Reeling in al-Qaeda

The network's elusive terrorists have to be captured one by one. The inside story of how a big fish got snared

by Michael Elliott
Time
September 15, 2002

 

The apartment building in a run-down commercial neighborhood of Karachi called Phase II had been under surveillance as a possible al-Qaeda safe house for weeks, following leads from the CIA. But when a small troop of Pakistani intelligence operatives and commandos started their raid in the early hours of last Wednesday, they didn't expect fierce resistance. Nor, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, did they expect to net one of the biggest fish in the war against terrorism.

It would be a morning of surprises. As the Pakistanis crept up the stairwell to the fifth-floor apartment, a grenade exploded in their path. The agents retreated outside the building. When reinforcements arrived, a gunman appeared at a fifth-floor window and began shooting at the officers, who returned fire with submachine guns. A second wave of police arrived and tried to smoke their targets out; they lobbed perhaps 20 tear-gas canisters into the apartment and shot hundreds of rounds at the windows. Finally, an assault team of five officers, some wearing gas masks, stormed in. They encountered little resistance; the men inside were exhausted and wounded. Two who still had ammunition were mowed down. Five others, unarmed and defenseless, were holed up inside another room. Also in the apartment were a woman and her daughter, about 4 years old. As they were led away, a police officer says, the men chanted "Allahu Akbar."

God may be great, but he's not always on the side of those who claim to act in his name. Among the men detained in Karachi was one of the world's most wanted individuals: Ramzi Binalshibh, a 30-year-old Yemeni accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Although Binalshibh was not among the hijackers, it wasn't for lack of trying. A roommate in Hamburg, Germany, of Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 plot, Binalshibh had tried and failed four times to get a visa to the U.S. Investigators have long believed he was meant to be "the 20th hijacker," a suspicion confirmed in an interview Binalshibh gave this summer to the Arab TV station al-Jazeera, which broadcast an audiotape of the interview last week. In the interview, Binalshibh gave details of the Sept. 11 attacks, including code words for the targets and confirmation that United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was headed for the Capitol — code words, "The Faculty of Law." And he expressed regret that he was unable to take part in the attacks.

Even from a distance, Binalshibh played a vital role on Sept. 11, according to U.S. investigators. From his base in Germany, he handled logistics and financial arrangements for the hijack team, funneling cash to them and also, on one occasion, to Zacarias Moussaoui, who was detained in Minnesota before the attacks and has since been charged with six counts of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Binalshibh also is thought to have worked closely with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 38, a Pakistani born in Kuwait with a long history of links to terrorist groups, who investigators believe was also involved in the Sept. 11 plot. Mohammed, too, appears in the al-Jazeera interviews, in which he describes himself as "the head of the al-Qaeda military committee" and characterizes Binalshibh as "the coordinator of the Holy Tuesday operation." U.S. intelligence sources say Mohammed was not among those detained in the Karachi raid.

Binalshibh is a stunning catch. It isn't just his intimate knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot and his link to Moussaoui; CIA officials believe he was present at an extraordinary rendezvous in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, together with two of the hijackers and several other al-Qaeda operatives, including Tawfiq bin Atash, the man thought to have been the mastermind behind the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor. On the run since September 2001, when he left Germany for Madrid, Binalshibh could provide investigators with a clearer picture of how al-Qaeda works and what it might be planning next. And even if he won't talk, officials may be able to extract information from the four laptop computers and the satellite phone left behind in the Karachi apartment. He was still in Pakistan late last week, though U.S. officials were negotiating with Islamabad to take custody and transport him to an undisclosed location where the FBI and CIA can begin questioning.

Binalshibh's arrest highlighted a remarkable few days in the fight against terrorism. On Sept. 9, two days before President Bush was to lead his nation in remembering the victims of last year's attacks, CIA Director George Tenet learned of an astonishing breakthrough in the interrogation of Omar al-Faruq, a 31-year-old Kuwaiti who had been taken to the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, after being arrested in Indonesia last June. Al-Faruq confessed last week that he was al-Qaeda's senior representative in Southeast Asia, according to a CIA summary of the interview obtained by TIME. Moreover, al-Faruq said that two senior al-Qaeda officials, Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, had ordered him to "plan large-scale attacks against U.S. interests in Indonesia, Malaysia, (the) Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Cambodia" to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the CIA report, al-Faruq told his interrogators that even though he was in detention, "contingency plans were put into effect so that other operatives would assume responsibilities to carry out operations as planned."

