Skip to comments.The secret war (More detail on Al-Zawahiri Op)
Posted on 03/21/2004 1:41:33 AM PST by Anti-Bubba182
The secret war
On the North-West Frontier, soldiers are trying to tighten the noose around bin Laden's forces. But in Europe and America, there is no clear enemy to fight - yet every expert knows that a terrorist atrocity is coming
Mark Townsend in Tangier, John Hooper in Madrid, Greg Bearup in Peshawar, Paul Harris in Washington, Peter Beaumont in Baghdad, Antony Barnett, Martin Bright, Jason Burke and Nick Pelham in London
Sunday March 21, 2004
There were shadows in the rocks. As the 12 US Special Forces soldiers arrived at a remote mountain region in eastern Afghanistan last week, the shadows took form and started moving, turning into people. The Americans, accompanied by troops from Pakistan and Predator drones scouring the hills ahead, finally got a glimpse of the prey they had been hunting for months.
In a modern equivalent of the Great Game, in which Western spies dressed as locals wandered the lawless region 100 years ago, the soldiers had spent days trekking through the mountains, offering bribes to tribal leaders in a game of deadly intrigue. Their aim: to strike at the heart of an enemy waging war throughout the world.
Intelligence had been received. High-ranking members of al-Qaeda were reputedly holed up near a village in south Waziristan, a lawless tribal area on the Pakistan border. Was Operation Mountain Storm, the US-led operation to wipe out or capture Osama bin Laden and his closest lieutenants, about to finally yield results?
Accounts differ over what happened next. As air strikes were launched last night on a cluster of fortified mud-walled farmhouses, a fierce gun battle was under way between US and Pakistani troops and at least 500 heavily armed militants.
Hundreds of Pakistani regulars set up cordons through the rocky terrain. The fighting was still continuing last night. Villagers, however, claimed the American and Pakistani specialists were ambushed and more than a dozen killed before they could regroup and call in support. Brigadier Mahmood Sultan, the Pakistani officer in charge, said: 'It was the most deadly [operation] yet.'
Military sources said last night that the raid was one of many launched to find al-Qaeda or Taliban elements in the area and hinted that the level of resistance encountered indicated that a 'high-value' individual, possibly Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's Egyptian comrade-in-arms, might have been cornered. They said that at least 25 militants - mainly Tajik, Chechen and Uzbek fighters - had been shot dead.
This weekend, the battle was still raging. Dug in among the rocks and desiccated fields, several hundred Pakistani regulars, soldiers from the elite Special Services Group and the secretive ISI spy service, helped by 12 American 'technical experts', were last night watching and waiting near the bullet-ridden farmhouses, looking for shadows.
The terrain may be different, but war is also being waged this weekend on the streets of Europe and America. Ten days after suspected al-Qaeda terrorists struck at the heart of Madrid, killing almost 200 people and wounding 1,500 others, a secret battle is under way to prevent another atrocity, amid growing warnings that Britain's crackdown on terror suspects would lead to revenge attacks.
Forget the idea of al-Qaeda as a coherent fighting group, or even a flag of convenience. Call it what you will - 'Islamist', 'Salafi' or 'Jihadi' - it hardly matters. According to some intelligence experts, they do not wish to be understood.
For an increasing number of young Muslims, resistance to the western values is now a way of life. Most are not terrorists and those who are do not accept the term, because they believe they are fighting imperialism by western infidels.
As the investigators continued yesterday trying to piece together details of the terror network in Europe, the reverberations from the Madrid blasts swept America and Britain. The terrorists had scored a spectacular victory, ousting the Spanish Prime Minister and a key ally over the war in Iraq.
New security measures were being deployed to protect trains and tunnels from suicide bombers, and London announced a huge increase in the number of intelligence officers being deployed to hunt the enemy. They have one major problem: they are fighting a mindset, not an army, and nobody has yet patented a technique to read minds.
'At first we thought we were up against an organisation,' one western intelligence source told The Observer. ' Something with a definable body and head. In fact, the war on terror is being fought against an idea. That does not make it any easier.'
Britain has traditionally welcomed dissidents from the Middle East. As a result, Britain became known as Londonistan or Beirut-on-Thames and, according to sources in the Islamist community, the intelligence services found it useful to monitor the activities of these individuals to build up a map of how the groups operated.
