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Al-Qaeda now

Is it behind the newest attacks worldwide? How the damaged network may be plotting the next big one

Al-Qaeda now


By Michael Elliott

Which is scarier, the noise or the silence? Long after the attacks of Sept. 11, the clangor of terror echoes worldwide. But for U.S. investigators, what they don't hear is almost as frightening as what they do.

Terrorist communications, according to Francis X. Taylor, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, have reached levels "probably as high as they were last summer." Attacks continue. In April, a truck bomb--now thought to be the work of Islamic terrorists with links to al-Qaeda, the network headed by Osama bin Laden--crashed into a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, killing 19, including 14 German tourists. On May 8, an apparent suicide bomber in Karachi, Pakistan, pulled his car up beside a military bus loaded with French contract workers, exploded the car and killed 14. Those waiting nervously for a second al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. may have forgotten: it already happened. Last December, shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up an American Airlines plane over the Atlantic in an incident that investigators have long been convinced was an al-Qaeda plot. Though that effort was foiled, the terrorists have not given up. "Just as a wounded animal is the most dangerous of all," Air Force General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week, "al-Qaeda remains a real threat."

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And sometimes a silent one. The investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks is the most comprehensive the world has ever known. Yet after wading through mountains of paper seized in Afghanistan, checking out hundreds of computer discs and interviewing scores of al-Qaeda detainees, investigators have found not a single reference to the Sept. 11 hijackers. "Where's the intel on these people?" asks a senior FBI official. "Even after all this time, there are no documents and nothing in the humint [human intelligence]." Which raises the spookiest possibility of all: that there could be another al-Qaeda cell out there, just as good--just as quiet--as the one that mounted the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That's why assessing the capabilities of al-Qaeda now is so important.

Figuring out what al-Qaeda can do--and stopping it--requires a mixture of military action and persistent shoe-leather work by cops. Since last fall, 1,600 suspected operatives of al-Qaeda have been arrested in 95 countries. Sometimes you just have to wait. Sources tell TIME, for example, that after years of silence, one of the most mysterious figures in al-Qaeda's network has started talking to the FBI and a federal grand jury. Ihab Mohamed Ali, known within al-Qaeda by the nom de guerre Nawawi, is an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen who worked with bin Laden's organization in Sudan and Afghanistan after receiving flight training (as long ago as 1993) at the same Oklahoma school where Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged terrorist who was detained before the Sept. 11 attacks, studied last year. Ali later returned to the U.S. and worked as a cabdriver in Orlando, Fla. He was arrested after the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 but clammed up. Indicted for perjury, Ali has been detained ever since. If he is talking now, he could shed some much needed light on the early days of al-Qaeda's international campaigns.

Taylor, for one, thinks those campaigns continue apace. Al-Qaeda, he believes, has "two or three operations" in the planning stage. Some al-Qaeda cells are sleepers, he figures, remaining inactive for long periods, while others will launch attacks without waiting for any go-ahead from a central authority. The Karachi bomb, in the words of a French official, was "opportunistic terrorism," targeting vulnerable Westerners where preparing an attack--and escaping the cops--is much easier than it would be in Europe or the U.S. But operations that require higher authority can still get it. U.S. intelligence believes that bin Laden--along with his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Dick Cheney of al-Qaeda--is hiding in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and is still capable of getting messages out to followers. "They are spending a lot of time running and hiding," says a U.S. official, "but it doesn't take a lot of time to plot and scheme."

It's the maddening fuzziness of the Islamic-extremist terrorist network that makes it so hard to tackle. Throwing the term al-Qaeda like a blanket over all terrorist incidents can be misleading. "Who staged the Djerba attack?" asks a French Justice official. "Who financed the Karachi bombing? All we know is that they were Islamic extremists bent on the same sort of violence. Some groups are part of al-Qaeda, others associates of it. Still others are sympathetic fellow travelers." As if to confirm the analysis, Pakistani officials are cautious about ascribing the Karachi bomb to al-Qaeda, though they acknowledge that local militant groups share informal links with bin Laden's organization. The Djerba-synagogue bomb seems a clearer case. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites, the same group that said it bombed the American embassies in 1998. Moreover, German police investigating the Djerba incident raided the Duisberg home of a Moroccan immigrant and found the telephone number of Ramzi Binalshibh. U.S. investigators think Binalshibh, who belonged to the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell that masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, was intended to be on one of the planes that day. (He never managed to get a U.S. visa.) Binalshibh is thought to have left Europe for Pakistan last summer.

Why haven't there been more attacks like those in Karachi and Djerba? Partly because of the fighting in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had become a state within a state. A senior Italian investigator in Milan is explicit. "The war," he says, "has been a serious blow to the network here." Robbed of their central facilities in the Afghan camps, Italian cells have had to get by with less logistical support, like false documents and ready cash; communications have been hampered; and, crucially, key figures have been killed. Abdel Kader Es Sayed, an Egyptian-born terrorist who authorities say was placed in charge of al-Qaeda's Italian operations in 2000, was reportedly killed in the American bombing campaign. So were at least two other members of the al-Qaeda high command. Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian who was believed to be al-Qaeda's top military commander, died in November, and Abu Jafar al-Jaziri, reputedly a logistics and operations chief, is thought to have been killed in January.

