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War spread terrorism { June 16 2002 }

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June 16, 2002
Qaeda's New Links Increase Threats From Global Sites

This article was reported and written by David Johnston, Don Van Natta Jr. and Judith Miller.

WASHINGTON, June 15 A group of midlevel operatives has assumed a more prominent role in Al Qaeda and is working in tandem with Middle Eastern extremists across the Islamic world, senior government officials say. They say the alliance, which extends from North Africa to Southeast Asia, now poses the most serious terrorist threat to the United States.

This new alliance of terrorists, though loosely knit, is as fully capable of planning and carrying out potent attacks on American targets as the more centralized network once led by Osama bin Laden, the officials said.

Classified investigations of the Qaeda threat now under way at the F.B.I. and C.I.A. have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States, the officials said. Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.

The ability of the loose network to achieve deadly results was displayed Friday in Karachi, Pakistan, when a car bomb exploded outside the American Consulate, killing 11 people and injuring 26. No Americans were believed to have been killed. Pakistani officials warned of a new militant coalition with Qaeda remnants.

Moreover, as Al Qaeda followers have fled Afghanistan, the old bin Laden hierarchy has been succeeded by tactical operatives with makeshift alliances with militant groups in countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria.

Since the Taliban defeat in Afghanistan, intelligence analysts say they have not regarded Al Qaeda as a spent force. But they have redefined estimates of its potency and reach, saying that the American-led war in Afghanistan badly disrupted the group's leadership and forced Mr. bin Laden and his top lieutenants to turn to new operational leaders.

"Al Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps," one official said of the bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan. "What we're seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come."

At least seven Qaeda operatives, whose important roles have not been previously disclosed, possess the managerial skill and authority to carry out attacks, officials said. They said the operatives have assumed a larger leadership role in place of the central command group, which was badly disrupted by the war in Afghanistan. Muhammad Atef, the military commander of Al Qaeda, was killed in American airstrikes last November; he was the most senior member of Al Qaeda to be killed during the fighting in Afghanistan.

One terrorism suspect who is said to personify the changing threat is Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, a Qaeda member from Kuwait who authorities have said was a central organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks. He has been sought by federal agents since the mid-1990's in a failed plot to blow up a dozen American airliners over the Pacific Ocean. The presence of someone of his standing in carrying out large-scale attacks makes intelligence officials worried. But they say they cannot tell where, how and when such attacks might come.

The six others include several Egyptian men who played a role in the bombing attack on two United States embassies in East Africa in August 1998. They also include Saif al-Adel, a Saudi who is believed to have a seat on Al Qaeda's consultative council, helping to approve attacks, including the embassy bombings.

To track the more dispersed remnants of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, has created two analytical units within the new counterterrorism analysis division to focus on what analysts call the "international jihad."

The current role of Al Qaeda's traditional leadership group and how much power its members have been forced to cede to their midlevel commanders is the subject of a debate among intelligence analysts about whether Mr. bin Laden is alive or dead.

As months go by without evidence of his whereabouts, several senior officials said this week that they were skeptical that he survived the American-led bombing in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan last December. But he has dropped from sight for long periods before and, lacking proof, most experts remain unconvinced that he is dead.

Several senior government officials said they had recently picked up a possible clue. In Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden surrounded himself with a phalanx of fanatically loyal security guards, a few of whom have surfaced in other countries in recent months. Some experts say that if Mr. bin Laden were alive, his retinue of guards would have remained by his side.

One official who has monitored Al Qaeda for years said some of the new central figures were drawn from the coalition that Mr. bin Laden assembled in late 1998 to help carry out his religious order to "kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, in any country where this is possible."

The International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, the umbrella group Mr. bin Laden founded in February 1998 in a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, included not only Al Qaeda, which had militants from many countries, but also two leading militant groups from Egypt, as well as Islamist groups from Algeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Some experts regard the formation of this alliance as Mr. bin Laden's most significant political achievement.

To some extent, Al Qaeda itself was always something of a hybrid that staged not only highly structured, top-down attacks but also relied on affiliated or like-minded militant groups that concocted and financed their own schemes, with Al Qaeda's blessing, to strike at American targets.

For example, Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian militant arrested in December 1999 trying to enter the United States from Canada to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport during the nation's millennium celebration, was seen by investigators as a freelancer who was part of this broader network from which Al Qaeda recruited. Though officials say he trained at a Qaeda camp in Pakistan and received some help in Canada from the group's operatives, they say he did not clear either his specific target or his plot with Al Qaeda's leadership.

