Al-Qaeda's Satellite Phone Records Revealed
by Nick Fielding and Dipesh Gadhery
The Sunday Times
March 24, 2002
Records of Osama bin Laden's calls from his satellite phone reveal Britain
was at the heart of the terrorist's planning for his worldwide campaign of murder
and destruction. Bin Laden and his most senior lieutenants made more than 260
calls from their base in Afghanistan to 27 numbers in Britain. They included
suspected terrorist agents, sympathisers and companies. Some were prearranged
calls to public pay phones.
The records, obtained by The Sunday Times, show that the terrorist leader made more calls to Britain than any other country in the two years that he used the phone. He stopped using it two months after members of his Al-Qaeda terror network bombed two American embassies in east Africa in August 1998. He believed the Americans were tracking his movements through the phone. Two of the men contacted by Bin Laden in Britain Khaled al Fawwaz and Ibrahim Eidarous are now in prison awaiting extradition to the United States for their part in the embassy bombings, which killed 224 and injured thousands. However, another senior terrorist suspect, Mustafa Nazar, is still free. He spent up to two years in Dollis Hill, north London, recruiting for Al-Qaeda. A key figure in Bin Laden's terror training camps, he left Britain in 1998 and was last seen in Afghanistan. The telephone records have come to light following the trial of four Al-Qaeda terrorists who planned and carried out the bombing of the two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
According to trial documents, the satellite telephone was bought in 1996 with the help of Dr Saad al Fagih, 45, a bearded surgeon who heads the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. This fundamentalist Muslim group is dedicated to the overthrow of the Saudi Arabian government but is not part of Al-Qaeda. Al Fagih, who has been regularly used by the BBC as an expert on Bin Laden, has in the past explained that Muslim scholars said the killing of civilians, including children, was allowed by the Koran as "collateral damage" in the holy war. It was al Fagih's credit card which was used to help buy the 10,500 Compact-M satellite phone in the United States and it was shipped to his home in north London, according to American court documents. His credit card was also used to buy more than 3,000 minutes of pre-paid airtime.
Last week al Fagih, who has not been arrested or charged in connection with any of these actions, said: "I am willing to speak to the authorities if they ask me about this or any other issue, but not to the press."
For two years Bin Laden and his military commander, Muhammad Atef, used the phone to direct Al-Qaeda's operations. More than 200 calls were made to the London home and mobile phone of al Fawwaz. Calls were also made to two public phone boxes in December 1996 and May 1997. One was outside Willesden library in north London and another was only a few minutes walk from al Fawwaz's home. Other calls were made to companies for which al Fawwaz worked. Al Fawwaz, who lived in Kenya from 1993-94 before moving to London, was head of a group called the Advice and Reformation Committee, based in Queen's Park, northwest London, which has been described by the FBI as a front organisation for Bin Laden. Al Fawwaz kept a note of the satphone number in his address book under the name of Atef. But according to American court documents the phone was regularly used by Bin Laden.
Another recipient of calls from Afghanistan was Eidarous, 44, who lived in Waldo Road, not far from al Fawwaz and the call boxes. In December 1996 a call was made to the home of Mohammed Hamed, a retired journalist who lives in a quiet street in Surbiton, Surrey, who says he does not recall the occasion. He has indirect links to Afghanistan but there is no obvious reason why he should receive a call from Bin Laden's phone. Hamed said his brother, Mostafa Hamed, had fought for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan against the Russians until 1990 and stayed in Afghanistan to work as a journalist. Hamed had not heard from him for over a year.
In January 1998 a brief call was also made to the home of Salem Azzam, a retired diplomat from Egypt who lives in a smart three-storey maisonette near Edgware Road in London. Azzam has no connection to terrorism; he is the great uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is widely regarded as the chief organiser of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden's right-hand man. The telephone records also suggest that Bin Laden and al Fawwaz co-ordinated press statements over the religious fatwah urging all Muslims to kill Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world. The fatwah was later issued to London-based Arab newspapers including Al-Quds, Al-Hayat and a news agency.
While some calls went to known terrorists, others were inexplicable. One, for example, was to a house in Wandsworth, south London, occupied by a family of Asian origin since 1996. Last week its occupant said he knew nothing about the call. One three-minute call in December 1996 went to a ground-floor council flat in Erith, Kent. Its occupant, Michelle Urquhart, who lives with her three children, last week had no idea why her phone number should crop up on Bin Laden's satphone. After the United Kingdom, the country Bin Laden called most frequently was Yemen, where Al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 American sailors, in October 2000. It received more than 200 calls on the satphone. Yemen is now the subject of an American security operation and its government is co-operating to ensure that support for Al-Qaeda is broken.
Other calls were made to Sudan (131), Iran (106), Azerbaijan (67), Pakistan (59) and Saudi Arabia (57). Six calls to America are recorded and 13 appear to have been made to a telephone on a ship in the Indian Ocean. Six were made to Italy, where police earlier this year uncovered an Al-Qaeda cell planning a poison gas attack on the American embassy, four to Malaysia and two to Senegal.
The most surprising omission is Iraq, with not a single call recorded. Its president Saddam Hussein is now being threatened with military action by America because of its alleged links with Al-Qaeda. The absence of calls to Iraq may simply indicate caution: Bin Laden suspected his calls were being traced. As for the satphone, calls to its number, 00873 682 505 331, are now met with the message: "The mobile number you are trying to contact cannot be reached; please try again later."
Scotland Yard will this week closely monitor a court case in Delhi, when Mohammed Afroz, a trainee pilot, will be charged with plotting to hijack a Manchester-bound jet and crash it into the House of Commons on September 11 last year. A spokesman last night said the Yard had requested access to Afroz, a 24-year-old Indian who was training at a Bedfordshire flight school at the time. Afroz has allegedly confessed to getting as far as check-in at Heathrow before abandoning his attempt when he saw increased security as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington a few hours earlier. Indian police have complained that British authorities are trying to ignore the trial.
Additional reporting: Will Iredale, Dipesh Gadher and Judith O Reilly
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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