Skip to comments.Inside Al-Qaeda: a window into the world of militant Islam and the Afghani alumni
Posted on 10/29/2001 9:05:30 AM PST by Sabertooth
The breeding grounds of militant Islamic terrorism span a host of different environments from the Afghan battlefields of the 1980s to places much closer to home. Richard Engel charts the careers of some of Bin Laden's converts and co-conspirators, offering an insight into Al-Qaeda's inner workings.
Sitting on a rooftop in a poor Cairo neighbourhood, 38-year-old Ibrahim recalled when he first met Osama bin Laden. It was 1983 and Ibrahim was one of the leaders of the Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), one of Egypt's two main Islamic militant organizations centred largely in southern Egypt around the town of Assiout.
"I was one of the emirs (commanders) of the Gamaa Islamiya in southern Egypt at the time in Assiout. I was at the university of Assiout, the heart of the Islamic activism," said Ibrahim, who asked not to be further identified. Ibrahim had spent several months at one of Bin Laden's guerrilla training camps in Sudan learning how to use Kalashnikov assault rifles and other light weapons.
Now that his training was complete, it was time for Ibrahim to meet his benefactor, Bin Laden. He travelled to the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, with a group of Islamic activists, most of them fellow university students.
"We met Osama ibn bin Laden on an Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia," said Ibrahim, using the traditional Islamic form of the Saudi exile's name. "He was a devoted young man who, like any young man, loved his religion. Then he changed and wanted there to be Islamic movements all over the world, and he fled Saudi Arabia and they stripped him of his citizenship." In a rare move, the Saudi government revoked Bin Laden's nationality in April 1994, despite the prominence of his wealthy family. His family, originally from the southern Yemeni province of Hadhramaut, also publicly disavowed him.
Ibrahim says he remembers bin Laden as both polite and well educated. Bin Laden talked a lot, Ibrahim says, and although he was prosperous, he dressed humbly and kept the company of people with no money.
"Osama bin Laden would help any Islamic group, in Sudan, in any Arab country. God blessed him with money, so he gave to Islamic groups," said Ibrahim.
As Ibrahim and the other students were leaving Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden gave him a bag stuffed with Egyptian currency. Ibrahim would not say how much, but it was clear that the idea was to use it to try to make Egypt an Islamic regime. He wanted to set up a military camp in the hills near Assiout, Ibrahim says. That's when Ibrahim lost his nerve.
"I saw my friends being arrested and being tortured and I didn't want to end up like them. So I made a plea bargain with the police and turned the money over to them," he said. Ibrahim served only one year in prison for his activities with the Gamaa Islamiya. He continues to be monitored by the Egyptian security authorities.
Ibrahim's story is typical of how Bin Laden has tried to align with local militant groups with country-specific grievances to increase his reach and influence. Bin Laden's methods and connections with local militant cells have expanded and become more sophisticated over the years, as exemplified by the case of confessed Jordanian militant Raed Hijazi.
Thirty-two-year-old Hijazi, a former Boston taxi driver and a US citizen, is on trial in Jordan for plotting to blow up a fully booked, 400-room Jordanian hotel and two Christian tourist sites on the border with Israel on the eve of the millennium in December 1999. He faces the death penalty and prosecutors say the Jordanian militant cell Hijazi helped create worked in co-ordination with bin Laden. Hijazi and other members of the Jordan militant group have confessed to many of the prosecution's accusations, but Hijazi's lawyers say he gave information under torture.
Speaking outside the state security court in Amman where Hijazi is being re-tried - he was already sentenced to death in absentia - his father Mohammed says his son is innocent. "No, he has no relation with Bin Laden at all. First of all he is poor. He has no funds. He lives on very little money and his apartment is a very little apartment near Amman. If you belong to Bin Laden you have to have some money," said
Mohammed, an engineer of Palestinian origin.