Law enforcement officials said it remained unclear whether Al Qaeda directed more recent plots like the one ascribed to Jose Padilla, the American who is said to have met with Al Qaeda leaders for discussions about detonating a radioactive bomb in the United States. The officials said it was uncertain if Mr. Padilla, a former gang member, had the skills to build a bomb or acquire radiological material. Like Richard C. Reid, the Briton accused of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight in December by igniting explosives in his shoe, Mr. Padilla has emerged as a minor figure in sharp contrast to operatives like Mr. Muhammad, whom authorities regard as far more worrisome.

Although sworn members of Al Qaeda were estimated to number no more than 200 to 300 men, officials say that at its peak this broader Qaeda network operated about a dozen Afghan camps that trained as many as 5,000 militants, who in turn created cells in as many as 60 countries.

Foreign intelligence officials said that even if Al Qaeda's entire leadership were eliminated, Western targets would remain at risk from the broader network posed by radicalized militants from the two major branches of Islam the majority Sunni branch of the faith, and minority Shiites.

"The Sunni Muslim threat will remain for the short-to-medium term," said one foreign intelligence official. "A significant proportion of them are from Egypt, Algeria and Somalia," the official added.

Regrouping the Network
Clues on the Web to Remote Sites

Smiling as he lounged on a floor pad in what appeared to be a private home in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden seemed to be fully in control. Al Qaeda's leader, in a videotape released by American authorities in December, appeared intimately acquainted with the details of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

On the tape, Mr. bin Laden said he knew that the suicidal nature of the plot was withheld from some of "the brothers" until just before the hijackings. Six days before the attacks, Mr. bin Laden said he was aware of the precise day and time of the attacks. And he said he was aware there would be multiple aircraft strikes at targets inside the United States.

For intelligence analysts, the tape provided a critical piece of information. The video confirmed that Mr. bin Laden could communicate with his operational forces in the field. The depth of his knowledge indicated that he not only was an inspirational figure but also operated as a commander in chief who was responsible for the attacks.

But since December, when the American-led raid at Tora Bora in northeast Afghanistan sought to root out one of Al Qaeda's last strongholds, Mr. bin Laden, as intelligence analysts put it, has "gone dark." Intelligence agencies have heard nothing from him for six months. None of their sources, electronic or human, have provided any clear indication of his fate.

The fate of his terror network has been better understood. In recent months, Internet traffic among Al Qaeda followers indicates that elements of the network have regrouped some in remote sanctuaries in Pakistan, government officials said.

Some of Mr. bin Laden's midlevel commanders have turned to new Web sites and Internet communications as part of what officials have described as a concerted effort to reconstitute a terror network after the rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Internet activity indicates that some of Mr. bin Laden's followers may have fled to villages in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, along the Afghan border, a sometimes lawless region. American officials now believe that some of these villages in Baluchistan could be serving as new sanctuaries for Al Qaeda members.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he had seen indications that Al Qaeda followers had regrouped in the Kashmir region, an area disputed by Pakistan and India. Indian leaders have long accused Pakistan of harboring Islamic militants in Kashmir.

The New Leadership
Without a Chain, the Links Persist

With Al Qaeda's leadership in disarray, at least seven Qaeda members who have specialized in organization and tactics have assumed a more prominent role within the loose coalition of remaining terrorist groups, analysts and government officials said.

The officials said these Qaeda lieutenants have both the authority to initiate attacks and the ability to carry them out by providing cash and false documents to operatives.

"The operators who are still out there they are the ones that will conduct the next terrorist attack," a senior government official said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials say they now believe that Al Qaeda operatives like Mr. Muhammad are operating independently, out from under the control of the bin Laden chain of command, which may no longer exist as a working command structure as it did in Afghanistan.

Besides Mr. Muhammad, who was identified last week as being suspected of having a major operational role in the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials identified six other people whom they view as the planners of new attacks. Officials said they were scattered among several countries to regroup the activities of what is left of Al Qaeda and operations involving other terror groups.

"I'd sleep a lot better at night if these guys were off the street," a senior government official said.

According to government officials, these are the key leaders:

Saif al-Adel is said to sit on Al Qaeda's consultative council, the group that approves all terrorist operations, including the embassy bombings and the attack on the American warship Cole in October 2000 in Yemen. Mr. Adel, a Saudi, came to Al Qaeda as part of its affiliation with Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The United States government has been trying to find Mr. Adel since 1993, when he trained tribal fighters to attack the United Nations peacekeeping force in Somalia, an operation that killed 18 American soldiers.

