PART 4: Tracking al-Qaeda in
By Pepe Escobar
Part 1: Get him before Sept 11
Part 2: What he's up to
Part 3: The sheikh against the Saudi
DUBAI and BRUSSELS -
Omar Abu Othman, alias Abu Qatada, a 41-year-old
Palestinian born in Jordan who later moved to London as
a political refugee, has been living in limbo for the
past few months somewhere in bleak northern England.
He may have disapproved of England soccer
captain David Beckham's haircut during the World Cup,
and he has probably learned to sing "Stop Crying Your
Heart Out" - the famous song by pop group Oasis - by
heart. The point is, Abu Qatada has plenty of time to
sing whatever he likes. Along with his family he is
being kept by British police in a safe house. He could
languish there forever. Under a new anti-terrorist law,
he can't be arrested or expelled from the United Kingdom
because only a select few know where he is.
Qatada is believed by European intelligence agencies to
be the spiritual leader and the key controller of
al-Qaeda operatives all over Europe. He is arguably the
biggest fish so far caught by a relentless 10-month-long
secret anti-terrorist investigation spanning the whole
of Western Europe. But there's no room for euphoria: the
al-Qaeda aquarium is not exactly drying up.
key countries in al-Qaeda's European operations are
Belgium, the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. They
compose a mesmerizing Thousand and One Terror Nights'
maze involving Tunisians in Belgium, Algerians in France
and assorted Arabs in "Londonistan" - where all the
leads seem to converge. During the 1990s, for a hardcore
Islamist, London was the place to go. Three names keep
popping everywhere: Essid Sami Ben Khemais, a Tunisian
tracked both in Spain and Italy; Tarek Maarufi, another
Tunisian arrested in Belgium; and the ubiquitous
spiritual leader Abu Qutada, connected to investigations
going on in London, Paris and Madrid.
intelligence operatives are notoriously evasive, for
obvious reasons, when commenting on their sketchy
progress. But the evidence so far shows that
investigations all over Europe have been much more
efficient than in the United States. Even with thousands
of agents in the field and an astronomic budget, the
Americans have not managed to capture a single
significant al-Qaeda operative - or to dismantle a
single dormant cell. Only two important suspects are
behind bars in the US at the moment: Frenchmen Zacarias
Moussaoui, the would-be 20th man on September 11; and
British shoe bomber Richard Reid, arrested last December
on a Paris-Miami flight. Both lived for many years in
Brussels was also positively identified
as a key al-Qaeda connection. No less than 10 presumed
al-Qaeda operatives - Belgians and foreigners - are in
jail in Belgium. The killing of the legendary Panjshir
Lion, the Northern Alliance's military commander Ahmad
Shah Masoud, at his headquarters in northern Afghanistan
on September 9, was entirely planned in Brussels.
Belgian police managed to capture three big
fish. Nizar Trabelsi, a former Tunisian footballer, is
one of the main suspects in an attempt to blow up the
American embassy in Paris. He was connected to an
already dismantled cell in Rotterdam, Holland. Mohammed
Sliti, a Tunisian carrying a Belgian passport, was
arrested in February in Iran and extradited to Belgium.
He lived in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when he was
allegedly training new recruits. He might have returned
to Europe with the express purpose of participating in
the planning of the Masoud operation.
Maarufi, a Tunisian carrying a Belgian passport, was
arrested last December, accused of "recruitment for a
foreign organization". He posed as a harmless Tunisian
opposition figure, but according to telephone
surveillance by Italian anti-terrorist police he was
deeply involved in recruiting new al-Qaeda members.
Maarufi allegedly was the key recruiter of one of
Masoud's killers - Abdesatar Dhaman, another Tunisian
who had lived in Belgium for 14 years, and who also
carried a Belgian passport. For the carefully-planned
and strategically crucial Masoud killing, Dhaman and one
more Tunisian, Bouraoui Al-Ouaer, disguised themselves
as journalists - a cameraman and reporter crew.
