Skip to comments.Breaking the Al-Qaeda code
Posted on 02/12/2005 7:42:35 PM PST by 1066AD
February 13, 2005
Breaking the Al-Qaeda code Christina Lamb, Charleston Terror database is secret weapon
SLEEPY Charleston, the South Carolina hometown of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, seems an unlikely place to be on the front line of the global war on terror.
Yet on the third floor of a glass office building overlooking the Cooper river is a locked room that is straight out of a futuristic thriller.
Inside, a series of control panels with flashing lights and whirring hard drives comprise the master computer of the worlds largest free-standing database of intelligence on Islamic terrorism. It could hold the key to dismantling Al-Qaeda.
Its the best database on Islamic terrorism in the world, said a senior counter-terrorism official at the FBI.
The database is the pivotal tool in what those involved say will be the biggest class action in history: a $1 trillion lawsuit on behalf of the families of 1,431 of the people killed on 9/11 and 1,325 of the injured.
More than 100 of the clients are British. Yet while investigators building up the database have received government help in 19 countries, from Afghanistan to Syria, they have had none in Britain, according to Ron Motley, the lawyer behind the action.
Weve had zero co-operation from the UK, said Motley, who works from an enormous yacht named Themis after the Greek goddess of justice. They just dont want to help their own citizens.
Among the millions of pages of documents collated elsewhere are the Jordanian intelligence records on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Americas most wanted man in Iraq; Bosnian intelligence files of the minutes of the meeting to form Al-Qaeda; German prosecution reports on the Hamburg cell that spawned many of the key players of the September 11 attacks; and Spanish documents that show links between 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid bombings.
There are also records from the Philippines on the failed 1995 Bojinka plot to blow up 12 American airliners over the Pacific, the forerunner of 9/11; Moroccan intelligence on the 2003 Casablanca bombings and Moroccan members of the Hamburg cell; Russian files on Chechnya; and the Swiss bank records of Osama Bin Laden.
I first got an idea of the scale of the operation last year when I ran into two Americans in the home of an Afghan warlord. The sunglasses and bulging briefcases made me think CIA. But it emerged that they were a retired FBI agent and a former special forces officer, working as investigators for Motley.
I was the first journalist to be granted access to the database. Down a series of oak-panelled corridors in Motleys law office is a darkened room where two database managers sit at laptops in front of a large screen. They showed me how they have adapted a British computer program called Analysts Notebook used by many law enforcement agencies to find links between some of Americas most wanted terrorists, well known Islamic charities and famous banks.
We typed in Abdelghani Mzoudi, one of the Moroccans from the Hamburg cell who, the German authorities believe, was involved in logistics for 9/11. We added account and the computer flashed up six accounts. We followed payments to his Citibank account in Düsseldorf and found that his fellow Moroccan, Zakariya Essabar, was the source of one of the transactions. Soon there was a web of bank transactions on screen, linking the two men.
Mzoudi was acquitted last year by a German court that said there was a significant possibility he knew nothing of the plot. German prosecutors are appealing.
One of the database managers demonstrated their party-piece: how they discovered who was behind the Madrid bombings. Running the names of those arrested through their database, they found the same names in documents from the German prosecutors.
The Spanish government was blaming it on Eta and we were able to show it was Al-Qaeda, because the same names had been lower league players in Hamburg, he said.
Jack Cordray, a lawyer involved in the case, has visited prosecutors, magistrates and police chiefs all over the world. He spent weeks with Judge Baltasar Garzon, Spains most famous investigator, and got 40,000 pages of documents transferred to the US courts.
From Madrid he went to Bosnia, Germany, Russia and on and on, picking up court transcripts, seized documents, financial records and wiretap evidence.
Cordray was astonished by a lack of intelligence-sharing. We found information in one country was not being passed to another so terrorists were easily able to move because evidence of their existence stopped at the border. Thus the members of the Hamburg cell could start all over again in Madrid because the Spanish government did not have the German records.
New information is coming in all the time, particularly on the Madrid-Hamburg nexus. The investigation discovered that the July 2001 meetings in Spain of the 9/11 hijackers included individuals who took part in the Madrid bombings.
We also discovered transfers from the Saudi ministry of interior directly to the Madrid cell, said Cordray. You are not telling me that money was for building mosques.