Some British based militants committed to so-called Holy War even claim that the British authorities in the early 1990s offered passports in return for information from fighters returning from the jihad against the Russians.
But Britain's unwritten contract with Islamic extremists - which gave them a haven in exchange for sparing Britain - has eroded in recent years as Britain fell under US pressure to round up Islamist militants.
The Jihadi sources reiterated this weekend that Britain remained ripe for an al-Qaeda attack. 'It's open war,' said a veteran of the Afghan Jihad. 'Total war'. The attacks against British targets began with the Istanbul attacks on the British consulate and HSBC bank last year. 'Everything is seen as a legitimate target,' he said.
According to intelligence experts, the terrorists are operating in Europe and Morocco, travelling on fake documents. Investigators made a major breakthrough last week with the arrest of Jamal Zougam, a suspected terrorist involved in the Madrid atrocity who spent his childhood in the casbah of Tangier.
Morocco is the bridge between the Islamic world and the West. Zougam was born here on 5 October 1973 in a crumbling apartment in Rue Ben Aliyem, a working-class area of the old city.
In 1983, his family moved to Spain, where Zougam settled with his mother Aicha and 35-year-old half-brother Mohammed Chaoui, who was also arrested last week in Madrid. Mohammed Bakkali, the third man arrested by the Spanish, was also from Tangier.
The three Moroccans were implicated in the 11 March bombings by a piece of plastic, snapped off from a SIM card when it was inserted into the mobile phone found in the single rucksack bomb that failed to go off 10 days ago. This allowed investigators to trace the mobile back to the Nuevo Siglo (New Century) phone shop owned by the men.
Though there is still the possibility that Jamal Zougam was a minor player in the bomb conspiracy, or even the innocent salesman of the mobiles, Spanish authorities now believe that the young Moroccan used his mobile phone business as cover to allow him to travel back and forwards to Tangier, where he immersed himself in the extremist culture of the firebrand imams of his homeland.
If initial reports of his connections to a vast European network of Islamists prove correct, he could provide the key to unlocking al-Qaeda's operations in the West.
When Zougam's mother took her children to Madrid, her husband, Mohamed, refused to move continents and the couple subsequently divorced. But young Jamal clung to his Moroccan roots, frequently returning from Spain to Tangiers to stay at his father and uncle's modest two-storey flat.
During these visits, Zougam became aware of the radical sermons of Mohamed al-Fazazi, a 56-year-old cleric now serving a 30-year prison sentence for his role in the Casablanca blasts, who urged his disciples to wage a tireless war on the infidel.
A gifted orator, the imposing 6ft 3in cleric had little problem exploiting the brooding unrest in Tangier. Long before 11 September, Fazazi's deadly message had washed across Britain.
According to his son Abdel Halim, Fazazi had visited all the UK's major mosques and met many of Britain's most influential imams.
Speaking outside the squat Fazazi family apartment 200 yards from the mosque where his father was imam, Abdel Halim also revealed that his father met Britain's most high-profile terror suspect, the Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada, currently detained without trial at Belmarsh high-security prison.
During their final meeting in London five years ago, the two 'scholars of jihad' discussed the principles of Islam and how they related to the modern world.
Fazazi is driven by a dream of creating a global Islamist state. It was a vision shared by Jamal Zougam.
Although Zougam enjoyed the trappings of Western life - the designer labels and gadgets - he had become disillusioned throughout his twenties at the perceived inequality felt by many among the Moroccan community of Madrid.
During the same period, his Muslim faith began to deepen, mainly because of the kindness extended to his father by the Islamic leaders of his impoverished Tangier neighbourhood.
Despite bad health preventing him getting a job, Zougam's father, Mohamed, had been allowed to run a small local mosque. According to a Spanish wiretap on 14 August, 2001, Zougam told Abu Dahda, the alleged leader of an al-Qaeda cell in Madrid, that he had travelled to Morocco to hear Fazazi speak and offer money for the cause.
He said: 'You should speak to him. I told him if that if he needed contributions we could get them from where the brothers are.'
