When Dana Sandarusi began opening the mail in his newspaper office at 9:15 last Thursday morning, something about one of the letters struck him as a bit strange. The envelope, which bore several Egyptian stamps and was postmarked from Alexandria on Dec. 21, ostensibly contained a holiday greeting of some kind. But unlike most Christmas cards, the envelope seemed oddly "heavy and kind of bumpy." So instead of tearing the packet open directly, Sandarusi, 34, laid it down on his desk, inserted a pair of scissors beneath the flap and carefully snipped across the top. Inside, he spotted a green wire protruding from two layers of cellophane. Neatly sandwiched between them was a wad of plastic explosives sufficient to blow up Sandarusi and anyone else who might have been in the room at the time.
By the end of the day, officials from the Washington police department and the FBI uncovered four additional envelopes addressed to the offices of Al Hayat, the Arabic-language newspaper Sandarusi works for. The second was found Thursday morning among unopened letters that had been delivered the previous Tuesday; the third and fourth arrived at 3 p.m. with the afternoon post; and the fifth was plucked from a regional mail center before it was sent on. All five closely resembled three identical letter bombs, also postmarked from Alexandria, addressed separately to "parole officer" at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Late last week U.S. intelligence officials were wrestling with the possibility that even more bombs were waiting to be delivered. At the same time, they were confronting the alarming notion that the deadly missives constitute a sinister new terrorist campaign--although who may have launched such a campaign and what connection there might be between the targets remained a mystery.
Within hours of the discovery of the first letter bombs, the CIA and the State Department began firing off cables to their overseas posts asking for leads. One difficulty investigators face in tracing suspicious links is that there seem to be so many. Among their top priorities, however, is looking into one of Leavenworth's 1,867 inmates: Mohammed Salameh, who is serving a life sentence for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Salameh is also linked to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and several other New York landmarks. Rahman is serving a life sentence in Springfield, Missouri. But what could be the connection between Salameh/Rahman and Al Hayat?
Officials do not know. The daily newspaper may have merited attack simply because its primary owner is a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, whose intimate ties to the U.S. have provoked the wrath of dissident Muslim extremists. Prince Khaled bin Sultan is a nephew of King Fahd's, a son of the current Defense Minister and brother of the kingdom's present ambassador to Washington. Moreover, Khaled was the senior commander of Arab forces during the 1991 Gulf War. It was during this conflict that the kingdom opened its borders to soldiers of the U.S.-led coalition so that their combined armies might strike at the regime of fellow Arab leader Saddam Hussein.