How Tight Is Bin Laden's Web of Terror?

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Turn up Islamic terrorists anywhere in the world, and it's pretty much guaranteed that they'll be separated by no more than three degrees from Osama Bin Laden. But rather than proving that the Saudi superterrorist is a global mastermind able to wreak havoc anywhere in the world at the click of a Send button, this ubiquity says more about the diffuse nature of his operations. U.S. investigators were reported Thursday to have uncovered links between Bin Laden and the bomb plot foiled last December by the arrest of a number of Algerian militants on U.S. soil. The suspected head of the Canada-based Algerian group was arrested recently in Senegal, at Washington's request, pending formal charges. Investigators say Mohambedou Ould Slahi also happens to be the brother-in-law of one of Bin Laden's key lieutenants. And the roommate of one of the Algerians charged in the case is associated with an Islamic charity that prosecutors claim played a role in the 1998 East African embassy bombings attributed to Bin Laden.

But before anyone jumps to the conclusion that these connections could lead straight to Bin Laden's lair, it's worth remembering that his organization is far less centralized than those of previous high-profile terrorists, such as the Palestinian Abu Nidal. After all, Bin Laden is less of a CEO and more the head of a loosely grouped holding company. He built his network by putting his considerable resources as a funder and fund-raiser at the center of an international movement to recruit fighters from throughout the Arab world to help Afghanistan resist the Soviet invasion. Those fighters became a nucleus that was deployed in other conflicts involving Muslims, such as Bosnia and Chechnya — and, at Bin Laden-financed camps in Afghanistan, trained Islamic militants from countries as diverse as Pakistan and the Philippines.

Bin Laden channels money through a variety of legitimate charities and businesses, and is not averse to exploiting family ties: He is reported to have married off one of his daughters to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, making his relationship with Afghanistan's ruler that of a father-in-law. Even though groupings such as Algeria's Armed Islamic Group — with which the group arrested in the U.S. is believed to be aligned — long predated Bin Laden and have an entirely independent leadership structure, they are reported to have received financial and training assistance from the Saudi financier's Al Qaeda group. And because the Algerian group has no history of targeting the U.S., investigators suspect they may have been acting on behalf of Bin Laden, possibly to return a favor. But while finding a connection between Bin Laden and a group of Islamic terrorists may not be that difficult, it may be a lot harder to prove that they were acting on his orders.