Biggest mismatch in military history

April 11 2002. About 10.20am. A coach full of German tourists is bumping down the road that leads to the ancient El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
Around the corner, in a narrow, cobbled lane that runs alongside the synagogue, an old Iveco tanker truck is waiting, driver inside.

At 10.28am a policeman approaches the truck, presumably to move it on.

There is a flash of light. A huge sheet of flame spreads out from the truck and over the nearby Germans. The boom is overwhelming. Twenty-one people die, in time.

Within minutes of the explosion there was only one thought on the minds of the survivors. Seven months to the day after the events in New York and Washington, a similar, albeit smaller, outrage had been visited on this tiny tourist haven. “It is al-Qaida! They have attacked here,’’ a Djerba Jew exclaimed.

Tunisian authorities were at first dismissive of the thought, claiming it was an accident and quickly painting over the scorch marks.

But that witness, voicing in those first horrific moments the ultimate fear that al-Qaida had again left its calling card, was right. “We can say with certainty that Djerba was al-Qaida,” Klaus Ulrich Kersten, head of the Bundeskriminalamt—the BKA, Germany’s equivalent of the FBI—finally admitted a fortnight ago.

The implications of that visceral recognition cannot be overstated. It makes Djerba the only successful attack outside Asia that can be directly linked to al-Qaida since Osama bin Laden’s men flew into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

A year on from September 11 the al-Qaida phenomenon continues to baffle. Nobody knows for certain where Bin Laden is hiding, nor even whether he is alive. Likewise, al-Qaida, an organisation of several thousand core members, vanished into the dust of the Afghan mountains, leaving behind a handful of videos and a lingering anxiety. Are Djerba and the other known plots of the past year the death throes of this once awesome transnational terrorist group? Or are they the opening volleys of a new onslaught?

Guardian reporters in 11 countries have talked to investigators, intelligence agents and experts on terrorism, as well as to the lawyers and relatives of al-Qaida operatives and their associates, in an attempt to answer those questions.

Predictably with an organisation as slippery as al-Qaida, there are few hard conclusions. But our findings do suggest that the network Bin Laden co-founded in 1988 is drawing on its key strengths—mobility, flexibility, secrecy, devotion and wealth—to recuperate and regroup. If anything, the very act of smashing al-Qaida’s base has served to scatter it even further afield, spreading its influence into corners of the world that once thought themselves immune.

Tunisia was one such corner. Its pro-Western regime had built a tourist industry behind heavy guard. Long after the blast at Djerba, Tunisian officials continued to deny the possibility of terrorism.

But, piece by piece, the real story of Djerba has come to light, starting with a fax that arrived in the Pakistan offices of two Arabic newspapers a few days after the explosion. It confirmed the identity of the driver as Nizar Nawar, a drifter and one-time smuggler.

The fax bore the seal of the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Sites, the same al-Qaida affiliate group that claimed responsibility for killing 224 people in the United States embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The Tanzania attack had also used a truck, though much bigger.

Hours before the explosion, Nawar phoned a number in Duisberg, Germany. The call, apparently recorded by the BKA, was to a Polish immigrant turned radical Muslim convert, Christian Ganczarski.

Ganczarski, who was arrested but released without charge, is known to have frequented fundamentalist circles in Pakistan. Among his radical acquaintances were several people close to Mohammed Atta, the Hamburg-based leader of the September 11 attacks. Ganczarski told the BKA he met Nawar last year in a Pakistani mosque, Germany’s Focus magazine has reported.

Kersten has confirmed that, three hours before the attack, Nawar also called a senior Bin Laden aide, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of helping mastermind the September 11 attacks. Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti, is believed to be operating from somewhere in Pakistan—where much of al-Qaida’s leadership has gone to ground.

The final, and perhaps most conclusive evidence that Djerba was an al-Qaida attack comes, unusually, from al-Qaida itself.

In May Abdel Azeem al-Mujahir, otherwise known as Ahmed Billal, a senior al-Qaida operative who was also linked to a failed plot this year to attack British and US warships in the Straits of Gibraltar, gave an interview from a secret location to an Arabic newspaper. He claimed Nawar as one of his own, and added: “The [Djerba] attack was carried out by brothers in the al-Qaida network.’‘

A month later, a video statement was released through the Arab TV station al-Jazeera that also claimed the attack “was carried out by the al-Qaida network’‘.

Escape from Tora Bora

Osama bin Laden and most of his top-ranking Arab associates were able to escape from Afghanistan last year because of a series of avoidable strategic blunders by United States military commanders, well-placed sources in Kabul have told The Guardian. Of the 3 000 to 4 000 “foreign militants” trapped in Afghanistan last November after the collapse of the Taliban, most got away.

