WASHINGTON - President Clinton's top terrorism adviser says the deadly bombing of the USS Cole appears to have originated in a plan by Osama bin Laden to hit U.S. targets worldwide in the first days of the Millennium, causing hundreds of casualties.
Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council adviser in charge of counterterrorism, said in an interview published Sunday in the Washington Post that recent intelligence suggests bin Laden planned attacks at the beginning of the year on a U.S. warship in Yemen, American tourists in Jordan and on the West Coast of the United States.
''What if January last year had started with 1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world?'' Clarke said. ''We came very close to having that happen.''
He said the planned attacks either fell through or were thwarted by arrests.
A Jan. 3 attack on the USS The Sullivans during a refueling stop in Yemen's Aden port reportedly failed when the attack boat sank. Jordanian authorities arrested suspects who allegedly have confessed to planning attacks that day on the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman and on two Christian pilgrimage sites. U.S. authorities also believe Ahmed Ressam, arrested at the Washington-Canada border for allegedly smuggling in bomb components, planned several West Coast attacks on Jan. 3.
Authorities have linked bin Laden to the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives-packed boat next to the warship as it refueled in Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 39.
Bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire, lives in Afghanistan. U.S. and Russian authorities blame him for financing nascent militant Islamic terrorist movements in Central Asia.
Clarke said bin Laden's reach now extended to 45 countries.
''It's no longer just the Arab world that's threatened, it's all of Central Asia.''