At 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, the telephone on Deputy FBI Director Thomas Pickard's desk rang. It was an aide in Secretary of Defense William Cohen's office: "We've had an explosion aboard the Cole. We think it might be a terrorist act." Pickard quickly dialed FBI Director Louis Freeh, Attorney General Janet Reno and Dale Watson, head of the FBI's Counter-Terrorism Division, bringing them online and then activating the FBI's high-tech Strategic Operations and Information Center. Then he called Roger Nisley, chief of the Critical Incident Response Group, and delivered a go message: "Get the Rapid Deployment team rolling toward Andrews [Air Force Base]," he ordered. Nisley, an experienced counterterror tactical agent, knew what to do. After the bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, it took 40 hours to get most FBI investigators on site. Learning from Africa, Freeh created five special Rapid Deployment teams around the country ready to fly anywhere. The first FBI boots hit Yemen four hours after the blast. Agents then arrived in waves over the next 30 hours.
In Washington a discreet but active substratum of the government has developed. It includes the FBI's Counter-Terrorism Division, the interagency Counterterrorism Center at the CIA and the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House. In aggregate, this is the nation's backbone in the fight to combat terrorists. Call them the Terror Hunters.
It's a high-tech group, well funded and selectively high profile, especially on Capitol Hill. But as America's law-enforcement and intel network struggles to adapt, the terrorists too are changing, becoming more diffuse and better armed. As the U.S. has brought more pressure to bear on nations that sponsor terrorism, terrorists have become more elusive, avoiding alignments with any single mentor. These traits apply not only to the fanatical anti-Western cells associated with Osama bin Laden (pictured), which have emerged as possible suspects in the Cole bombing, but also to groups opposed to Middle East peace like Hizballah and even radical Christian millenarians operating in the West. The U.S. is struggling to keep even.
The Cole attack was in many ways a perfect example of the challenges the U.S. faces. It appears to have been well planned by a cell with international logistical support and sophisticated bombmaking expertise, according to U.S. officials working on the case. The cell-like structure, in which groups are run as tiny bubbles of terror instead of as part of a central hierarchy, makes intelligence work tricky. It also tends to make a group more divorced from reality, enabling it to nurture suicide bombers more easily. And it does wonders for security: cells are often composed of people who have known one another since childhood or fought side by side for years. Infiltration is difficult, and even when it is possible, entry can involve committing an initiation crime. Yemeni investigators believe at least five people were involved in the construction and deployment of the Cole bomb.