Several high-profile military operations to capture them—most notably last December in the Tora Bora mountains—failed because Britain and the US sent in too few troops of their own. Instead, the US commander in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, relied too heavily on local anti-Taliban warlords who were more interested in making money than hunting enemies of the US.

American intelligence officials have privately described this strategy as the “gravest error of the war”.

The Guardian has learned that Bin Laden almost certainly escaped from Tora Bora in the first or second week of December last year—despite a huge US military operation to flush him out. According to reliable sources in Kabul, he fled at night in a convoy of “eight or nine’’ vehicles. Pakistani tribesman came into Afghanistan to collect his party of about 26 in exchange for a large sum.

US special forces coordinating the Tora Bora assault, where al-Qaida fighters had been sheltering in caves, closed a northern escape route, but fatefully left a snowy track to the south open. “The US operation was like a Swiss cheese with too many big holes,’’ another source in the new Afghan administration said.

By early this year virtually all of Bin Laden’s Arab fighters had vanished—escaping to Iran or Pakistan. Some headed directly east: over the mountains and into the tribal areas of Pakistan. Others went into Pakistan further south, via the seedy town of Spin Boldak. An Afghan who crossed near the town said avoiding border guards merely involved a “seven-hour stroll’‘.

The route to Iran also began in Spin Boldak but led west across the Baluchistan desert—a three-day journey by car on a route frequented by heroin smugglers—and then into Iran near Zahedan. “It’s easy to do. You cross the border at night and on foot. The other routes into Iran are more heavily guarded,” one Afghan, who entered Iran illegally, said.

The existence of the Iranian route was only officially recognised by Tehran last month, when it was revealed that 16 al-Qaida members had been arrested and expelled to Saudi Arabia. Until then, Iran had denied an al-Qaida presence.

Fleeing fighters faced innumerable obstacles, not least Afghanistan’s appallingly potholed and dusty roads. With the collapse of the Taliban regime, local warlords set up a series of roadblocks, often just a piece of string manned by guards with Kalashnikovs—but still only passable by paying a large bribe.

At night the mountains in eastern Afghanistan last December were freezing cold. Most al-Qaida fighters had fleecy jackets and thick trousers, but none had the sleeping bags or sophisticated thermal clothing of their American enemies.

The Arab fighters, though, did have the advantage of local knowledge and relative wealth. One Arab managed to get to Kandahar after paying a taxi driver $3 000 in cash. Others stranded near the town of Ghazni hired locals to guide them south across deserts where there are no roads.

The failure to intercept the fleeing militants marks a huge blow to the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

Legal documents lodged with the Appeals Court in Casablanca, Morocco, show that at least some of the escaping Arabs went armed with specific plans to attempt new attacks. The documents, which relate to the trial of three Saudis suspected of plotting to blow up British and US naval vessels in the Straits of Gibraltar, give an insight into the flight from Afghanistan from al-Qaida’s perspective.

As Bin Laden’s fighters came under heavy US bombing in the Afghan mountains in December he delivered a crucial message. The Taliban could no longer ensure the safety of al-Qaida fighters, he said, and it was now imperative that they disband. Fighters should make their way to Pakistan, Iran or other countries and from there return home to carry on the fight.

Spreading influence

The smashing of al-Qaida’s Afghan camps was like stamping on a nest of termites—it destroyed a base but sent its members scurrying in all directions to set up new colonies. The US military campaign proved highly successful in pounding al-Qaida’s old camps, but a startling failure at containing and capturing Bin Laden’s men.

So far only two of the al-Qaida leadership have been publicly accounted for: Mohammed Atef, the operations chief killed when a drone-launched missile destroyed his hideout near Kabul in November, and Abu Zubaydah, head of recruitment and training, seized in Pakistan.

In the five years that Bin Laden ran al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as many as 25 000 aspiring guerrillas and terrorists from more than 70 countries trained there. Al-Qaida watchers put the number of fully formed members, who made up the network’s inner core, at anything between 3 000 and 10 000. Of those, several hundred may have been killed in the Afghan bombing. Individual arrests of small groups of suspected members in Europe and Asia account for a few hundred. But that still leaves several thousand. Where are they?

Bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri and hundreds of al-Qaida’s elite—by far the largest and most important group—are thought to be in Pakistan’s tribal areas, on the Afghan border beyond the writ of the Islamabad government.