Perhaps most significant of all, Abu Zubaydah was captured in March after a gunfight in Faisalabad, Pakistan, at the end of a police raid. He had played key roles both in the camps and in running al-Qaeda operations, and his arrest, says Roland Jacquard, a leading French expert on Islamic terrorism, was "an enormous, stupendous blow to al-Qaeda." Abu Zubaydah seems to have specialized in organizing al-Qaeda operatives based in Europe and North America. Ahmed Ressam, the Montreal-based "millennium bomber" captured at the end of 1999 while attempting to cross from Canada into Washington State with explosives and bomb timers, testified that Abu Zubaydah planned al-Qaeda operations in the U.S. After Sept. 11, according to a U.S. official, American intelligence learned that one of the men trailed by Ken Williams--the FBI agent who last July wrote the famous Phoenix, Ariz., memo calling attention to a pattern of Arab radicals attending U.S. flight schools--had been linked through telephone calls to Abu Zubaydah. The man has now been deported. Abu Zubaydah is being interrogated at a secret location, and his disclosures--some of them bogus--about likely al-Qaeda operations have contributed mightily to the noise level.

In Afghanistan the remaining al-Qaeda fighters have split into small groups. Since March, when U.S. troops engaged a large al-Qaeda force during Operation Anaconda, there have been few significant battles--and even in Anaconda the body count was far lower than the hundreds the Pentagon at first claimed to have killed. Three operations led by the British Royal Marines in eastern Afghanistan this spring ended without snaring the enemy. "Countrywide," says an intelligence source in Kabul, "it's probably safe to say there are no groups of armed Taliban and al-Qaeda bigger than 60." But that doesn't mean al-Qaeda is finished. Abu Zubaydah, some sources claim, has been replaced by Saif al-Adil, a former Egyptian army officer wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings. Some fighters have doubtless slipped across the border and are trying to regroup in the tribal regions of Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf has conceded that American communications experts are there helping Pakistani forces.

Just as Afghan-based fighters may live to fight another day, so al-Qaeda operatives in the West are regrouping. In Italy an investigator concedes, "We're finding new people and need to identify their roles." That puts gumshoes and prosecutors back in the front line. One of the most dogged of the breed seems to be Williams, the FBI agent in Phoenix. Indeed, Williams' memo is an unwitting case study in just how far-reaching the network of Islamic extremism has become.

The agent appears to have been keeping an eye on a number of young Arab men. As TIME has reported, two of them--permanent residents of the U.S.--remain under FBI surveillance. According to an online report by FORTUNE, one of the men Williams was following was Zacarias Mustapha Soubra, a Lebanese student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Williams thought some of the men might have links to al Muhajiroun (the Immigrant), a hard-line Islamic-extremist group headed by Omar Bakri, a London-based Islamic fundamentalist leader. In Britain, al Muhajiroun, whose political goal is the establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate, has been accused of recruiting young Muslims for jihad in Afghanistan. Originally from Syria, Bakri says he is careful to stay one step ahead of the law. "I may be on the edge," he told TIME in an interview last week, "but I don't pass it." French and Spanish judicial investigators have long viewed Bakri as one of three London Muslims--the others are Abu Hamza al-Masri, who preaches at the famous Finsbury Park mosque, and Abu Qatada, a Jordanian who disappeared at the end of last year--who are spiritual leaders of al-Qaeda. Jacquard claims that "every al-Qaeda operative recently arrested or identified in Europe had come into contact with Bakri at some time or other."

In the interview, Bakri named Soubra the al Muhajiroun "leader" in Arizona but denied that Soubra had any links to al-Qaeda or bin Laden. (Soubra is not enrolled for the summer session at Embry-Riddle; efforts to contact him were unsuccessful.) Bakri said he thought bin Laden is "a great man; he stands for the truth, as far as Muslims are concerned," but insisted he himself did not support the Sept. 11 attacks.

Whether Bakri is closely linked to al-Qaeda or--as some think--is just a loudmouthed bombast, al Muhajiroun is real. Bakri claims his organization has offices in 21 countries, and it certainly has a presence in the U.S. Early in May, al Muhajiroun supporters held a demonstration to support Chechnya outside the Russian consulate in New York City. On May 12, the group held a meeting at New York City's Brooklyn College, complete with videos of alleged atrocities committed against Muslims worldwide. Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistani-American student, spoke at the meeting, praising the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. "America is directly involved in exterminating Muslims," said Hashmi. "America is the biggest terrorist in the world."

It's a long step from a student meeting to a terrorist cell. But as investigators try to work out what al-Qaeda can do now, a primary place they are bound to look is among radical Islamic groups within the U.S. That, after all, was the central message of Williams' memo. One curiosity about that document is who is not in it. Williams does not appear to have conducted surveillance of Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who lived in Phoenix, attended flight school there and is thought to have piloted the plane that on Sept. 11 crashed into the Pentagon. Hanjour completed his flight training before Williams compiled his memo; that explains the Saudi's absence from it. But the timing of his training raises a host of questions. Hanjour has always been an oddity among the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11. Unlike the others, who were based either in the Middle East or among the Arab diaspora in Europe, Hanjour had spent much of the previous decade in the U.S. He started to learn to fly not just a year or so before Sept. 11, as the other pilots did, but as early as 1996. He was not much good at it; Duncan Hastie, president of CRM Airline Training Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., remembered Hanjour as a "weak, poor student; it just seemed to me that he was not motivated to succeed." Hastie was wrong; Hanjour stuck to it, taking flying classes again and again.

What was Hanjour doing? Was he just a scrawny airhead, dreaming of rolling across the big Southwestern sky? Or did he belong to another group of al-Qaeda American operatives, one that was put together earlier and whose mission remains unknown? If so, what was he planning to do for al-Qaeda before he became one of the Sept. 11 hijackers? With whom? And where?

Noise can be scary; silence is terrifying.

--Reported by Hannah Bloch/Islamabad; Bruce Crumley/Paris; Helen Gibson/London; Ghulam Hasnain/New York; Jeff Israely/Milan; Broward Liston/Orlando; Scott MacLeod/Cairo; David Schwartz/Phoenix; Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson and Doug Waller/Washington; and Charles P. Wallace/Berlin



 
 
 
 







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