Al-Faruq's questioners relayed the revelations to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Va. In a series of conference calls, Tenet shared the intelligence with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft and homeland-security czar Tom Ridge. On the morning of Sept. 10, the fivesome, along with General John Gordon, Rice's top counterterrorism aide, gathered in the Oval Office to brief the President about the latest threat. The news from Bagram tracked with several other intelligence reports from Southeast Asia that detailed an increase in suspicious activities around American embassies. And just days earlier, intelligence officials told TIME, a credible report from a second al-Qaeda prisoner warned that the group was poised to launch attacks on other U.S. targets overseas.

Administration officials had one more thing on their radar: concerns about a group of Yemeni Americans alleged to be al-Qaeda sympathizers in Lackawanna, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo. The various bits of information didn't appear to be linked, but the accumulation of threats caused U.S. officials to recall the situation a year ago, when intelligence analysts picked up "chatter" about possible terror attacks abroad but missed signs that the hijackers were already on American soil. "Everybody thought last year it would be outside," says a senior FBI official. "History has proven that we were incorrect." This time the President acted: Bush ordered the closure of all U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia and of some other diplomatic facilities around the world. For the first time, the homeland-threat level was raised to Code Orange, one level below an imminent attack. Last Saturday U.S. officials arrested the five men in Lackawanna.

Though the operations in Karachi, Bagram and New York State count as clear successes, they also suggest just how arduous the process of defeating al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will be. Investigators are operating like children trying to understand the night sky, picking off one constellation at a time — there's Orion, there's the Big Dipper — without being able to see the pattern of the universe. Still, we know far more about Islamic terrorism than we did a year ago; and each week, we learn a little more.

Al-Faruq's story is a particularly useful keyhole through which to peer into the world of modern terrorism. Above all, his tale reveals the global nature of the al-Qaeda threat, as disparate groups and individuals form coalitions to fight a common, faraway foe. Islamic terrorist groups are not new; in one form or another and in countries from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, they have existed for decades. But until recently, the groups conducted local campaigns against local targets. Algerian organizations like the Armed Islamic Group (gia), for example, focused their operations on the hated, secular Algerian government. In a similar vein, terrorist organizations in Pakistan concentrated on pressing the government to adopt Islamic law and waging a guerrilla war in Kashmir.

Osama bin Laden changed all of that, identifying America as the principle foe of Islam and urging his followers to launch attacks against U.S. civilians anywhere. By the time al-Qaeda was established in something like its present shape in the early 1990s, its message was worldwide jihad. Al-Qaeda, says Zachary Abuza of Simmons College in Massachusetts, taught the locally based terrorist groups to "talk together and network." As if to make the point, al-Qaeda's leadership has never been drawn from any one country. Bin Laden is a Saudi; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian. Other top al-Qaeda leaders and bin Laden associates have been Pakistani, Palestinian, Chechen, Mauritanian, North African and Southeast Asian. By the late 1990s, local groups were increasingly linking up under al-Qaeda's mantle in international actions often aimed at the U.S. or its friends. Al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan — where as many as 10,000 recruits may have trained — were vital to the mission. The camps were useful not only for plotting attacks safe from the prying eyes of police forces but, just as important, they were also vital centers where men from widely different backgrounds who had once had very different causes learned to trust and work with one another.

The war in Afghanistan meant that the terrorists' strategy had to change. Al-Qaeda's central organization has been severely degraded, with some its key members killed or captured and others on the run. But many of the older, local terrorist groups are as formidable as they ever were and now have a track record of linking up with others of like mind around the world.

The destruction of the camps in Afghanistan has turned al-Qaeda into a more elusive organization. Though there are al-Qaeda members still in Afghanistan — one Afghan intelligence official keeps a map on his wall dotted with blue marks for places where al-Qaeda is "still active and recruiting" — in all likelihood, the terrorist groups are no more than 10 strong. Local officials contradict reports that significant numbers of al-Qaeda members have returned to Afghanistan since the war. Even in neighboring Pakistan, al-Qaeda members aren't entirely secure. In some relatively lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan, terrorists can hide — though the Pakistani army claims to be hunting them down. But last week's arrests suggest that the teeming slums of Lahore and Karachi may no longer be safe; the night before the raid on Binalshibh's safe house, according to a Pakistani law-enforcement official, intelligence operatives picked up 15 men for questioning on terrorist activities in raids on two neighborhoods in eastern Karachi. A Western diplomat in Islamabad thinks it is now sufficiently dangerous for al-Qaeda members to move around Pakistan and communicate with each other that the network's strength has been affected.

Beyond the subcontinent and Central Asia, al-Qaeda is feeling the heat. Since last September, nearly 3,000 people suspected of involvement in al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups have been arrested. European governments — some of which were aggressively dismissive of the terrorist threat a year ago — are now actively involved in the crackdown. They've done a "fantastic job," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism analyst at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, "unearthing cells, sharing intelligence, doing pre-emptive arrests and raids." An American diplomat in Europe adds that law-enforcement authorities in Southeast Asia are cooperating with the U.S. far more than before. "The effort worldwide and in Afghanistan," the diplomat says, "did a better job of tearing the guts out of al-Qaeda than we give ourselves credit for."

