"Millennium plot"

USAMA bin Laden has been blamed for a "Millennium plot" which allegedly aimed to hit targets in at least three countries last January.

The claim, by Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s top terrorism adviser, came just a few days before four men went on trial in New York accused of conspiring with bin Laden to bomb the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

According to Clarke, the new millennium could easily have begun with "1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world". That this did not happen was due partly to the failure of the attacks - all planned for January 3 - and partly to the arrests of some of those involved.

Investigations into the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen have revealed that there was an earlier plan to attack the USS Sullivans as it refuelled in Aden on January 3 last year. That attack failed because the bombers’ boat almost sank under the weight of the explosives.

Other suspects arrested by the Jordanian authorities have allegedly confessed to planning attacks on the same day at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman and at two sites frequented by Christian pilgrims: Mount Nebo and a spot on the Jordan river associated with John the Baptist.

In the United States, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was arrested at the Canadian border in December 1999 for allegedly smuggling components for three bombs, is also alleged to have planned attacks the west coast of America for January 3.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Clarke said that "Jihadist" networks linked to bin Laden exist in more than 45 countries, including the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, the IMU in Uzbekistan, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and Asbat al-Ansar in Lebanon.

There are, however, murmurings in the United States about the way the Clinton administration has focused on bin Laden. Robert Oakley, a senior counterterrorism official during the Reagan era, said recently that "the obsession with Osama" had simply increased his stature.

Robert Oakley, who chaired the National Commission on Terrorism, said: "We say 'Osama bin Laden' as shorthand for the Jihadist networks. By using that shorthand too much, we have confused some people into thinking that the problem is one man when the problem is not one man, though he plays an important role and certainly had an extraordinary role in creating this series of networks."

The New York trial, which opened on January 3 - the anniversary of the "Millennium plot" - will last at least nine months and jury selection alone may take more than three weeks.

A total of 22 people have been charged with the bombings: the four already in court, a fifth who is due to arrive later, three awaiting extradition from Britain, and 13, including bin Laden himself, who are still at large.

Prosecutors expect to call 100 witnesses from six countries. One man, Ali Mohamed, a former US army sergeant, has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with bin Laden and is expected to be the star witness for the prosecution.