The conversation was in code, but to trained ears it was easily understood. Picked up by U.S. listening devices on Oct. 16 in Sarajevo, it ranged in topics from the bombing in Afghanistan to "what the response should be here," a senior Bosnian official told TIME. U.S. and British targets in Bosnia were mentioned. But it was the sign-off that got listeners' attention: "Tomorrow we will start." Both countries shut down their embassies and branch offices overnight. Using mobile-phone-card registration numbers, Bosnian police tracked down and arrested both callers--Algerian nationals with Bosnian citizenship. Within 72 hours three others, also Algerian born, were in custody in a Sarajevo prison, bringing the number of terror suspects apprehended in Bosnia in the past month to at least 10. In the process, NATO uncovered a separate plot to attack Eagle Base, the airfield used by some 3,000 U.S. peacekeepers in the country. "We are confirming the presence of the al-Qaeda network in Bosnia," said a spokesman for NATO-led peacekeepers. The arrests, he added, had "disrupted" the network, but "it has not been destroyed. Investigations are continuing."
Direct links to bin Laden focus on just one man, the apparent leader of the Algerian cell. Bensayah Belkacem, 41, alias Mejd, lived with his Bosnian wife and two children in the central town of Zenica until his arrest last month. Combing through his dingy ground-floor apartment, investigators found two sets of identity papers (Algerian and Yemeni), blank passports and on a small piece of paper the number of a senior bin Laden aide, Abu Zubaydah, himself a veteran of the Bosnian war. Investigators say he is now in charge of screening recruits for al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. According to phone transcripts, Zubaydah and Belkacem discussed procuring passports. There was more. Belkacem made 70 calls to Afghanistan between Sept. 11 and his arrest. U.S. officials are particularly interested in the fact that he repeatedly sought a visa to leave Bosnia for Germany just before the terrorist attacks, according to a source close to the investigation.
The other suspects are mostly foreign-born nationals and belong to a community of about 200 ex-mujahedin who came to Bosnia to fight alongside fellow Muslims during the war and later settled in the interior, often marrying Bosnian women and working at humanitarian agencies. Saber Lahmar, the Algerian who allegedly placed the incriminating phone call on Oct. 16, served time in Bosnia for auto theft before being pardoned in 2000. He worked at the Saudi High Commission for Relief, an agency that has given $500 million to Bosnia. Others, according to local reports, worked at the Red Crescent society, Taibah International--a Saudi group--and Human Appeal. Bosnian authorities say that they are stepping up surveillance of aid agencies and their staffs.
After the latest arrests, the U.S. reopened its embassy, released a statement saying that the specific threat "appears to have passed," and thanked Bosnian authorities for their swift action. But officials tell TIME that there are five more alleged terrorists whom police and peacekeepers are seeking in the rugged hills of central Bosnia. And so, as elsewhere in the world, the hunt continues.
--By Andrew Purvis/Sarajevo