Born in San Jose, California, to relative privilege, Raed Hijazi grew up travelling between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In 1986, he enrolled in California State University in Sacramento to study business administration, according to his father. Prosecutors say it was in the United States that he got his first taste of radical Islamic teaching.
A Fijian cleric at a Muslim prayer group near the university convinced Hijazi to travel to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen (Islamic fighters), who had been battling the Soviet Union since 1979. In addition to learning to use mortars and small arms in Afghanistan, Hijazi also formed alliances he would later allegedly use to build his own Jordanian terror cell, according to prosecutors. Hijazi was especially adept with mortars and earned the noms de guerre 'Abu Ahmed the
Mortarman' and 'Abu Ahmed the American'.
After the beleaguered Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan following a decade of fighting, many mujahideen became convinced that a force of devoted Muslim believers could defeat any army, even one belonging to a superpower like the Soviet Union. Some mujahideen made it their goal to bring their holy war from the mountains of Afghanistan to their home countries.
The Afghan alumni
While not all saw combat, some 5,000 Saudis, 3,000 Yemenis, 2,800 Algerians, 2,000 Egyptians, 400 Tunisians, 350 Iraqis, 200 Libyans and dozens of Jordanians served alongside the Afghani mujahideen in the war. Between 1,000 and 1,500 of them returned to Algeria and formed the backbone of the Islamic radicals who are continuing to fight against the government in what has been a nine-year civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Those who returned to Egypt became valued members of the Gamaa Islamiya and the Gihad group, but their success was severely limited by arrest campaigns and several mass trials in the 1990s under the title of 'the returnees from Afghanistan'. Some Egyptians, who saw that they would be imprisoned if they returned home, remained in Afghanistan or took refuge wherever they could. US authorities have said that as many as 200 Afghan alumni settled in the New York/New Jersey area, some of them congregating around the New Jersey mosque where Omar Abdel Rahman preached.
Largely at the request of Egypt and Algeria, Pakistan has cracked down on its Afghan veterans. Some so-called 'Afghani Arabs' also headed to Asia and joined up in the Philippines with the Abu Sayyaf group - named for a famous Afghan mujahid. Other Afghani Arabs continued to fight the Russians in Tajikistan while still others continued to participate in other conflicts where Muslims were involved, mainly participating in the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya.
Raed Hijazi was one of the Jordanian Afghan returnees who wanted to bring his battle home, according to the prosecution. In 1996, Hijazi met Hader Abu Hoshar, a fellow Afghan veteran who was also of Palestinian origin. Abu Hoshar was a longtime enemy of Jordan and, according to statements given to the court, it was during this meeting at a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria that the plot to carryout a massive attack against foreigners in Jordan was born.
After the plot was set, Hijazi moved back to the United States and worked for the Boston Cab Company. According to prosecutors, he used the job to send some $13,000 to his growing Jordanian terror cell. The group also raised money by selling false documents.
US federal investigators are currently examining a possible link between Hijazi and two of the suspected hijackers who boarded planes in Boston on 11 September and hijacked them for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Investigations say Hijazi is linked to suspects Ahmed Alghamdi and Satam al-Suqami. If proven, it would be a concrete link between the attacks against the United States and Bin Laden.
Jordanian court officials say Hijazi's cell contacted bin Laden's group Al-Qaeda ('The Base') in 1998, asking for help in explosives training. Through a key Al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Zubayida, Bin Laden's group arranged for four people, including Hijazi, to travel through Turkey to a training camp in Afghanistan. Hijazi, prosecutors say, learned to use explosives and remote-controlled triggering devices there.
Abu Zubayida is one of the men Washington has listed as wanted after the terror attacks in New York and Washington. He is believed to function as Al-Qaeda's foreign minister, setting up connections and maintaining relations with Islamic militant cells around the world.