Sounds great — until you hear Ranstorp estimate that for every terrorist suspect detained worldwide, nine may be at large. And paradoxically, the destruction of the camps has, in a sense, made investigators' jobs more difficult. When the U.S. decided to bomb the camps, they were a big fat target; now American and allied forces have to hunt down terrorists, not by the score, but one or two at a time. Hence the conclusion of Steven Simon, who worked on counterterrorism in the Clinton White House: "On the whole, they're better off without Afghanistan. They now have total global mobility." Probably thousands of al-Qaeda sympathizers escaped the bombing in Afghanistan and made their way back to their home countries, traveling to Europe through Iran and Turkey or to Southeast Asia through Pakistan and Bangladesh. French officials are convinced that many graduates of the camps were sent out of Afghanistan before Sept. 11. (The five men detained in Lackawanna allegedly trained in Afghan camps in the summer of 2001.) "You have to wonder," says a French antiterrorism official, "how many were dispatched to Europe, Africa and the U.S. before the attacks on New York and Washington."

Once back in their home territories, these terrorists could well launch new attacks on American interests — one reason Tenet has warned that U.S. military installations are at risk not just in obvious places like Pakistan and Afghanistan but also in East Africa, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and beyond. Back home, says Roland Jacquard, a French terrorism analyst, the graduates of the camps "won't be plotting attacks in the heart of America, but they now feel they can attack America in their own backyards." Most terrorist acts in 2002 — the bombings of a mosque in Tunisia, of a bus full of French contract workers and of the U.S. consulate in Karachi, together with the plans that al-Faruq has revealed — fit into this pattern of attacks by local groups on international targets.

Beyond ideology, the terrorists continue to be sustained by a steady flow of funds. A recent U.N. report shows that although $112 million of al-Qaeda resources were frozen in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, only $10 million has been seized in the past eight months. Terrorism is still being bankrolled by an estimated $16 million in private contributions from rich backers in the gulf states, by diverted money intended for Islamic charitable purposes and, even to this day, by investments in companies and real estate made with bin Laden's own sizable fortune. In any event, for local operations, terrorist cells are quite skilled at living off the environment. "Many Islamist terror plots in Europe and North America," says Jean-Francois Ricard, one of France's top antiterrorism investigators, "were self-financed through criminal activity — mainly stolen-car trafficking and, above all, credit-card fraud." When Kamel Daoudi, a French alleged al-Qaeda terrorist, was arrested in Britain last year, he had more than 100 forged credit cards in his car.

Above all, al-Qaeda apparently can still accumulate its most important resource, which comes not in plastic rectangles but on two legs. Al-Qaeda, says a new report by the RAND organization, depends for its future operations on its "ability to gather new recruits." In some towns of northern Pakistan, where hundreds of young men followed their religious leaders into Afghanistan like lambs to the slaughter, there is resentment toward the jihadists. But worldwide, according to analysts, al-Qaeda doesn't seem to have had trouble finding fresh blood. Notwithstanding the success of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the RAND report argues that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were potentially an effective recruiting weapon, dealing "a massive blow to the most prominent symbols of American economic and military might." Abuza concurs, arguing that there is no better spur to recruitment than success — and the destruction of the World Trade Center counted as one. In Europe, terrorist analysts have long understood that those the RAND report calls "frustrated immigrants, drifters living on the margins of society, seekers of absolute truth or greater meaning for their lives" provide a rich field for terrorists to harvest. The cases of John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, coupled with the arrests in Lackawanna and earlier in Detroit and Oregon, suggest that the U.S. may already be facing the same phenomenon.

For RAND, religious conviction is what gives terrorists strength, but "the armed struggle is what holds them together." If there are terrorism analysts anywhere in the world who think the armed struggle is over, they are keeping mighty quiet. Al-Qaeda "would love to pull off a spectacular," says Ranstorp, using the terrorism watchers' term for a large-scale attack, "but they will be exceptionally patient." At the end of a good week, the question for the U.S and its allies is whether they will be as patient as their enemy.

WITH REPORTING BY BRIAN BENNETT/KARACHI; DOUGLAS WALLER, ELAINE SHANNON, JOHN F. DICKERSON AND MICHAEL WEISSKOPF/WASHINGTON; SIMON ELEGANT/JAKARTA; J.F.O. MCALLISTER/LONDON; BRUCE CRUMLEY/PARIS; AND PHIL ZABRISKIE/KABUL

 

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