The man who has built this terror empire remains hidden on secret bases scattered throughout Afghanistan, where he finances and inspires a vast, but loose, web of terrorist groups, from Egyptian Islamic Jihad to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Cells have been identified in some 50 countries around the world—and if the FBI dragnet is correct, some of the cells are in unlikely American locales such as Portland, Maine, and South Florida. Bin Laden does not command his disciples so much as he helps facilitate their planning.
If bin Laden's al-Qaeda is behind this week's attack, officials will want to know whether the group got help, too. An operation like this one takes money, phony travel papers, and training—the sort of support that could be had from rogue states like Iraq or Afghanistan. A senior official tells U.S. News that Washington is looking at more than one—and as many as 10—countries that may be supporting groups linked to al-Qaeda.
State sponsors. The first regime that may find itself in America's cross hairs is the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which has given bin Laden safe harbor for the past five years. Taliban officials—and bin Laden himself—deny that the Saudi millionaire is involved in this week's strikes, but President Bush has already put them on notice, saying that America will make no distinction between terrorists and those who "harbor" them. The United States struck Afghanistan once before, with a pinprick cruise missile attack against bin Laden's training camps following the 1998 embassy bombings. But targeting other states could be more problematic if evidence linked them to the attack. U.S. experts are even looking at whether likely suspects such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein cooperated on the attack.
Amid cries of a new Pearl Harbor, the finger-pointing has already begun. "We have a major intelligence failure here," says Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "To be caught completely with our pants down, it is just unbelievable." As spy agencies review weeks of intercepted phone calls and reports from field agents, they are likely to discover missed signals.
Indeed, in the weeks before the attack, U.S. officials were concerned about a possible terrorist attack, but their attention was focused on overseas targets. "That assumption may have had a distorting effect on how information was interpreted," says one senior U.S. source. Just last week, the State Department issued a new warning about an alert concerning U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan. And a senior U.S. official says that the government has been worried in recent days about an attack on U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region.
The day before the attack on the Trade Center, two senior U.S. specialists—State Department counterterrorism director Francis Taylor and Defense Department terrorism official Austin Yamada—canceled planned trips abroad. The Pentagon denied any knowledge of Yamada's trip. U.S. officials insisted the Taylor cancellation was unrelated to any threat warning, but others say tensions were running high.
It is perhaps unfair to blame the intelligence community for failing to see the future, though it is precisely to prevent such catastrophes that the U.S. government spends $28 billion annually on spies and satellites. In their defense, U.S. intelligence agencies, working with other countries, have been able to avert a series of planned attacks, including operations in Jordan and the United States during the millennium celebrations.
Some analysts, however, believe those successes enabled bin Laden's resourceful followers to adapt their methods to avoid detection. Bin Laden, for example, stopped using satellite phones after learning that the NSA was eavesdropping. This year's trial in New York of the suspected embassy bombers revealed still more about U.S. intelligence methods. In addition, experts speculate that the recent warnings about possible attacks abroad might have been part of a disinformation campaign to mislead U.S. intelligence. Says a former counterterrorism official: "They devised this scheme through the cracks in our procedures."