By December 1999, Hijazi's Jordanian cell - now in co-operation with Al-Qaeda, which helped approve targets and coordinate timing - had stockpiled enough nitric and sulphuric acid to make a bomb equivalent to 16-tons of TNT. Jordanian police, who foiled the millennium attack, found the chemicals stockpiled in plastic barrels in a pit dug underneath a house outside of Jordan. A Jordanian intelligence official testifying against Hijazi said that authorities only learned by accident of the terror plot just weeks before it was set to take place.
Western diplomats have said the failed Jordanian plot is a blueprint of how Bin Laden currently operates, using a loosely tied network of local militant groups that operate with his blessing and support, but which cannot be easily traced directly back to him. It is also this loose structure that makes it so difficult for intelligence and police agencies to disrupt the network.
A former Egyptian militant interviewed described the structure of radical Islamic groups as having been modelled after "a bunch of grapes". "Each group operates independently with its members not knowing who the others are. That way, if one member of the group is plucked off by police, the others remain unaffected," he said.
While there were many heroes and martyrs in the Afghan war, which was supported by US intelligence as part of its battle against communism, many of the mujahideen rallied around three main people: charismatic Saudi financier Osama bin Laden, blind cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and intelligent technocrat Dr Ayman al-Zawahari.
Egyptian-born Sheih Omar Abdel Rahman is currently serving a life sentence in a Minnesota prison after being convicted of conspiring with a group of his followers to destroy the World Trade Center and New York City bridges and tunnels in 1993.
Abdel Rahman's son, Abdullah, says there are both similarities and differences between Bin Laden and his father, the blind imam of Muslim guerrillas. "Sheikh Omar and Osama bin Laden are both Muslims and involved in the Afghani cause and followed the path of the mujahideen in Afghanistan," said Abdullah, who is studying like his father at Cairo's al-Azhar university, the world's oldest centre of Muslim teaching. "Osama bin Laden also donated much of his money to the
Afghani cause. The differences between the two are in the level of religious study. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is a man who all of his life was dedicated to Islamic study. He was a graduate of al-Azhar University and also holds a doctorate, which he received with highest honours in Koranic studies. He is an Islamic cleric able to issue fatwas (Islamic rulings) saying what is a sin and what is a blessing. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden's education was in engineering and he is a military person with expertise in military training," said Abdullah.
Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman continues to be revered by radical Muslims around the world who view him as their spiritual leader. Both Bin Laden and al-Zawahari, who is now his deputy, have vowed to take revenge against the United States if Abdel Rahman, a diabetic, dies while in a US jail.
Ayman al-Zawahari, 50, has more experience in radical Islamic politics than even Bin Laden. Interpol has listed al-Zawahari among its most wanted men. He is described by Western officials as Bin Laden's right-hand man and heir apparent to his organisation. Hailing from a long line of prominent politicians, doctors and religious leaders, his full name is Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahari, although he has used the code names Abu Mohammed and Abu Fatima.
A surgeon, al-Zawahari has been described as a private, intelligent and vindictive person. "He was first arrested in 1966 when he was just 15 years old for belonging to the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest radical Islamic group. During the 1970s, al-Zawahari remained involved with militant Islamic organisations and emerged as a leader of Egypt's Gihad group, which, in conjunction with the Gamaa Islamiya, carried out the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
After Sadat's murder, al-Zawahari was arrested, but police were never able to tie him directly to the assassination. Instead, al-Zawahari was sentenced to three years in prison on a weapons charge. A former friend suggests that al-Zawahari was set up by an enemy who threw an assault rifle into the garden of his family's villa in the affluent Maadi district of Cairo. It was during his incarceration, says the friend, that al-Zawahari snapped, the torture he was subjected to in prison sending him over the edge.
After his release from prison in 1984, al-Zawahari left Egypt for good. Mamoun Hodeibi, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, says many members of his organisation went to Afghanistan. "Some of them went there to be doctors. Others worked for charities and Islamic societies," said Hodeibi at the Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo office.
