Some years ago, during the height of the Cold War, Charles Bronson starred in a motion picture called “Telefon.” The film’s premise revolved around the prospect that the Russians had planted agents in deep cover as “sleepers.” Each of these agents was trained as a saboteur and when activated, to begin blowing up American installations. Charles Bronson’s job was to get to each Russian agent before he or she could be activated. Sometimes, when art imitates life, it is merely interesting. And sometimes, when life imitates art, it can be terrifying.

It turns out that an Algerian man arrested at the U.S.-Canadian border some 15 months ago may well be part of a terrorist “sleeper” cell not too dissimilar to the one dreamed up by Hollywood in “Telefon.”

Except that the movie version was a Russian operation that was only to be used in the event of war.

The real-life version is believed to be part of Osama bin-Laden’s organization, a much more terrifying prospect, when you get right down to it. The U.S. and Russia cannot operate against each other with the risk of triggering the MAD doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction — a factor Osama bin-Laden needn’t have to consider before activating his agents.

Algerian expatriate Ahmed Ressam was arrested at the border after his car was discovered to contain some 130 pounds of bomb-making equipment that the government says was bound for Seattle’s Millennium celebration at the Space Needle. After Ressam’s arrest, Seattle canceled its New Year’s Eve party — a move that earned its mayor considerable criticism at the time.

In the months since Ressam’s arrest, the Seattle decision has been vindicated as government investigators developed intelligence information about a worldwide network of such sleeper cells of Islamic militants, organized, trained and funded by Osama bin-Laden from his headquarters somewhere in Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Richard Clarke, a senior counter-terrorism adviser to both the previous and current administrations as saying that bin-Laden may have sleepers tucked away in as many as 50 countries.

But the United States is the prize target. According to Clarke, the United States came “‘very close” to having “1,000 dead Americans at several different locations” as the nation celebrated the beginning of the Year 2000.

Intelligence developed since the Ressam arrest confirms that bin-Laden has already activated sleepers in other countries, including those who bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa three years ago. Those attacks claimed 224 lives.

Last week, the U.S. received further confirmation of its worst fears when one of Ressam’s coconspirators agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for plea bargain guarantees about his role in the conspiracy to bomb millennium celebrations in several locations in the United States.

According to Abdelghani Meskini, not only was Seattle’s Space Needle a target, but the cell was also planning attacks on major airports in the LA area, including LAX.

A terror network like bin-Laden’s strikes a special fear into the hearts of those charged with America’s national security, since such an organization is nearly impossible to eliminate with any degree of confidence. They operate in cells, making following a chain of command nearly impossible. They are motivated by religious fanaticism, making it much more difficult to develop information about the group. Because they are identifiable only by a common religion, and not necessarily by national or even ethnic bonds, they are all but invisible. After all, one can’t very well outlaw Islam in America.

After Ressam’s arrest, authorities launched an all-out manhunt for his suspected associates. For the reasons I’ve mentioned already, most of those suspects were able to slip through the net undetected and remain at large, awaiting orders.

The global terror network is already responsible for a number of attacks, according to federal officials. The bin-Laden group has been linked to several unsuccessful attacks on U.S. tourist sites and at least one failed effort to hit the U.S. warship, “The Sullivans,” while it was in port in Yemen. Ten months later, they met with more success when they hit the USS Cole while it was steaming into the port of Aden. That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors, as well as the two suicide bombers.

The investigation following Ressam’s arrest uncovered a network inside the U.S. of at least 40 possible agents that had some connection with Ressam. The network was scattered from California to Texas to New York and Washington.

Although most of bin-Laden’s efforts to date have involved conventional bombs that can be constructed with materials easily obtainable legally in the United States, the existence of a global network of ‘sleepers’ raises other terrifying prospects.

It is believed bin-Laden also has access to various chemical and biological weapons. And it’s already an established fact that he has sleepers who are quite prepared to die in the commission of a terrorist act against American interests. One such nightmare scenario has a bin-Laden associate pack some kind of chemical agent into a perfume atomizer. A bin-Laden sleeper from, say, France, could easily board a plane to New York with the “perfume” in her luggage along with other innocent appearing toiletry items.

Once in New York, the atomizer could be passed to another sleeper who simply walks through a crowded subway spraying “perfume” as he went. We’d never know a thing until people started dying. How does one screen for perfume? Or hairspray? Or deodorant?

As the situation continues to deteriorate in the Middle East, Osama bin-Laden will undoubtedly find more and more recruits for his jihad against America.

Because that is exactly what this is, a holy war. Eventually, the right agent will be in the right place at the right time. That is, unless America can get bin-Laden first.

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