Al-Ouaer, the "cameraman", detonated a dynamite belt he
was carrying and died alongside Masoud on the spot.
Dhaman was killed by Masoud's bodyguards a few minutes
later as he tried to flee.
Yaser Al-Siri, an
Egyptian, was arrested in the UK last October, accused
of providing a letter of recommendation for Masoud's
killers. But British police have managed overall to
accurately pinpoint only two people as al-Qaeda members.
No one is in jail with a direct link to September 11.
There have been more than 80 arrests in the past 10
months, but the absolute majority of the suspects have
been released, or released on bail, while a few have
been transferred to Immigration because they provided
false information to be granted visas. British police
are confident that no al-Qaeda cells operate in the
country - although they estimate that there may be about
100 resident al-Qaeda militants.
Lofti Raisi, an
Algerian pilot, was arrested in the UK on September 21,
accused by the Americans of being the flight instructor
of some of the kamikaze bombers. But there was no proof
and he was released on bail. Two more Algerians, Bagdad
Meziane and Brahim Benmerzouga, were also arrested last
September, and they are still being investigated.
Beziane is accused of having a "leading role inside
al-Qaeda". Italian anti-terrorist police unveiled an
additional network based in the UK and allegedly
controlled by another Tunisian, Sifallah Ben Hassine -
but he managed to evade detection. Khalid Al-Fawaz, an
Egyptian, was arrested in 1998, accused of being none
other than the leader of al-Qaeda's British operations.
He may have been the man who ordered the bombing against
the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which
224 people died in August 1998. The US has been waiting
for his extradition for three years.
All of the
roads for the French legions who fought in Afghanistan
seem to go through London. The main character is
Franco-Algerian Djamel Beghal, the alleged leader of a
European network, accused of "association of bandits in
connection with a terrorist enterprise". In late 1997,
after a few years supporting Algerian Islamists, he
exchanged the suburbs of Paris for London - where he met
"spiritual leader" Abu Qutada. Beghal was arrested in
July 2001 at Dubai airport. Later he admitted that he
had been called to Afghanistan at the end of 2000 by the
powerful Abu Zubaida - Osama bin Laden's military
leader. Zubaida was finally arrested in April in
Faisalabad, Pakistan). Beghal's mission at the time was
to bomb the American embassy in Paris.
notorious Abu Qutada is described by French national
intelligence service as "an Islamic religious chief well
known for his implication on the envoy of volunteers to
Afghan training camps". Abu Qutada was in touch with all
of the Frenchmen who were sent to London. Beghal lived
with his wife in Leicester, where he was close to Abu
Hamza, a trusted associate of Abu Qutada. Beghal himself
might have recruited the alleged 20th man, Zacarias
Moussaui, as well as shoe bomber Richard Reid - not to
mention Nizar Trabelsi, the former footballer later
arrested in Belgium and connected to the plot to bomb
the American embassy in Paris.
Italian police were in self-congratulatory mood: They
might have foiled an attempt to bomb the American
embassy in Rome. This week, the influential Milanese
daily Corriere Della Sera said that there may have been
other foiled al-Qaeda plots - including a bombing of the
Vatican and a bombing in Venice. Since September 11,
Italian police have made about 80 arrests, and almost
100 people remain under surveillance.
character here is Essid Sami Ben Khemais, alias "Saber",
a Tunisian who also pops up in Spanish investigations.
He is the alleged chief of a Milanese cell and possibly
the chief al-Qaeda recruiter in Italy. Abdel Hafed, an
Algerian, Yassine Checkouri, a Moroccan and Nabel
Bennatia, a Tunisian, were all interrogated in
connection with the two main centers of Islamic studies
in Milan. Hafed was directly connected with "Saber" and
also to Omar Chaabani, alias Abu Jaffa, who was supposed
to be close to bin Laden himself.
investigations, maximizing inter-European cooperation,
ascertained that Italy - as well as Spain - was not just
a stop-over for hardcore Islamists but a recruiting base
and training camp for the manufacturing of explosive
devices, with ramifications in the neighboring south of
France. Spain - through investigations led for many
years by media star judge Baltazar Garzon - positively
established that it had become a logistical base for a
myriad terrorist groups, not only al-Qaeda.
