly trying to smuggle bomb-making materials across the Canadian border into Washington state.
It wasn't immediately clear if the disks played a role last week when President Clinton suddenly scrubbed a long-planned visit to a village in rural Bangladesh. Officials later said that intelligence indicated that Bin Laden operatives in the area might try to shoot down his helicopter.
Authorities in Jordan first identified the Bin Laden cell in that country last fall. Officials said Jordanian agents quickly infiltrated the group and, with U.S. assistance, began to secretly monitor the members' communications and travel.
The net closed in early December, when Jordanian special forces began rounding up dozens of suspects over a 10-day period, mostly from a refugee camp outside the capital, Amman, that is a hotbed of radical Muslim politics.
Thirteen of those suspects subsequently were arrested and were charged in Tuesday's indictment. The others named in the indictment remain at large.
Among those still sought are Omar abu Omar, a radical Muslim who reportedly lives in England and who is alleged to have helped finance the group; Munir Maqdah, a guerrilla in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; and Zein Abiddeen Hassan, an Egyptian said to live in Pakistan.
Jordan's prosecutor general, Mahmoud Obeidat, told reporters in Amman that Hassan "is the representative" of Bin Laden in Jordan and is a senior official of Bin Laden's terrorist network. "All the orders to this organization in Jordan are issued by this defendant," he said.
Obeidat said the group is part of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. Counter-terrorism officials say the front is an umbrella group for a number of extremist Islamic militant groups around the world. It is nominally led by Bin Laden, although his direct involvement in individual terrorist acts remains a matter of dispute.
"Bin Laden's organization is really a loose-knit web," a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said. "It's not a tight-wired diagram."
The indictment does not name Khalil Deek, a 42-year-old Jordanian who holds a U.S. passport. He was extradited from Pakistan to Jordan in December for apparent links to the case but reportedly has cooperated with U.S. investigators in deciphering the computer disks.
Deek has denied any connection to Bin Laden. He has told visitors to his jail cell that he is an Islamic scholar who happened to have information on explosives in his computer. Jordanian officials said Deek remains in custody and under investigation.
The indictment said the terrorist cell in Jordan was formed in 1995 by Khouder abu Housher. Officials said the 36-year-old Jordanian was in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when many Muslims joined Bin Laden in the war against Soviet occupation.
Abu Housher's relatives denied that he, or a brother-in-law who also was arrested in December, planned terrorist attacks. Jordanian officials said a search of Abu Housher's home had produced fake Kuwaiti passports, hand grenades, assault rifles and bomb-making materials.
In those December raids, Jordanian security agents also raided a farm outside Amman where they found more weapons and enough explosives to destroy several large buildings. The police said they also recovered chemical weapons, although they provided no details.
The indictment charges that group members were trained in Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon. It alleges that they smuggled arms, explosives and detonators from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Jordanian officials said the trial in Jordan's quasi-military State Security Court will be open to the public and will begin in mid-April. A three-judge panel will hear the evidence; if convicted, the men could face the death penalty.
U.S. officials have accused Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile, of masterminding the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. He has been hiding since then in Afghanistan, where he apparently is protected by the Islamic extremist Taliban leadership in exchange for his financial backing.
In the meantime, Bin Laden has become a kind of cottage industry for U.S. intelligence. Spy satellites and other high-tech gear try to track his movements and listen to his communications. CIA doctors who have studied his photos and other reports have concluded that he uses a cane as an affectation, not because he needs it.
And CIA psychiatrists have intently studied tapes of his TV interviews, including one several years ago in which he stood before a map of the Middle East with tiny pins sticking out.
"Clearly we analyzed the hell out of that," said a former intelligence official. "He was saying: 'Here I am. I've got presence and activity here, here and here.' He was sending us a message."
Drogin reported from Washington and Wilkinson from Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan.