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Bin Laden's Invisible Network
Al Qaeda's camps are under assault. But thousands of bin Laden's trainees have long since moved on, and they have taught many more recruits worldwide. Can we find them in time? A NEWSWEEK investigation
Oct. 29 issue – He is a shadowy figure, lurking on the edges of the
Sept. 11 attack. Federal investigators know that Omar al-Bayoumi helped
pay the rent for two of the American Airlines Flight 77 hijackers, Nawaf
Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, on their apartment in San Diego. The Feds
also know that al-Bayoumi is well educated and ambitious.
IN COMPLETING AN APPLICATION for admission to a doctoral program
at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, al-Bayoumi listed himself
as "assistant to the director of finance" at Dallah AVCO, an
aviation-services company based in Saudi Arabia. The FBI is investigating
possible ties between Dallah AVCO and Al Qaeda terror network. Asked about
these ties by NEWSWEEK, Dallah AVCO's owner, Saudi billionaire Saleh
Abdullah Kamel, responded, "This is not true at all." U.S. intelligence
suspects that wealthy Saudis are funding Islamic extremist groups. Asked
if he supported terrorist groups, Kamel replied, "I am a real Muslim.
Islam is the religion of peace." (Arrested but released by Scotland Yard,
al-Bayoumi is now living in England, where he remains under investigation
by U.S. and British authorities.)
Just how rich and deep–and diabolical–is the global terror network
of Al Qaeda? Since Sept. 11, the FBI's manhunt has rounded up more than
800 people, but only 10 have been linked in any way to the hijackings–and
those 10 are not talking. (Most of the suspects probably will turn out to
be innocent.) Federal law-enforcement officials estimate that there are
perhaps a thousand people in the United States who have ties to terrorist
organizations abroad. With cells in at least 60 countries, Al Qaeda has
thousands more awaiting orders to strike. Rooting them out is going to be
exceedingly difficult. Clues are always clearer in hindsight. One FBI
official noted, a little ruefully, that the bureau's Phoenix, Ariz., field
office cabled headquarters last summer about an unusual number of Arabs
who seemed to be taking flight lessons. "But that was all they could tell
us–Jeez, there are a lot of Arabs taking flying lessons!" said the
Instant experts talk and write ominously about "sleepers," secret
agents who have burrowed deep into American life, invisible and possibly
lethal. Actually, the Sept. 11 hijackers were not sleepers in the pure,
cold-war sense: they were not passively waiting to be "awakened" by an
order from their spymasters. With perhaps one exception (Hani Hanjour, who
traveled in and out of the United States for almost 11 years), the
hijackers came to the United States with a mission: to finish up their
flying lessons and find a good target. Federal investigators tell NEWSWEEK
that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader, visited Norfolk, Va., site of a huge
U.S. Navy base, at least twice in February and April. The Feds believe
that Atta was scoping out an aircraft carrier as a target. Most of the
hijackers were slipped into the country last summer as muscle, to slit the
throats of passengers. The more worrisome kind are like Atta: well
educated, independent, patient, fanatical. Investigators do not know how
many other Attas are out there. But they are beginning to have a better
feel for the variety, cunning and determination of the terrorists who may
in fact be living next door.
American warplanes have flattened a half-dozen Al Qaeda
terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan. But the camps were probably empty
when the bombs fell, and their graduates–an estimated 20,000 men–have long
since moved on. Many of them became cannon fodder for the endless Afghan
civil war, but thousands have filtered out to dozens of countries around
the world. The training camps are but one source of Al Qaeda's manpower.
Indeed, only three or four of the 19 hijackers spent time in Al Qaeda
camps. Long before Osama bin Laden began declaring fatwas on America, a
diffuse network of Islamic terror was planting evil seeds in the United
Bin Laden's brainy number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been selling
global jihad for over a decade. Al-Zawahiri is a kind of black prince of
Islam. His paternal grandfather was the grand imam at Al-Azhar, the
Harvard of the Sunni world, in the early 1900s. His father was a
pharmacology professor at the University of Cairo. Young al-Zawahiri grew
up in an upper-class neighborhood in Cairo; it may have been telling that
as a young man at the Maadi Sporting Club, the shy, bespectacled
al-Zawahiri "liked to watch others play, rather than playing himself,"
recalled a former classmate. Al-Zawahiri was trained to be a surgeon. Yet
rather than embrace modernity, he became an Islamic extremist, earning his
stripes as a minor collaborator in the plot to assassinate Egypt's
pro-Western President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though sentenced to death in
absentia by Egypt, al-Zawahiri appeared to move easily around the world,
raising money in such seemingly benign settings as a mosque in Santa
WEEKEND TERRORISM TRAINING
Al-Zawahiri's terrorist organization, the brutal Egyptian Islamic
Jihad, began planting agents in America almost two decades ago. When he
moved to America from Egypt in 1984, Ali Mohamed was in such a hurry to
assimilate that he married a woman he met on the plane. Incredibly, for a
time in the late 1980s, Ali Mohamed served as an instructor to U.S.
Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C.–while training future Islamic
terrorists in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., on the weekends.
Mohamed later worked directly for Osama bin Laden on the 1998 bombings of
the U.S. Embassies in Africa. Mohamed persuaded a friend, Khaled Dahab, to
quit medical school in Cairo and move to California. There, Dahab drove a
Volvo, joined Blockbuster, shopped at Sears–and allegedly handled
logistics for terrorists. From his home in Santa Clara, he patched through
calls for Egyptian Islamic Jihad members and transferred money around the
globe. Al-Zawahiri called Dahab from time to time, once to price
telephone-surveillance equipment. (Mohamed is now in a U.S. prison; Dahab,
who claims he is innocent, is in jail in Egypt.)
Virtually all the men detained for questioning by the FBI are from
Middle Eastern ethnic groups. But anxious citizens who quietly countenance
racial profiling to slow down Islamic terrorists may be in for a surprise.
Al Qaeda is a rainbow coalition. Along with almost every other
nationality, Al Qaeda training camps have attracted blond, blue-eyed
Swedes and Germans. Lost youth of any race or nationality can be drawn to
Islam's certainties. Once in the mosque, they can become bait for
traveling imams preaching jihad. With its cultlike qualities, Al Qaeda has
become a catchall for the disaffected.
Consider the odyssey of David and Jerome Courtailler, born of
solid French stock, sons of a butcher in the quiet town of Bonneville,
nestled in the Alps near the Swiss border. The Courtailler boys were
raised as Roman Catholics and avidly played soccer. But they started using
drugs and felt trapped in a dead-end existence. "I couldn't see a way
out," David told Le Nouvel Observateur. Drifting to England looking for a
job, David "visited a mosque for the first time. It was impressive, all
these people in the process of finding themselves. There was a serenity
that showed on their faces." Both boys were recruited to go to
Afghanistan. "Going there was going to be great," said David. "I had never
traveled ... I was taken care of totally." They found out they were headed
for terrorist-training camps only when they got there, David claims. "I
considered the training to be sort of military service," said David,
though it grew "tiresome," and David returned home to Bonneville. His
brother Jerome took a different path: he is now in prison in the
Netherlands as a prime suspect in an Al Qaeda plot to blow up the American
Embassy in Paris last summer.
'PATIENCE, PRUDENCE, PRECISION'
Relative innocents can be swept up in the jihad. Dennis Justen is a
19-year-old blond, unemployed high-school grad from suburban Frankfurt. As
a young teen, he surprised his parents by fasting for Ramadan, wearing a
caftan, cutting off his girlfriend and hogging the family bathroom for
hours-long "ritual cleansing." The Justens were told by counselors that
their son was "just going through a phase." But on Sept. 22, Justen was
caught trying to cross the border illegally from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Before flying home to Germany, he was interrogated by the FBI. Some
Europeans join the jihad for more than spiritual relief and a chance to
see the world. Some very violent types have signed on, like Lionel Dumont,
29, described by the French press as "the invisible Public Enemy No. 1."
Growing up in a grimy industrial town in the north of France, he began
attending a local mosque before doing his time in the French Army in
Somalia, where he saw vast suffering by Muslims. He drifted to the Bosnian
civil war, where he joined an extremist faction, called Takfir wal Hijra
(Expiation and Exile), which is now seen as a core sect in the bin Laden
network. Dumont and some buddies returned to France and went on a rampage,
attacking police with assault rifles and grenade launchers. When they
placed a car loaded with explosives and bottled-gas canisters in front of
police headquarters in Lille on the eve of a G7 ministers' meeting in
1996, a violent shoot-out ensued. Dumont escaped, presumably back to
Bosnia. Among his effects found by police was an explosives manual that he
had inscribed with the words "Patience, Prudence, Precision."
"We will have victory like there was in Afghanistan and we will have total
Islamic law. Not only in Chechnya, but reaching as far as Moscow, New York
and Washington, D.C."
PHYS-ED TRAINER IN MANCHESTER, ENGLAND
The various civil wars pitting Muslims against infidels around the
world offer a perfect proving ground for jihad. A videotape obtained by
the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, shows a muscular black man,
speaking in perfect English, discussing how he left his work as a phys-ed
trainer in Manchester, England, to join the mujahedin fighting the
Russians in Chechnya. "We will have victory like there was in
Afghanistan," he says, "and we will have total Islamic law. Not only in
Chechnya, but reaching as far as Moscow, New York and Washington, D.C."
Another video shows some rebels discussing the attack on the World Trade
Center. Says one: "It seems that America, between two oceans, cannot
defend itself. With a few small knives you can take hundreds of thousands
of lives. The Americans are hiding the real number of casualties so we
ANCIENT HATREDS IN THE INTERNET AGE
In the loosely linked underworld of Al Qaeda, ancient ethnic
struggles can turn into modern recruiting posters via the Internet. In the
Moluccas, the former Spice Islands in Indonesia, Muslims and Christians
are slaughtering each other, as they have from time to time over the
centuries. But the Laskar Jihad fighters are using not only
medieval-looking scimitars but a Web site. It attracts up to 2,500 hits a
day from like-minded Netizens who view gory photos of anti-Muslim
atrocities ("His body was cut, his penis was put in his mouth"). "We are
especially popular in California," says Laskar communications head Hardi
Bin Laden's training camps help sort the tourists from the true
terrorists. In France, police are concerned about a half-dozen cases of
"missing sons" who told their families they were going to fight "in Bosnia
in the Muslim struggle" and have not been heard from since. Officials now
think that some of them may have found their way to Afghanistan and, once
there, were essentially taken prisoner or brainwashed by cultists. "The
leaders in these camps separate out the strong from the weak," says one
French authority. "Those who are strong go on to fight and perhaps become
leaders themselves. The weak may be simply eliminated."
Some Al Qaeda operatives take their learning with them in a handy
manual. A mixture of Quran quotes and practical tips for killing, the
handbook has lessons on kidnapping and assassination using rifles and
pistols (chapter 14), assassination using explosives (chapter 15) and
assassination using poisons and cold steel (chapter 16). There is training
in code (for example, how to encipher the instruction "kill this devil")
and training in the proper posture for shooting someone ("the body should
be normal, not tense, and the joints relaxed, not too tight, not too
The manual instructs Al Qaeda fighters to lie low, not to visit
mosques or publicly praise Allah, and it teaches them how to obtain false
documents and aliases. As a practical matter, moving in and out of Western
countries, with their porous borders and civil-rights sensitivities, has
been a breeze. In 1997, New York police, tipped off by a neighbor, were
able to foil a plot by Ghazi Ibrahum Aby Mezer to bomb the New York
subway. It turned out Mezer had already been apprehended three times by
the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the past 13 months for
illegally entering the United States from Canada. The INS had begun a
formal deportation proceeding, but he was free on bail and had filed a
request for political asylum. The ground: he was afraid the Israeli
government would arrest him for his membership in the Palestinian
terrorist group Hamas.
To a greater degree than they will ever want to admit, the
intelligence and law-enforcement authorities of several Western countries
have tolerated terrorists in their midst. The rationalization has always
been that it's better to keep an eye on terror cells than drive them
underground. Radical imams sometimes act as informants for law
enforcement. In the murky world of terror cells, however, it is sometimes
hard to tell who is an informant–and who is a double (or triple) agent.
When Al Qaeda networks moved into the Bosnian civil war, the CIA argued
against expelling the extremists, insisting that it was more important to
watch them and monitor their communications.
The British have not been above tolerating some terrorists of
their own. For years British authorities have permitted a rabid imam named
Abu Qatada to preach at a social club in London. But when 18 videos of Abu
Qatada's rants turned up in the Hamburg apartment of a fugitive member of
Mohamed Atta's terrorist cell, the fiery imam became an instant candidate
for new British laws designed to detain potential terrorists without
trial. All over the world, America and its allies are trying to strangle
the sleeper cells from within. But in the difficult war on terror,
squeezing one end of the network may only push the poison in another
direction. The war on the Taliban has created a flood of refugees. Some of
them are holy warriors, who pay $20,000 to $30,000 to "travel agents,"
professional smuggling syndicates that set them up with new identities and
passports. Newly minted, the jihadists can go back into the world and
start spreading terror all over again.
Bin Laden's Invisible Network
1 of 5
1. Bin Laden's Invisible Network
2. An Afghan Defector's Story
3. 'I'm Through With Arafat'
4. 'We'll Clap Our Hands'
5. Next: Special Ops
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
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