Despite such evidence, Mohamed Zougam - visibly wounded by the events of the past 10 days - protested his son's innocence to The Observer. ' He's a nice boy, a good son and educated to a standard of good behaviour.'
Last week, the atmosphere outside Friday morning prayers at the Dahal mosque was subdued. One unemployed 27-year-old, Ahmed Sbai'e, lamented the loss of their galvanising former cleric, describing Fazazi as the most 'sweet-tongued and lively' imam he had seen.
His comments reveal that the gulf between Morocco and the rest of Europe is far wider than the Straits of Gibraltar.
The British link
This weekend, the race was under way to prevent a strike on Britain. Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, revealed there was a 'definite link' between the terrorists who carried out the Spanish bombings and al-Qaeda supporters in the UK.
A Moroccan militant, Mohammed al-Guerbouzi, emerged as a potential bridge between the Madrid cell and London Islamic extremists.
The Moroccan authorities allege that al-Guerbouzi, now a British citizen who has lived in London for many years, is one of the leaders of the Group of Islamic Combatants of Morocco and is a suspect in the Casablanca bombings. Al-Guerbouzi is said to be a regular worshipper at a west London community centre.
Security sources in Britain have confirmed that al-Guerbouzi has been living in Britain for more than a decade, but say that, while they were aware that the Moroccan authorities 'take exception' to al-Guerbouzi, the authorities have not been presented with sufficient evidence that he was involved in any terrorist attack.
The Spanish press has reported claims Zougam visited London in search of funding and logistical help and contacted a number of north Africans living in Britain, including al-Guerbouzi. Though the Moroccan cleric is recognised as a 'significant figure' in the radical Islamic community, the authorities here are yet to be convinced he is a terrorist.
The Observer has discovered that one British man is already serving a five-year jail sentence in Morocco for his connections to terrorism.
Abdullatif Meroun, who is married to a British woman and has three children, was arrested last year in Morocco during a sweep of Islamic militants after the Casablanca bombings and charged with being a member of Salafiyya Jihadiyya.
Astonishingly, Meroun worked as a site manager for a Canadian air company at Heathrow Airport and met the firebrand Tangier preacher Mohamed al-Fizazi at the airport during the cleric's visit to London in 1999. Meroun then moved to Tangier and was reported to be missing by his wife in June 2002.
Two figures who are quickly emerging as important foot-soldiers in the European network are the Beyaich brothers, Abdulaziz and Salahuddin, who also took their spiritual inspiration from the Salafiyya Jihadiyya movement.
Abdulaziz is in detention in Spain after the Moroccan authorities accused him of being involved in the Casablanca bombings.
It has now emerged that he shared a flat in Madrid with Jamal Zougam. His brother, Salahuddin, alias Abu Mughen, fought in Chechnya and Bosnia, and is now in prison in Morocco.
Spanish investigators believe that he travelled to Britain on several occasions between 1997 and 2000 using a fake British passport.
In October 2000, he was extradited to Britain after being arrested in Turkey on his way to Chechnya. Official sources have confirmed that he was jailed in Britain for immigration offences in December 2000, but was released four months later. He returned to Morocco, where he was arrested in June 2003 for his connection with the Casablanca bombings.
The most startling link between the Madrid cell and London is through the extremist Syrian cleric Abu Dahdah, who is in jail in Spain accused of being the leader of the Madrid al-Qaeda cell.
Zougam is known to have been involved with Dahdah, who was a frequent visitor to Britain and enjoyed a close relationship with Abu Qatada, who is often referred to as bin Laden's European ambassador.
In September last year, the Spanish anti-terrorist judge Baltasar Garzón published a vast document outlining the alleged terror network surrounding the Madrid-based Syrian
According to Garzón, Abu Dahdah visited Abu Qatada 17 times in the UK between 1995 and 2000.
On one occasion, Abu Dahdah sent $11,000 to Abu Qatada for Abu Mohammed Al Maqdari, a terrorist arrested in Jordan for his links with al-Qaeda.
But perhaps the most dramatic disclosure in Garzón's 700-page dossier is the revelations that Qatada contacted Bin Laden in 1998 to help find sanctuary for the Syrian Islamic militant Abu Bashir, who has been accused of plotting to assassinate the deputy prime minister of Yemen.
Abu Bashir was arrested in August 1997 in Yemen and deported to Malaysia. The documents allege that Qatada contacted bin Laden personally to help get Bashir a contract with his company and residence in Malaysia.
In June 1998, Dahda and Qatada arranged for Abu Bashir to fly to London, where he is thought to have lived ever since. He is now thought to live on a council housing estate in London.
While views differ as to the role that Zougam played in the Madrid bombings, few believe that he was the mastermind of the atrocity.
As governments and their intelligence agencies desperately search for the new Islamic 'Mr Big' who is orchestrating these new terror networks, the one name coming up is the Jordanian militant Abu Masab al-Zarqawi.
From Madrid and Istanbul to Karbala and Nairobi, al-Zarqawi appears to have become the figurehead behind the bombings.
But who is he? Zarqawi was a veteran of the war against the Russians in Afghanistan. Although not a member of al-Qaeda, he ran his own hostel in Afghanistan and was close enough in his Islamist world view to have contacts within Bin Laden's organisation. In January his developing stature in global Islamic militancy was reinforced when he issued his first public statement, an audiotape calling on God to 'kill the Arab and the foreign tyrants, one after another'.
After fleeing injured from Afghanistan, he sought shelter in Saddam's Iraq where he was treated for his wounds, including the amputation of a leg.
At first, intelligence officials were unsure of Zarqawi's role in fomenting the unrest in post-Saddam Iraq. One suggestion was that he had reopened the old underground networks that had brought volunteers to Afghanistan, and was acting as a conduit for the volunteers to fight the Americans who had been scooped up from the more radical mosques across Europe and the Middle East.
But last month, a new and more central role was suggested for him. It emerged in a letter, written allegedly by Zarqawi to senior al-Qaeda leaders, and leaked to the New York Times.
Eleven pages long, much of it dedicated to a rambling denunciation of the US, Zarqawi's central point was this: if the handover of sovereignty was succesful in Iraq on 30 June, radical Islamist fighters in Iraq would lose their raison d'etre to wage war.
It is a document that is impossible to verify. But there is other evidence to suggest that the figure of Zarqawi may be acting as a catalyst for different groups including al-Qaeda. It is certain that extremists have taken up the Zarqawi memo, attempting to foster a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, to provoke a wider uprising by the Sunnis against both the occupying forces and the Shia majority.
Though he follows a similar agenda to Osama bin Laden, the 37-year-old Zarqawi has always maintained his independence from the Saudi-born fugitive.
Zarqawi's role in Europe first emerged through German investigations after the 11 September attacks. The authorities there had concentrated on rounding up all those connected with the 'Hamburg cell', who had led the attacks on New York and Washington.
Soon, however, they came across a group known as 'al-Tauhid' (the Unitarians), which posed as grave a threat. Al-Tauhid were loyal to Zarqawi; indeed, many of their key personnel had trained in his camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
According to an intelligence dossier compiled last year by German criminal intelligence, a dozen senior al-Tauhid figures were operating in Germany. Most were involved in the provision of false passports or spent their time raising and transferring funds to fighters in the Middle East.
But others, many still at large, were involved in plotting bomb attacks against Jewish targets in Western Europe. At least one militant liaised with Albanian mafia gangs in a bid to obtain weapons, the dossier reveals. Only a handful of the individuals named in the document have been arrested.
Italian investigators have also discovered that Islamic militants in Milan are linked to Zarqawi's outfit. US intelligence officials are uncertain of where Zarqawi is, save for the suggestion that he 'somewhere in central Iraq'.
For the moment, the global police investigation is rooted in tangible details like this. The explosives used in the Madrid bomb that failed to detonate have already led police to the northern mining region of Asturias, and the arrest on Thursday of a Spanish worker thought to be of Moroccan origin. The man, who has not so far been named, is accused of passing the explosives to the bombers, possibly to one of the three men arrested on Thursday. He is thought to have stolen it in small amounts over an extended period.
His arrest throws the gravest doubt on security precautions intended prevent explosives falling into the wrong hands in a country that, even before 11 March, was already racked by Basque terrorism.
The stolen Goma 2 Eco explosives in particular are meant to be controlled and registered by the Civil Guard at every stage of their journey from factory and back again (every surplus gramme is supposed to be returned).