This allegation of Saudi financial support is fundamental to the class action. The case is based on the argument that the 9/11 hijackers could not have carried out the attacks without generous largely Saudi backing. It rests on the premise that those who finance terrorist organisations are liable for the damage they cause.
The CIA estimates Al-Qaedas annual running costs at $30m (£16m), raised almost entirely through donations. Tracking down the donors has been given low priority by government agencies, but many involved in the war on terror believe it is only in stopping the financing that the fight can be won.
The 205 defendants accused of financing Al-Qaeda include some of the biggest banks in the Middle East, wealthy Saudi individuals and corporations and several leading Islamic charities.
Motley alleges that members of the Saudi royal family contributed millions in protection money to Al-Qaeda after the Khobar Towers bombing in Dharan in 1996, in which 19 American airmen died, a charge the House of Saud denies.
He also asserts that, contrary to their claims, the Bin Laden family continued to support Osama after he was declared a terrorist and one of his brothers, Yeslam, had a joint bank account with him until 1997. Yeslam has denied having any contact with Osama in the past 20 years.
Given that the Saudi kingdom is an important US ally, Motleys charges are an embarrassment to Washington. But as those involved in the war on terror belatedly realise the importance of following the money trail, more and more officials are coming to Charleston.
Motley says he has spent $18m of his own money sending investigators round the globe, more than the $15m allocated to the 9/11 Commission into the attacks. He can afford it: his firm made more than $2 billion in a class action against the tobacco industry that was initally regarded as unwinnable and eventually immortalised in the Hollywood film, The Insider.
Motley took on the 9/11 case after he was approached by Deena Burnett, whose husband Thomas was on United flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers attacked the hijackers. She wanted answers that she did not believe the government would find.
On the basis of what he has discovered so far, Motley argues that the World Trade Center attacks were not only preventable, as the 9/11 Commission suggested, but also entirely predictable.
He said: I had never researched the foreseeability of someone hijacking an aeroplane and becoming a suicide bomber with the passengers as unwitting victims, but now its clear to me that there was a huge amount of evidence that should have forewarned the airlines and the government. Ive got stacks of information of prior incidents.
In 1994 the Algerian Islamic group, GIA, hijacked an Air France plane on Christmas Eve in Algiers and forced it to land in Marseilles, where it was refuelled far beyond necessity as it was only 170 miles from Paris. While refuelling was going on, the French intelligence got information that the intention was to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower and detonate it, so police stormed the plane. It was Christmas Eve, when Parisians gather around the tower, and they would have killed thousands.
There are literally 40 or 50 prior incidents of people hijacking planes with the intent of committing suicide.
It emerged last week that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received repeated warnings in the months before 9/11 about Al-Qaedas desire to attack airlines. A previously undisclosed report by the 9/11 Commission revealed the FAA had warned that if a terrorist wanted to hijack a plane to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, he would probably do so on American soil.
The case brought by bereaved families against the alleged financiers of 9/11 suffered a blow a year ago when a district court in Washington ruled that allegations against Saudi officials were not enough to warrant removing their sovereign immunity. In a further setback last month, a New York judge dismissed claims against a number of Saudi individuals and banks.
If a trial finally goes ahead, one of the key witnesses will be Niaz Khan, a British Pakistani whose story was reported by The Sunday Times last year. A waiter whose gambling debts led him to be sucked into Al-Qaeda, Khan was sent to hijacking school in Pakistan and then to America, where he was apparently intended to be part of the 9/11 attacks. He turned himself in to the FBI in April 2000 but was released after questioning and returned to Britain, where he remains a free man.
Niaz is extremely important to the case, said Motley. It will give a jury the opportunity to hear from a person who came to the US to take part in a hijacking and turned himself in. The failure of the British authorities to act on him when he was handed over is inexplicable.
If what he is doing seems like privatisation of intelligence gathering, Motley is defensive. Im not in the CIA business, Im in the business of winning my case, he said. Weve given the US government access to everything weve had that we believe is important to national security.
Defending the recruitment of former military officers and government agents, he said: They have access to people who wont talk to the US government because they are former Taliban and frightened of ending up in Guantanamo. And sometimes we just outbid the US government in getting people to sell things such as hard drives.
