|September 30, 2001
Al Qaeda Is a Sprawling, Hard-to-Spot Web of Terrorists-in-Waiting
By BENJAMIN WEISER and TIM GOLDEN
In early 1995, at a remote camp in Afghanistan, a 21-year-old Tanzanian
man prepared to begin a new life as a soldier of Islam.
The young man, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, had just completed training in
weapons, explosives and religious studies. But rather than being sent off on
a mission by the radical group that had prepared him, Al Qaeda, Mr. Mohamed
was simply sent home
It was three more years before Mr. Mohamed got his call. Four months
after that, he helped bomb the United States Embassy in Dar es Salaam,
capital of Tanzania, one of two attacks in East Africa that day that killed
224 people and were attributed squarely to Al Qaeda and its founder, Osama
When Mr. Mohamed was captured in 1999, however, he told the F.B.I. that
he was not really sure what Al Qaeda was, and that he had learned only
through news reports who had sponsored his bombing. "KKM stated that he
had never met Osama bin Laden, had not heard him speak, and that he did not
know what Osama bin Laden looked like," the agents who debriefed him
As the United States prepares now to unleash war against Al Qaeda, its
greatest challenge may be to find the front lines.
In little more than a decade, Mr. bin Laden has created a sprawling,
global network of of men like Mr. Mohamed, terrorists-in-waiting whose
skills and determination are often more finely honed than their loyalties to
Al Qaeda or any of the groups to which it is allied.
The picture emerging from government documents, court transcripts and
interviews is of an underground army so scattered and self- sustaining that
even the elimination of Mr. bin Laden and his closest deputies might not
eradicate the threat they have created.
"Bin Laden is the leader of a movement that doesn't necessarily need
a leader to function and be effective," said Juliette N. Kayyem, a
terrorism expert at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and
a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism. "This is such
a diffuse structure that it can survive without him."
Like the suspected hijackers who attacked New York and the Pentagon on
Sept. 11, the militants of Al Qaeda's infantry may remain invisible for
months or even years. They may slip quietly back into their homelands to
await orders, or infiltrate into European cities or American suburbs as
"sleepers" before being mobilized to wage what they see as jihad,
or holy war.
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. bin Laden's soldiers had sometimes
confounded investigators' efforts to fit them into a coherent profile. They
may be middle-aged veterans of the Afghan war or younger men outraged by the
spread of Western culture. They may be well-educated or barely literate,
from prosperous families or poor villages. Some may have sworn an oath
directly to Mr. bin Laden; others, like Mr. Mohamed, may recognize only a
loose allegiance to Al Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base."
The government's understanding of the decentralized nature of Al Qaeda
dates at least to 1996, when Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a former aide to Mr. bin
Laden, began secretly to cooperate with the United States. Mr. Fadl was
among the first to join Mr. bin Laden in 1989, the year the Soviet Union
withdrew its troops from Afghanistan after a devastating 10- year war.
"Be ready for another step, because in Afghanistan, everything is
over," Mr. bin Laden exhorted his followers then, according to Mr.
Fadl's testimony in the New York trial of the 1998 embassy bombers.
Over the succeeding years, Mr. bin Laden redrew the map of infidels to
include Israel, the United States and its sometime Arab allies, Egypt and
According to Mr. Fadl's testimony, Al Qaeda sent trainers to Somalia and
Chechnya, where Muslim forces confronted American and Russian troops
respectively. It emerged after the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in
Nairobi that Al Qaeda operatives had scouted out that target years earlier
on orders from their leader.
By the time of Mr. Fadl's defection, the terrorist conspiracy had taken
on something resembling a corporate structure. Beneath the "emir,"
as he says Mr. bin Laden was called, sat a council of about a dozen advisers
called the shura. The council, based in Afghanistan, included such bin Laden
confederates as Muhammad Atef, an Egyptian who served as military commander,
and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon who leads Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a
terrorist group held responsible for the 1981 assassination of President
Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt.
The council, in turn, oversees committees responsible for crucial areas:
military operations, religious affairs, finances, and the production of
false travel and identity documents.
In his testimony, Mr. Fadl suggested that Al Qaeda had taken great
advantage of the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan to build up a
steady supply of arms and camps to train recruits from around the world.
Just how many soldiers have graduated from Mr. bin Laden's camps is a
matter of conjecture, with estimates in the thousands. But both American
intelligence officials and Mr. bin Laden's own operatives have indicated
that little more than a decade after its founding, Al Qaeda now can draw on
a wide and diverse network of trained operatives.
Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, who was convicted this summer of helping plan the
bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, is a case in point.
Born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents who now live in Jordan, Mr.