The biggest unresolved question is whether it was mounted by the same terrorists who carried out last year's massacre in Casablanca. Last week, the Moroccan authorities sent Madrid a list of 24 names of suspected members of a group calling itself 'The Eternal Lions', who are suspected of having fled Morocco after the bombings to seek refuge in Europe. Four have since been arrested.
But if the Casablanca plotters also planned the Madrid bombings, it is clear they switched tactics dramatically. They used different mechanisms and explosives, and, most importantly, the Casablanca attacks were carried out by suicide bombers, whereas eyewitness accounts from survivors of the massacre in Madrid indicate the bombs were left behind by terrorists who got off the trains before they exploded.
That raises at least two questions for investigators. Could it mean their repression of al-Qaeda and its allies in Europe has been so effective that the terrorists now feel a need to conserve their human resources? Or is it simple pragmatism: why sacrifice a trained jihadi when a bomb can be detonated remotely?
If it is the latter, then the implications are chilling. Future bombers, like those who struck in Madrid, will be in a position to strike again. These are not the only questions floating in the air as Spanish investigators, supported by intelligence officers from several European countries including Britain, set about deciphering the plot.
As the sun set over the mountains of Afghanistan last night, American and British officials were reflecting on the biggest contact - or firefight - between their forces and the enemy since a new effort was launched last month to catch America's most wanted man, now with a new $50 million bounty on his head.
With Saddam Hussein captured in Iraq, specialist units were transferred from the Middle East. They included the newly formed Taskforce 121, a top secret mixed group of Delta Force commandos, Navy Seals and CIA intelligence experts, which, under the leadership of the legendary Rear-Admiral Bill McRaven, America's top special forces expert, were expected to get results.
They are being supported joined by British, Australian and French elite troops. A dozen Predator surveillance drones were also transferred from the Gulf and the powerful computer programs used to catch them were deployed.
Through February, all available intelligence was analysed, and the movements of top al-Qaeda figures charted as far as is possible. By March, a plan had been formulated.
Thousands of American infantry would sweep the border regions where Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri were thought to be located, while special forces teams secured possible escape routes with snipers and stood by to move in at a moment's notice to snatch key individuals.
The combined troops, numbering more than 10,000, would be the hammer. But, as they would be operating only in Afghanistan, everything depended on the Pakistanis securing their porous border and providing the anvil.
Islamabad, sensitive to the feelings of most Pakistanis, has not allowed the Americans to deploy troops on their territory.
However, President General Pervez Musharraf mobilised 70,000 paramilitary troops and sent them up into the border's badlands. The regular army would follow, often to places where no member of Pakistan's central government had ever been before.
Al-Zawahiri has been spotted by Predator drones close to Sher Warsak in recent months. Mullah Omar, the fugitive leader of the Taliban, may also be in the vicinity, though many believe he is in south-eastern Afghanistan.
The capture of any of these men would be a major achievement for those running the war on terror. However, the militants holed up in Sher Warsak, of whom several have been captured and were being interrogated last night, might just be low-level volunteers.
American special forces were also believed to be helping to penetrate the fort-like structures, helped by helicopter gunships intent on blasting out the occupants. By nightfall, some 100 suspected terrorists had been seized. Last night, they were being interrogated by intelligence agents linked to western special forces.
Snipers with nightsights trained their weapons on the surrounding hills; intelligence officers throughout Europe continued to probe the terror links in our towns and cities. Everyone was watching for shadows.
We're going to find out, sooner or later,
If Abdul will pray, to a glowing crater.
His arrest throws the gravest doubt on security precautions intended prevent explosives falling into the wrong hands in a country that, even before 11 March, was already racked by Basque terrorism. The stolen Goma 2 Eco explosives in particular are meant to be controlled and registered by the Civil Guard at every stage of their journey from factory and back again (every surplus gramme is supposed to be returned).
The critical mistake was letting a Muslim work in the mining field around high explosives, where he could steal it over time.
Something funny about demo: when used as designed, it disappears. Sometimes, it disappears into the trunks of cars. Or so I have heard.
One word, or a variation of it, provides a continuing thread throughout the article.
The word is "cleric".
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