Laying out the most detailed evidence to date connecting Osama bin Laden to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, British and U.S. officials said Thursday that at least three of the 19 hijackers were associates of Bin Laden's network, including one man who may have played a part in the deadly bombings of the warship Cole and two U.S. embassies in Africa.
In the weeks before last month's suicide hijackings, Bin Laden warned close associates to return to Afghanistan from other parts of the world by Sept. 10, and he "indicated he was about to launch a major attack on America," according to intelligence gathered by the British government and made public Thursday by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
U.S. officials said they concurred with the findings released by Britain. Much of the information released in London came from a lengthy, classified cable that the United States sent Tuesday to allies enlisted in the fight against Bin Laden, according to a Bush administration official who asked not to be identified.
National security experts said the evidence laid out against Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, while still incomplete, should bolster the public credibility of the United States and its allies as they move toward possible military action against Bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
"This presents a very compelling case," said John L. Martin, former head of the Justice Department's security and counterespionage operation. "The evidence here is clear and convincing, and in the court of public opinion, that's pretty persuasive."
In Pakistan, where support for the Taliban has been strong, officials also quickly endorsed the validity of the evidence.
"This material certainly provides sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law," Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pledged nearly two weeks ago to "put before the world" the evidence against Bin Laden. But the United States later backed away from that promise, leaving it to Britain to present what amounted to a broad public indictment of the exiled Saudi militant.
The British government concludes in the 70-point report that only Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network had "both the motivation and the capability to carry out [the] attacks" of Sept. 11, adding that Britain has further evidence linking Bin Laden to the plot but that it is too sensitive to disclose. The report also warns that Al Qaeda has the will and the resources to carry out further attacks on a similar scale.
Indeed, President Bush said Thursday that authorities worldwide have now arrested 150 "terrorists . . . associated with the Al Qaeda operation" since the attacks.
A Link to Numerous Attacks
The British report traces Bin Laden's terrorist organization from its founding in Afghanistan in 1989 through its move to Sudan in 1991 and its return to Afghanistan in 1996. The group has been driven by a deep hatred for all things American, encapsulated in a 1998 fatwa, or decree, from Bin Laden declaring a "religious duty" for Muslims to kill Americans.
Al Qaeda has helped finance its operations by trafficking in illegal drugs and running construction companies that have provided Bin Laden with "cover" to buy explosives, weapons and chemicals, the British report alleges. Bin Laden earned a safe haven in Afghanistan, where he operates his terrorist training camps, by providing the Taliban regime with troops, arms and money, the report says.
The report cited evidence linking Bin Laden's group to numerous anti-American attacks in recent years, including a 1993 attack on U.S. soldiers in Somalia, which killed 18; the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224; and the attack last year on the destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17.
The Sept. 11 attacks bore all the imprints of a typical Bin Laden operation--including suicide terrorists, highly coordinated and meticulous plans and the absence of any warnings, the report said.
The British said that intelligence gathered in the investigation shows that "one of Bin Laden's closest and most senior associates" oversaw the detailed planning of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed more than 5,000 people.
The report does not name this individual, and U.S. intelligence officials said it was unclear which of Bin Laden's top aides the British were seeking to hold culpable.
Three Hijackers Had Bin Laden Ties
Mohammed Atef, believed to be in Afghanistan with Bin Laden, was identified in the British document as a senior member of Al Qaeda who deals with military and terrorist operations. A former CIA official said the agency has what it considers "concrete and persuasive evidence that it was Atef who planned this whole thing."
But another U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said authorities also are trying to determine what role was played by another top Bin Laden lieutenant, Abu Zubayda, a Palestinian who has been linked to several terrorist plots, including plans to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999.
The British report concludes that at least three of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 operation have been "positively identified" as Al Qaeda associates. While the three are not named, officials said they are believed to include Mohamed Atta, the apparent ringleader of the plot, and Majed Moqed, one of the hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The third hijacker with links to Bin Laden may be Khalid Almihdhar, who met in early 2000 in Malaysia with a Bin Laden aide believed to have played a role in the Cole and embassy bombings.
A law enforcement official said investigators are exploring the possibility that at least one of the hijackers, and perhaps more, may have participated in the Cole bombing. But the British report goes further, asserting that one of the hijackers "has been identified as playing key roles in both the East African embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack."
An administration official questioned that assertion, saying it may have been based on a misreading of U.S. intelligence data regarding Almihdhar's meeting in Malaysia. While Almihdhar is believed to have met with a Bin Laden operative linked to the Cole attack, authorities have found no evidence that he had anything to do with it, the official said.
U.S. Agrees With British Conclusions
The Bush administration declined to elaborate publicly on the report or to say whether it was an accurate reflection of the evidence that the United States has given its allies.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said only that the administration agrees with the conclusions that Blair cited in his report.
"This is a British paper based on the information the British government has collected, and it offers their conclusions about the situation," he said. "We coordinated with them, they coordinated with us, as we do on so many things. We saw it in advance. They put it out. Their paper, their conclusions."
John Quigley, an international law professor at Ohio State University who has criticized the Bush administration for failing to provide specific evidence against Bin Laden, said the report should help the United States' cause.
"There are really two separate questions here: Is there enough evidence for a credible demand that the Taliban surrender Bin Laden, and is there enough evidence for military action against Afghanistan," he said. "Some of the evidence is still pretty murky, but this is a step in that direction."