Odeh went to study architecture and engineering in the Philippines in 1986,
where he fell in with Islamic radicals who were proselytizing for the
struggle of Afghan Muslims, the mujahedeen, against the occupying Soviet
With $1,000 that his father had given him to complete his studies, Mr.
Odeh flew instead to Afghanistan in 1990 to join the fight. Although the
Soviets had just withdrawn, Mr. Odeh found that Al Qaeda was eagerly seeking
recruits for a new jihad against the West.
"It did not matter what nationality you were," Mr. Odeh later
told the F.B.I., according to a summary of his statement after his arrest in
the embassy bombing case. The F.B.I. statement adds, "Odeh was not
interested in joining any Palestinian groups, because its members took
orders from a chain of command and would often do things that were not
Islamically correct if ordered to do so."
After basic military training, Mr. Odeh went on to specialize in
explosives. He worked as a military instructor and a medic before deciding
to swear a formal oath, or "bayat," to Mr. bin Laden. But even
then, he was left mostly to his own devices for the next five years, moving
between Kenya and Somalia, training Muslim fighters and finally settling in
a small village in Kenya, where he married and had a son. Eventually, Mr.
Odeh joined the cell that was later activated for the embassy bombing in
Mr. Odeh's concern for religious purity was not necessarily the defining
characteristic of Al Qaeda's recruits. Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian drifter,
joined up after spending years as a common thief.
Mr. Ressam began cooperating with the United States government after he
was convicted last April in a plot to blow up Los Angeles International
Airport during millennial celebrations. He had worked in Algeria in a coffee
shop owned by his father. He sneaked into Corsica in 1992, and worked
picking oranges and grapes. Then, with a phony French passport, he moved to
Canada in 1994, he said, "to improve my life."
For the next four years, according to his testimony at the Manhattan
trial of a co-defendant this year, Mr. Ressam supported himself on welfare
checks and by stealing suitcases from tourists in Montreal hotels —
selling the passports on the black market and helping himself to the
traveler's checks and credit cards.
After hearing stories about Afghanistan from friends, Mr. Ressam decided
in 1998 to go there himself. His goal, he said, was to join a "jihad in
He spent nearly six months training in an Afghan camp with Muslims of
every stripe — Jordanians, Yemenis, Saudis, Swedes, Germans, French, Turks
and Chechens. He was then placed with five other Algerians in a cell led by
a contact who kept in touch with Al Qaeda operatives in Europe.
"We were all to meet in Canada," Mr. Ressam testified,
"and we were all to carry out operations of bank robberies and then get
the money to carry out an operation in America." Mr. Ressam said he
ultimately chose the Los Angeles airport because he had flown through it and
knew his way around it a bit.
Long before American investigators began to link Al Qaeda to suspected
Sept. 11 hijackers like Mohamed Atta, the son of a Cairo lawyer who was sent
to study in Germany, the group had also drawn children of privilege. One
such recruit was Mohamed Rashed Daoud al- 'Owhali, the son of a wealthy and
prominent Saudi family, not unlike Mr. bin Laden.
Mr. 'Owhali was born in England while his father was studying there and
began devouring stories about Islamic martyrs while still in his early
teens, he told the F.B.I. After two years in a religious university in
Riyadh, he, too, went to Afghanistan.
At the end of his initial training, he was granted an audience with Mr.
bin Laden, who advised him to get more. He then attended a "jihad war
camp," he said, where he learned about security, intelligence,
kidnapping and the hijacking of buses and planes.
Again he met with Mr. bin Laden, and again he was told to wait his turn.
"Take your time," he quoted Mr. bin Laden as saying. "Your
mission will come in time." Finally, Mr. 'Owhali was assigned to help
in the 1998 bombing of the embassy in Nairobi.
Mr. Odeh, the Jordanian who helped prepare that attack, distinguished for
the F.B.I. between two types of Al Qaeda operatives. A more sophisticated
group takes care of the planning — gathering intelligence, picking
targets, doing surveillance and making bombs. Those who actually carry out
the attack, he suggested, are more expendable.
"These people are good Muslims, but they are not experts in anything
that would have a long-term benefit to the rest of the group," he said.
Khalfan Mohamed appeared to be one of the throwaways. After helping to
bomb the American Embassy in his native Tanzania, he ended up in Cape Town,
South Africa, working at a fast-food joint called Burger World.
Yet if Mr. Mohamed's development as an operative of Al Qaeda was limited,
there was also a powerful simplicity to his ideas.
"KKM stated that his views about America began when he went to
training in Afghanistan," the F.B.I. agent who debriefed him wrote.
"KKM stated that America is a superpower with the ability to change the
world. KKM stated that only bombings will make America listen to them."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company