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Kenya, U.S. Dispute Al-Qaida Link to Attack on Israeli Flight

By Emily Wax and Susan Schmidt

A top Kenyan police officer said Monday that investigators were unsure whether Thursday’s attacks on Israeli targets here were connected to al-Qaida, but a senior U.S. official in Washington said the Bush administration has concluded that Osama bin Laden’s terror network is almost certainly responsible.

A U.S. law enforcement source said the conviction that people sympathetic to al-Qaida organized the attacks -- an unsuccessful missile volley at an Israeli airliner and the suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel -- stems in part from the discovery that a missile launcher found near the Mombasa airport came from the same lot as one believed to have been used by al-Qaida operatives in May in Saudi Arabia.

That missile attack, also unsuccessful, was directed at a U.S. military plane taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base, about 70 miles southeast of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Judging from serial numbers found on discarded launch tubes, the source said, the two SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles used Thursday were manufactured in the same batch as the launcher used in Saudi Arabia. It was not known where the Soviet-designed missiles were purchased, he added.

The missile launcher evidence dovetails with other circumstances of the Mombasa attacks to suggest an al-Qaida role, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials said. They pointed to the apparent coordination of the nearly simultaneous attacks on the airliner and the hotel, as well as the known presence of al-Qaida in Kenya and other parts of East Africa.

The FBI conducted a massive investigation of attacks in 1998 on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, culminating in the indictment of 22 people, among them bin Laden and two of his top lieutenants. Evidence developed in that investigation showed that al-Qaida had placed operatives in Kenya years before they were called on to carry out the bomb plot.