Fazul Abdullah Muhammad is a native of the Comoros Islands, an impoverished archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Using the alias Haroun Fazul, Mr. Muhammad was Al Qaeda's chief operative in Kenya in the mid-1990's.

Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah is a 37-year-old Egyptian who was one of five fugitives indicted in the two American Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. Mr. Atwah was believed to have been in Afghanistan last fall, but American authorities said this week they do not know his current location.

Mustafa Muhammad Fadhil is an Egyptian who the authorities said was an important organizational operative in Al Qaeda. Mr. Fadhil is believed to have rented the house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where a half dozen conspirators made the car bomb that exploded outside the United States Embassy there, an attack that killed 11 people. Mr. Fadhil was also indicted in the embassy bombings case, but he has eluded capture. An American official this week said that Mr. Fadhil "was one of the most important people we are pursuing."

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian, has served since the early 1990's as a senior adviser to Mr. bin Laden, officials said. He was indicted for his alleged involvement in the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi. Cooperating witnesses have told the authorities that he conducted surveillance of the embassy three days before the bombing.

Fahid Muhammad Ally Msalam, 26, is another Qaeda suspect wanted for being directly involved in the bombing of the embassy in Nairobi. Mr. Msalam, a Kenyan, is said to be the Qaeda member who bought the Toyota truck that was used in the bombing. Prosecutors say he packed it with explosives and transported it to the embassy. His fingerprints were found on a magazine that was inside a Nike gym bag that also contained clothing with traces of TNT, according to testimony at the embassy bombing trial last year in Manhattan.

Senior government officials said that despite some Qaeda members who have been captured or killed, the organization still has the ability to initiate terrorist strikes.

One official said this about the remaining goal: "It's body bags. That's all that matters to them now."

Tracking the New Network
Shifting Alliances of Militant Groups

In May, not long after a suicide assault, also in Karachi, that killed 11 French citizens, Pakistani intelligence officials told President Pervez Musharraf that some of the country's most militant Islamic groups had joined forces to carry out fresh attacks against American targets. Pakistani officials said they believed that the attack on the American Consulate had been carried out by a new coalition of organizations drawn from the remnants of Pakistani militant groups that were disrupted during General Musharraf's crackdown earlier this year.

Officials emphasized that it was no longer possible simply to label all post-Sept. 11 plots as Al Qaeda inspired, because the new terror alliance has largely replaced the old bin Laden network. Senior government officials said this week that the Karachi bombing had been an example of the new broad-based coalition of various terrorist groups coming together for operations. "What many of these groups have in common, however, is that they had members go through the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan," one official said.

Investigators have also looked for clues of the remade terrorist landscape in both the attacks and the foiled plots since Sept. 11.

At least six plots have been disrupted since Sept. 11. The first, on Sept. 13, was a plot to destroy the United States Embassy in Paris. A French citizen of Algerian ancestry was arrested in Paris and told prosecutors that he was part of a Qaeda plot to blow up the embassy.

In Singapore last December, the police arrested what they described as 13 Qaeda members who were part of a cell that had prepared to blow up embassies of the United States, Israel, Britain and Australia.

Earlier this week, Moroccan authorities said they had broken up a Qaeda cell that had identified NATO ships in the Strait of Gibraltar as potential targets.

Two men, both tied to Al Qaeda, have been arrested since Sept. 11: Mr. Reid, the shoe-bomb suspect who was accused of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight on Dec. 22, and Mr. Padilla, the former Chicago gang member accused this week of beginning a plot to build and detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States.

Investigators say they see important similarities between Mr. Reid and Mr. Padilla. Neither man is the traditional Al Qaeda attacker Mr. Reid is British, while Mr. Padilla is American.

Although some government officials said Mr. Padilla's dirty bomb plot was only in its earliest stages, they said they were most struck that Al Qaeda would use someone like Mr. Padilla, whose American passport would allow him to enter the country with ease. "It's a very nice package for them to be able to move somebody he has the clean passport," one official said. "We have some strong leads and ideas of where his support was coming from."

In Mr. Padilla's case, investigators said the new leadership's resiliency illustrates a saying attributed by a senior official to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a deputy to Mr. bin Laden whose whereabouts are not known: "Zawahiri described Al Qaeda as a bunch of grapes even if you manage to pull off one grape, you still have a lot more grapes left."

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