Central Asia

Bin Laden's terror wave 2
By Marc Erikson

Reports - or call it hopeful assumptions - of his demise were exaggerated. Osama bin Laden is alive and proving it. The attack on the French supertanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen on October 6, the Bali bombing on October 12, and the Moscow theater hostage drama show all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda coordination, optimization of the organization's remaining capabilities, and characteristic striving for symbolic impact. Add to that Israeli intelligence sources' claims that bin Laden, his operations chief Ayman Zawahiri, and several hundred hardcore followers since the end of September are back and safe in bin Laden's ancestral territory in the border region of Yemen and Saudi Arabia (the most inhospitable area of the Arabian peninsula, the Rub al-Khali or Empty Quarter, the largest sand sea on the face of the earth), and the prospects for continuation of the present terror wave and others to follow are high.

The US Central Intelligence Agency, other Western and the Jordanian intelligence services all now warn of an impending large-scale "strategic" terrorist strike in the next month or two. They have concluded that the early October recorded threat messages of bin Laden and Zawahiri broadcast by Al Jazeera TV were in all likelihood genuine, that some form of al-Qaeda command center has been re-established, and that intercepted communications "chatter" and other intelligence information all point to a "big one" in the near future.

According to US sources, the bin Laden tape was played for captured al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who thought it to be authentic and a clear signal for impending attack. Interrogation of Ramzi Binalshibh, the Yemeni al-Qaeda man captured in Pakistan in mid-September shortly after giving a lengthy interview to Al Jazeera, broadly points in the same direction. Binalshibh, while in Germany through August 2001, was a key go-between for terror pilot Mohamed Atta and bin Laden's Afghanistan headquarters, and has bragged to US investigators that even with the losses that it has suffered, al-Qaeda was fully capable of launching new terror attacks. He also said that he had met bin Laden's oldest son Saad in March, and in his Karachi apartment three passports of wives and children of bin Laden were found, suggesting that the bin Laden clan was alive and well and on the move.

The October 6 attack on the Limburg conforms to the bin Laden/Zawahiri threat that al-Qaeda would be attacking the "economic lifeline" of the US and the West. The same can in principle be said for the Bali attack, killing mainly Australian tourists, with the added fact that bin Laden has long blamed Australia for assisting the independence of East Timor, severing it from the "sacred Muslim territory" of Indonesia. But in many ways, the Moscow hostage-taking by radical Chechens was the most ominous event, showing the continuing eminent al-Qaeda capability of striking in the heart of "enemy" territory.

Skeptical Western observers have long doubted and down-played Russian assertions of tight Chechen-al Qaeda links and instead have accused Russia of deliberate genocide in Chechnya. But such doubts are critically mistaken. True, in late 1994, when Jokar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, began fighting for an independent Chechnya, the struggle by the secular general and his cohorts had more of the attributes of an independence fight than an Islamic rebellion with global Islamist terrorist connections. But that changed rapidly after Dudayev's death at the hand of Russian troops. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda saw the opportunity of creating "one Muslim nation on the Caucasus" under Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalist rule. Money started flowing to the tune of several millions of dollars per month to Amir al-Khattab (aka Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem), a Saudi-born commander and close associate of bin Laden's since 1987 when he joined the mujahideen fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Khattab, after the outbreak of the second Chechen war in 1999, aligned ever more closely with the most radical Chechen elements around Shamil Basayev and Arbi Barayev, sidelining more moderate Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. Not only did significant funds and guns flow from al-Qaeda to Khattab; Chechens also received training in Afghanistan and an Islamic "learning center" preaching strict Wahhabism (and at one point counting 1,000 recruits to the Islamic jihad cause) was established in Chechnya.

Arbi Barayev, as much of a gangster as an Islamic fighter, was responsible in 1998 for the capture and beheading of three British subjects and one New Zealand telecommunications engineer. After being killed by Russian special forces in June 2001, his nephew, Mosvar Barayev, the Moscow hostage taker, took over and - with Khattab's help - built a more formidable terrorist outfit, the "Special Purpose Islamic Regiment", than his uncle would have dreamt of.

Commander Khattab met his death in March of this year, most likely poisoned by a Russian special ops team. For Movsar Barayev, the time for a spectacular action had come. Prior to the Moscow attack, he and some followers video-taped messages for Al Jazeera, women fighters were dressed up Palestinian suicide bomber style, the location chosen for the terrorist attack was - most pointedly - a Moscow theater showing a celebrated highly patriotic musical. The signals and handwriting of an al-Qaeda coordinated action message could not have been clearer. (Note also that this past week, Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan who was Mohamed Atta's moneyman, told a German court that initially it had been planned that Atta join Khattab in Chechnya; similarly, Zaccharias Moussaoui has told French intelligence that his original mission was to recruit European Muslims for the Chechnya jihad, which thus obviously has loomed large on the al-Qaeda priorities list.)

Movsar Barayev is dead. Those of his "regiment" who didn't die with him are likely holed up in the Pankisi Gorge on the Chechnya-Georgia border to which thousands of Chechen terrorists have retreated - and been targeted, among others, by US special forces in Georgia since earlier this year. Movsar Barayev's action never had a chance of forcing Russian troops out of Chechnya. It was a symbolic, suicidal al-Qaeda-style act - and a portent of things to come.

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Oct 29, 2002


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