November, the Spanish managed to dismantle cells in
Madrid and Granada, created between 1994 and 1995, which
were apparently important financial sources for
al-Qaeda. The cells were involved in a credit card scam.
The alleged leader was Imad Barakat Yarbas, alias Abu
Dahdah, a Syrian carrying a Spanish passport. The
Spanish have not managed to prove a direct connection
between Abu Dahdah and September 11, but they place a
lot of weight on some telephone conversations between
Abu Dahdah and a certain "Shakur", a man very close to
Algerian Mohammed Bensakria, an alleged bin Laden
The Spanish certainly established that
Abu Dahdah travelled a lot, and that his phone number
was found in a notebook belonging to Said Bahadji, an
aspiring pilot who shared a flat in Hamburg with
Mohammed Atta, the chief September 11 pilot. Abu Dahdah
also met many times with the ubiquitous Abu Qutada in
The Spanish are still trying to connect
the dots on dozens of arrests - but the conclusions are
already the same as in Italy: Spain was and probably
remains a crucial node in the Islamist galaxy. "Saber"
was practically on a shuttle between Italy and Spain.
The parallels with Atta's travels are evident. Atta came
from Miami on July 8, stayed close to Senasa - the only
school teaching Boeing 757 flight simulation in the
country (Iberia's is not open to the public), and
returned to Miami on July 17.
It is well known
that Atta and two other pilots - Marwan Al-Shehhi and
Ziad Al-Jarrah - lived in Hamburg and studied at the
local university in the months preceding September 11.
But at the moment in Germany only one person is in jail
connected to al-Qaeda. He is Munir Al-Motasadek, a
Moroccan, suspected of being in close contact with the
other former Hamburg residents. He allegedly managed a
bank account opened in the name of Al-Shehhi, which was
bulging just before September 11.
have issued three international arrest warrants
concerning other people linked to the Hamburg cell: two
of the people cited, Zakaria Essabar, a Moroccan, and
Hamzi Binalchib, a Yemenite, shared a flat with Mohammed
Atta. In August 2000, Binalchib tried, with no success,
to get a US visa so that he could take a pilot training
course at the Florida flight training center. He was
recognized by European investigators in a videotape
found in Afghanistan by the CIA.
al-Qaeda European connection reveals itself to be a
mind-boggling labyrinth, and August Hanning, chief of
the German intelligence service, sums up the current
situation, "We still don't know exactly how the
structures work in Europe, how much they were damaged,
or if they were dismantled. We still have a lot of work
There are not many certainties in this
business. Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan swears in
public that Saudi Arabia "is not a target for al-Qaeda",
but he is nevertheless holding seven al-Qaeda suspects,
six Saudis and a Sudanese. European intelligence sources
are convinced that al-Qaeda's Pakistani operation is
thriving - with help from crucial Inter-Services
Intelligence sectors, tribal leaders and wealthy,
extremely discreet Saudi and Pakistani donors. Suspected
"dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, alias Abdullah al-Muhajir,
an American citizen, took a bomb-making course in an
al-Qaeda safe house in Lahore and met key al-Qaeda
operatives in Karachi last March. In America, where the
FBI has been notoriously ineffective, the White House is
forced to admit on the record that the country is as
vulnerable now as it was on the morning of September 11.
Exactly one year ago, from July 4 to July 14,
Osama bin Laden was undergoing medical treatment at the
American Hospital in Dubai. He arrived by plane from
Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan (daily flights either
with PIA or Emirates Airlines). He met many wealthy
Saudi princes and businessmen. He was also visited by
the local CIA chief. He could have been arrested on the
spot - and there would be no excuses for a war against
terrorism. He was not arrested. The rest, of course, is
history - with an al-Qaeda hand in the screenplay.
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