Al-Zawahari was one of these and supported the mujahideen's medical personnel. After the war, al-Zawahari moved to Europe, residing in Switzerland and Denmark, according to Egyptian security officials. Al-Zawahri supposedly carries Egyptian, French, Swiss and Dutch passports, although Switzerland denies he was ever issued a Swiss passport. Egyptian officials say his French and Swiss passports are under the name Amin Othman and that his Dutch passport, number 513116, is in the name Sami Mahmoud.
By the 1990s, al-Zawahari had emerged as the leader of the military wing of the Egyptian Gihad group, known as the Vanguards of Conquest. In the mid-1990s, he returned to Afghanistan to join forces with Bin Laden: a move that caused a rift in his Gihad group.
Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher of Islamic militant groups at Egypt's al-Ahram centre for strategic studies, says al-Zawahari and Bin Laden have become very close since the announcement in 1998 of the formation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Other key members of the front are Egyptians Mustafa Hamza, 43, and Rifie Ahmed Taha, 47, aa well as Mohammed Islambouli, 46, the brother of Khaled Islambouli, Sadat's assassin. Egyptian intelligence officials say Mohammed Islambouli holds two Egyptian passports, a Qatari passport and an Algerian passport in the name Mahmoud Youssef.
"Ayman al-Zawahari from the beginning was as all the other ordinary Islamists," said Rashwan. "He had his own project to establish an Islamic state here in Egypt, but over the last three years, he has gone closer to the Osama bin Laden theory. It means to fight the enemies of Islam, the Americans and Israelis, but not to build an Islamic state."
Until two weeks ago, rhetoric from men like Ayman al-Zawahari about fighting the enemies of Islam wasn't taken as seriously as it is today. Now, Washington is presumably re-examining statements from al-Zawahari that it may previously have considered bluster. Two years ago, for example, his Gihad group said it had chemical and biological weapons that it intended to use against the United States and Israel.
Defining the terrorists
In 1998, the 22-member Arab League gave its approval to a pan-Arab counter-terrorism treaty. Since then, the nations have in varying degrees been co-operating to extradite and crack down on militants in the Middle East. The Arab pact requires countries to deny support to groups that launch attacks on other nations in the region, share intelligence and extradite suspects. Extraditions between Arab states, which have been frequent but rarely made public, operate according to bilateral treaties: a condition that has been problematic because extradition accords do not exist between all of the Arab League's member nations. Opponents of the treaty also fear that undemocratic Arab governments could use anti-terrorism legislation to target political dissidents.
Since the 11 September attacks against the United States, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has renewed a call he has consistently made since the late 1990s to hold an international conference against terrorism. While the conference may be vital to close loopholes that allow militant groups to operate in Europe and the United States under the guise of human rights organisations or charities, the overall effectiveness of such a global conference is questionable.
As evidenced from statements made at the Arab League's interior and justice ministers' meetings that established the Arab wide anti-terrorism treaty, there is a deep desire in the Arab world for Israel to be sanctioned for what Arab nations consider its 'state terrorism' against the Palestinians. Furthermore, Arab states do not consider groups like the Lebanese Hizbollah or Palestinian Hamas to be terrorist groups, although they are listed as such by the US State Department. Therefore, one of the toughest steps in battling terrorists, like the vast array of Afghani alumni who operate across borders, may be coming to terms with the age-old question of who is a terrorist.
Lotta that going around.
Take two Crusades, and try to get some rest.
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"After the plot was set, Hijazi moved back to the United States and worked for the Boston Cab Company. According to prosecutors, he used the job to send some $13,000 to his growing Jordanian terror cell. The group also raised money by selling false documents.
"US federal investigators are currently examining a possible link between Hijazi and two of the suspected hijackers who boarded planes in Boston on 11 September and hijacked them for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Investigations say Hijazi is linked to suspects Ahmed Alghamdi and Satam al-Suqami. If proven, it would be a concrete link between the attacks against the United States and Bin Laden."
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