"You know that al-Qaeda exists from Algeria to the Philippines...it's everywhere." --from a conversation secretly taped by the Italian police on March 22; the speaker was Essid Sami ben Khemais, a Tunisian arrested the next month for alleged terrorist offenses
It was the worst crime in American history, and it has triggered the greatest dragnet ever known. The investigation into the atrocities of Sept. 11 has involved police forces across the U.S. and around the world. From Michigan to Malaysia, from San Diego to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, law-enforcement agencies have been trying to figure out how the terrorists carried out their attacks, who helped them--and what they might do next. Along the way, the American public has been introduced to a confusing mass of names and faces and has learned of more links between them than any but the most nimble fingered could ever untangle. After nearly two months, there is much that we know about the global terrorist network that goes by the name of al-Qaeda--but an awful lot that is still hunch. Still, an international investigation by TIME into al-Qaeda's structure reveals that it is more global in its range, and more ruthless in its ideology, than all but its most dedicated students could have ever imagined.
The essential story of Sept. 11 is straightforward. A group of 19 men spent months in the U.S. preparing for the hijackings. The cell had earlier been headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, where its alleged ringleader, an Egyptian named Mohamed Atta, 33, had lived off and on for eight years. Atta is thought to have piloted Flight 11, the first to make impact; two of the other suspected pilots, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, were also residents of the Hamburg region. The Hamburg cell, in turn, is thought to have been an operating unit of a worldwide network of terrorists called al-Qaeda, the name of whose reclusive leader is now known all over the world: Osama bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda had its origins in the long war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After Soviet troops invaded the country in 1979, Muslims flocked to join the local mujahedin in fighting them. In Peshawar, Pakistan, which acted as the effective headquarters of the resistance, a group whose spiritual leader was a Palestinian academic called Abdallah Azzam established a service organization to provide logistics and religious instruction to the fighters. The operation came to be known as al-Qaeda al-Sulbah--the "solid base." Much of its financing came from bin Laden, an acolyte of Azzam's who was one of the many heirs to a huge Saudi fortune derived from a family construction business. Also in Peshawar was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who had been a constant figure in the bewildering mosaic of radical Islamic groups since the late 1970s. Al-Zawahiri, who acted primarily as a physician in Peshawar, led a group usually called Al Jihad; by 1998, his organization was effectively merged into al-Qaeda.