If that involves paying large sums to Taliban members, it seems Motley has no qualms. In this way, he acquired a rare list of senior Taliban officials complete with photographs, as well as the imprints of credit cards used by a top Al-Qaeda member.
His information-hunting has been so successful that the law firms library, the base of a small army of researchers, is packed with boxes of more than 1m pages of documents that await translation and inputting.
Help may be on the way, however. The FBI has now set up a department on terrorist financing. Anxious to get access to Motleys treasure trove of documents, a branch of the US government might start to partly fund the database, enabling some of the boxes in the library finally to be opened.
Finally, a plantiff's attorney for whom we can cheer.
Yeah, that was my thought. Loose lips...
But as those involved in the war on terror belatedly realise the importance of following the money trail, more and more officials are coming to Charleston.
This raised red flags with me, as Bush and this administration have said, shortly after 9/11, that going after the money trail was one of their high priorities. It was also one of the prime reasons given for the Patriot Act.
Another red flag is that this attorney was one of the key players in the tobacco lawsuit scam, where lawyers lobbied legislators to change centuries of civil law so that they could sue the tobacco companies - promising the legislators a cut of the action. That is exactly what happened, with current smokers paying the burden, not the tobacco companies.
This looks like another big scam in the making, and this article is greasing the skids.
Thanks. Maybe I was premature.
This is a case for those goldanged meddling kids at the Threat Matrix.
These really are the good guys. Motley is close to lawyer Harry Huge, a Charleston/DC big wig lawyer. Harry Huge is very honest, no BS, I know him. Got kicked out of a DC firm because he liked to take on clients who couldn't pay. He is as honest and ethical a lawyer as you're gonna find.
These lawyers made their big bucks, and they're southern gentlemen who have the testicular fortitude to do what's right.
I expect some big things to come from this 'private investigation.'
Maybe, maybe not. I suspect these guys will be suing the hell out of the FAA and other government agencies, as well as the airlines. But if they really to intend to let the dogs out on the Saudi royal family and some of the other Arab co-conspirators, then bully for them.
The tobacco scam was a scandal, but there are some hardnosed people who will do whatever it takes yet may develop a conscience. Evidently he has enough money to be very comfortable for the rest of his life, and this is a real challenge.
Moreover, there could be a lot of money in it if he collects a billion or two from the Saudis and similar terrorist supporters with oil money. I don't think he's looking for donations. I think he's willing to invest a few millions in hopes of doing some good and maybe getting another huge return on his money if he strikes gold.
The U.S. followed the money trail in the early days, but there was a lot of obstructionism from France and other European countries, if you can believe the reports. And the Saudis have simply refused to cooperate at all. This guy has the advantage that he can cut corners in ways the intelligence agencies may be afraid to do, and he can offend political sensibilities without fearing punishment.
It sounds extremely interesting to me. I presume he has the sense to guard himself and his operation well.
This is one of the first useful acts I have heard of from the plaintiff's bar in a long time. It sounds like they have done a great job of collating a lot of available information into useful form.
Doesn't this article give enough details to put this man and his operation in deadly danger from terrorists?
Why would they do that?
Thanks for posting this article.
This type of database is a crucial step in destroying the power of petrodollars.
Notice the first search concerned bank accounts. There is where our resources must go if we're ever to defeat terrorism.
It's not enough just to kill the existing terrorists - though that's essential - we must also defeat the funding mechanism.
There's an unlimited supply of idiots willing to throw away their lives for some loony Islamic ideology. All they require is a pile of money to hire them, compensate their families, and put the bomb in their hands.
Until we choke off the money, the killing won't stop.
One of the most surprising things about the war in Iraq and our response to 9/11 is apparently how little we've used the tremendous resource of Iraquis who fled here to esacpe Saddam. Each of these people who knew English should have, if possible, been recruited as a translator, given a pile of documents, a scanner, and a computer and put to work. If they're doing it here instead of in Iraq, they would be relatively safe and, as a group, would be a tremendous assist in the WOT.
There should be enough data here in the article(if accurate) to imperil not only the home office, but several key figures as well.
I bet it will be a while before anyone else from the media gets access.
So much for security...
The EU is too busy dictating how everyone should make pizza or embalm the dead to worry about sharing law enforcement information. And the bus drivers can't possibly keep their timetable if they have to stop to pick up passengers.
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