Witnesses claim to have seen Bin Laden in Shah-i-kot, an al-Qaida stronghold, in February. Some later reports placed him in Waziristan, Pakistan, but thereafter the trail has gone cold.

The CIA and German intelligence believe he has not strayed far from his former lair and in recent days US forces have focused their search on the caves and ravines of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

That is a conclusion, however, built more on logic than hard evidence. Analysts believe travelling further afield would only expose him to a higher risk of discovery.

Islamabad, initially anxious to play down the al-Qaida presence, now admits it openly. As many as 50 al-Qaida suspects, mostly Arabs, have been handed to the US in the past three months without appearing in court. Since US bombing began in Afghanistan last October, Pakistan has arrested 400 Taliban and al-Qaida suspects.

“People are harbouring al-Qaida for religious, ethnic and above all financial reasons,” a senior Pakistani official said.

An elaborate system of protection has emerged. Just after the Taliban collapse, al-Qaida operatives were paying up to 6 500 pounds a month to tribal leaders for shelter. Recently, however, these rents have been consolidated in one-off payments in return for guarantees that no harm will come to al-Qaida fighters seeking shelter.

“The tribal people are greedy people but once a guarantor is involved the issue of trust is settled. Their guests will never be betrayed,’’ said a Pakistani official from the area.

The code of silence has been reinforced by fear. Last month police found pamphlets circulating in the town of Wana that listed the names of 120 alleged Pakistani and Afghan informers. “We will kill all of them,” the pamphlet said.

Al-Qaida’s allies seem able to move freely in parts of northern Pakistan. Several senior Taliban commanders, some with close al-Qaida connections, are now living openly in Peshawar. In an interview with The Guardian, one Taliban commander warned that al-Qaida fighters hiding in Pakistan were ready to fight. “They have more sophisticated equipment than we ever had. If they feel they are cornered they will kill because they believe it is better to die for their cause,’’ he said.

Ten thousand Pakistani troops have been sent to track al-Qaida down, along with US soldiers and CIA agents. But a Pakistani official, who has spent many years in the area, said the sweep could be counterproductive. House searches, in particular, have caused widespread anger.

While Pakistan is certainly al-Qaida’s key hideout, a patchwork of evidence suggests that al-Qaida survivors have managed to find their way further afield. Attention has focused recently on Iraq, where the Islamist Ansar al-Islam group is fighting a guerrilla campaign against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls much of the country’s north-east. Ansar fighters trained in the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.

Interviews with Ansar captives confirm al-Qaida fugitives have arrived in the remote mountainous region that, because it is beyond the control of central government, is a perfect fit for al-Qaida’s needs.

There have also been Arab and US reports that “dozens” of al-Qaida fighters have settled in the Iranian cities of Mashhad and Zabol. Among them are thought to be the heads of al-Qaida’s military and ideological committees.

The spotlight is also beginning to swing east, for fear that Philippine and Indonesian insurgencies may be exploited by al-Qaida. In November a Spanish court investigating the network heard that up to 400 fighters had been sent to Indonesia for training. Philippine security sources believe dozens of al-Qaida members have used a training camp run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Fronts.

There are other tantalising clues as to where al-Qaida may be putting down new roots. US forces searching Mohammed Atef’s house came across a photograph that had been taken on the other side of the world—the “tri-border’’ region where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. It is home to an extensive, mainly Lebanese, community with a history of sympathy for the Shi’ite radical movement, Hizbullah.

For some analysts who point to contacts between Bin Laden and Hizbullah in the early 1990s, this is good reason to suspect that the tri-border region and Lebanon’s Beka’a valley, may emerge as strongholds.

It is likely the network’s global reach—already impressive before September 11—has been extended out of necessity by the war in Afghanistan. In the short term such dissipation is a sign of weakness, of al-Qaida’s lack of the thing that gave it its name: The Base. However, it may turn such fragmentation to its advantage.

“It’s more unpredictable now. It could launch an attack on Western workers or on a church. It could do anything at any time,” Vincent Cannistraro, the former CIA counter-terrorism chief, said. “In some respects we’re worse off.”

Funds still flow

Al-Qaida terrorist activities are lubricated by an intricate financial system that is more sophisticated and immune to penetration than anything the CIA or British counter-intelligence MI6 has ever seen. Investigators know that unless they break it, al-Qaida will remain a functioning proposition. They also know the task will not be easy.

Twelve days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, President George W Bush riposted with executive order 13244. It froze the assets of 27 terrorist organisations and individuals, prohibited transactions with groups linked to al-Qaida and banned donations to charities thought to be funnelling money to it. Banks or businesses outside the US that refused to comply were warned that they would be barred from “doing business with the US’‘.

