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Central Asia/Russia

Bin Laden uses Iraq to plot new attacks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In the light of Osama bin Laden's background and his international contacts and associations, there are strong indications that the world's most wanted terrorist has taken sanctuary in Iraq after fleeing Afghanistan via Iran. And given the enduring structure of his al-Qaeda network, it is most likely that he is already planning simultaneous terror attacks on United States interests in many parts of the world.

Despite exhaustive efforts in Afghanistan, including the crushing of the Taliban regime, the US has been unable to come even close to capturing the Saudi exile, whom Washington blames for masterminding the September 11 attacks on the US, as well as other acts of terrorism. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that US President George W Bush, in preparing to pursue America's war on terrorism beyond the campaign in Afghanistan, has accused Iraq, Iran and North Korea of being a part of an "axis of evil".

A close examination of militant outfits and religious groups clearly shows that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are two utterly different entities - in their leadership, in the nature of their followers and in their modus operandi.

The Taliban, who assumed power in Afghanistan in 1996, were characterized by deep introversion and the rigid application of a quirky strain of fundamentalist Islam, while al-Qaeda members have been noted for their sophisticated, extroverted and flexible approach in consolidating their international terror network since its inception in 1989, at which time they vowed to "oppose non-Islamic governments with force and violence".

Although the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the surface presented a picture of co-existence during bin Laden's stint as a "guest" of Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan, the fact is that it was not Mullah Omar's version of Islam that attracted bin Laden and his trusted sidekick, Egyptian surgeon Aimen al Zawhari. Rather, the canny al-Qaeda leaders had ulterior motives. According to sources, despite the extreme rivalry between the Taliban regime and Shi'ite-ruled Iran after Taliban soldiers killed hundreds of Hazara tribesmen belonging to the Shi'ite Muslim community, as well as a number of Iranian diplomats in the the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, al-Qaeda's wing outside of Afghanistan maintained good ties with Iranian leaders. In fact, outright conflict between Afghanistan and Iran was averted largely through the intervention of Lebanon-based members of al-Qaeda.

Similarly, bin Laden and the al-Qaeda have maintained close relations with Iraqi intelligence since the early 1990s. In 1994, Iraqi intelligence chief Farooq al-Hijazi visited the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where bin Laden had established a headquarters for al-Qaeda in 1991 to run businesses to provide it with income and support. Farooq and bin Laden met. Also present was Dr Hasan Turabi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood organization of Sudan. (Bin Laden married one of Turabi's nieces while he was in Sudan.)

This meeting was to prove helpful to both bin Laden and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In his ongoing fight to suppress Kurdish dissidents, Saddam needed help. This was provided by underground Islamic groups at the instigation of bin Laden. These groups later openly functioned to carry out relief work in Iraq.

Two of bin Laden's senior lieutenants, Abdullah Qasim and Mohammed Abu Islam, met with Saddam, at which time the Iraqi leader agreed to provide military training to Saudi al-Qaeda members and to equip them with arms and ammunition. One of the key goals of al-Qaeda by this time had become to drive US forces out of Saudi Arabia, where they had remained since the Gulf War of 1991.

After this verbal promise from Saddam, Saudi citizens were able to travel to Baghdad without passports, using special routes, to receive training in Iraq. Sources say that al Zawhari also visited Saddam and proposed the establishment of al-Qaeda offices in Iraq. The suggestion was accepted, with guarantees that bin Laden would never use his people to rouse the Iraqi masses against Saddam's rule. Subsequently, Iraq became the center of activity for Egyptian, Yemani and Saudi youths being trained the al-Qaeda way.

At the time that the US started bombing the Tora Bora mountain range in Afghanistan in its search for bin Laden late last year, Asia Times Online reported that the elusive leader had last been seen in Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, and that his most likely destination in the face of advancing US troops was Iran. It appears now that bin Laden did indeed travel to Iran, using the maze of smuggling routes over the porous border between the two countries, before moving on to Iraq and making contact with the well-established Al-Qaeda network in place there.

Here he is in contact with Abu Zubaida, his new chief of military operations, to coordinate a new wave of attacks on American interests. Abu Zubaida is the nom de guerre of an influential Palestinian with deep contacts within Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. He is said to be capable of manipulating events in the Middle East. Abu Zubaida, who posed as a honey salesman, was also responsible for running terror training camps in Afghanistan for recruits from around the world for al-Qaeda's declared jihad against the United States. He has been named in an official United Nations list of people with connections to bin Laden.

Investigations show that al-Qaeda took several years to organize the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, with preparations beginning in earnest after the US fired missiles on Afghanistan during Bill Clinton's presidency in retaliation for the 1998 bomb attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Any new attacks will likely also take a long time to plan, but this time Iraq and Iran are expected to play a pivotal role in any al-Qaeda adventures.

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