The FBI boasts that since September 2001, 210 organisations, charities and individuals have had assets blocked in the US and $34,3-million has been seized. The agency says more than $77-million has also been blocked in 161 countries overseas, but has refused to say where.

Dazzling though those statistics may be, the truth is that the financial war on terrorism is anything but won. A report from the United Nation’s monitoring group on al-Qaida funding published last week found that the bulk of the asset freezing happened immediately after the US attacks. In the past eight months only $10-million in additional funds has been blocked.

Meanwhile, the network continues to make the most of its assets—estimated at anything from $30 to $300-million—around the world.

The next step?

No terrorist group has come close to the killing power unleashed on September 11. The deaths of about 3 000 people drove home Bin Laden’s central point: terrorism was not simply a means to an end. The more people killed the better.

“Al-Qaida is the world’s first terrorist campaign for universal jihad,” terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said. “It sees itself as the global spearhead or vanguard. It is only interested in attacks of such magnitude they will inspire Islamist terrorist groups everywhere.” It is that simple insight that drives the frantic search for Bin Laden and his men, and which underlies the most important question of all.

US intelligence failed to stop September 11 because it failed to match al-Qaida’s imagination. American spies did not see airliners as potential missiles. The CIA vowed not to repeat the mistake and even asked Hollywood scriptwriters to dream up spectacular plots, aware that al-Qaida has historically tried to make each of its major attacks more deadly than the last.

Many counter-terrorist experts are convinced that al-Qaida’s logical next step is the use of a weapon of mass destruction—chemical, biological or nuclear. Videos from Bin Laden’s collection, showing dogs being killed by poisonous gas or a nerve agent, were recently aired on CNN. Al-Qaida suspects in Pakistan and Afghanistan told interrogators they had experimented with botulinum and cyanide. In February Italian police arrested four Moroccans who had cyanide and maps of water pipes feeding the US embassy in Rome.

The poisoning of a city water supply worries Western agents, but what keeps them up at night is the thought of a nuclear device in al-Qaida hands. Bin Laden is known to have met sympathetic nuclear scientists from Pakistan, almost certainly with an eye to creating a “dirty bomb”: radioactive waste packed around a conventional explosive and designed to blast out a plume of lethal dust.

Such a bomb detonated in downtown Washington might not kill thousands, but would induce panic and could make a symbolic institution such as the White House uninhabitable for a generation.

Unlike the peripheral networks, al-Qaida’s core appears to have operated through a rigid chain of command, which also made it vulnerable to disruption.

“Al-Qaida always functioned on multi-operational levels, and the most spectacular operations had a high degree of command and control,” said terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman.

That is the good news. The hierarchical structure responsible for the really big operations has been badly damaged by the war in Afghanistan. Mohamed Atef, head of operations, is dead. Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are in hiding and the chief recruiter, Abu Zubaydah, who probably knew more than anyone about al-Qaida’s network of agents, is in custody.

There is, however, a chilling exception to this prognosis. Previous experience suggests al-Qaida had two or three big operations in the pipeline at any one time. When truck bombs were being driven at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole (off Yemen in 2 000 that killed 17 US sailors) and September 11 were being planned. These attacks have come at intervals of between one and two years, implying that another major operation, set in motion long before September 11, could be imminent.

Larry Johnson, a former deputy director for counter-terrorism at the State Department, is convinced that there are probably al-Qaida cells in the US, but argues that their threat could be diminishing: “Their skills are perishable. The passage of time counts against them.”

According to Cannistraro, some of the sleeper cells involved in planning a post-September 11 outrage inside the US were based in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. “We know there was a suicide squad of 19 to 20 people in the US that was probably lined up to do something. The location and presence of these people has been identified but they’ve scattered. They’ve gone to ground.”

Three weeks ago six men were indicted by a grand jury in the US on charges of supporting Islamist terrorist activities, including five who are accused of forming a sleeper cell in Detroit. Investigators believe the men were targeting Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas.

Whether or not a group will surface to etch another date into the world’s memory will depend on an extraordinary battle of wits between the US, with all its might, and al-Qaida, with its twisted passion and grit. Never in the field of conflict has there been such a mismatch. The most powerful military machine in history has been sent on a $20-billion manhunt for a band of bearded zealots, whose appearance, speech and general outlook would have been familiar a thousand years ago. Yet al-Qaida is undefeated.—(c) Guardian Newspapers 2002

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