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"Al Qaeda's Western Recruits"


 
December 25, 2006 - January 1, 2007 issue

Al Qaeda's Western Recruits 
Along the ungoverned border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is
training would-be jihadists from the West to attack their home countries.
By Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau And Mark Hosenball
Newsweek Magazine


For the past year, a secret has been slowly spreading among Taliban
commanders in Afghanistan: a 12-man team of Westerners was being trained by
Al Qaeda in Pakistan for a special mission. Most of the Afghan fighters
could rely only on hearsay, but some told of seeing the "English brothers"
(as the foreign recruits were nicknamed for their shared language) in
person. One eyewitness, a former Guantánamo detainee with close Taliban and
Qaeda ties, spoke to NEWSWEEK recently in southern Afghanistan, demanding
anonymity because he doesn't want the Americans looking for him. He says he
met the 12 recruits in November 2005, at a mud-brick compound near the North
Waziristan town of Mir Ali. That was as much as the tight-lipped former
detainee would divulge, except to mention that Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the
notorious fugitive "American Al Qaeda," was with the brothers, presumably as
an interpreter. 

Another Afghan had more to say on the subject. Omar Farooqi is the nom de
guerre of a former provincial intelligence chief for the Taliban; he now
serves as the Taliban's chief Qaeda liaison for Ghazni province, in eastern
Afghanistan. He says he spent roughly five weeks this past year helping to
indoctrinate and train a class of foreign recruits near the Afghan border in
tribal Waziristan, and among his students were the English brothers. The 12
included two Norwegian Muslims and an Australian, along with nine British
subjects, says Farooqi. Their mission, Farooqi told NEWSWEEK, will be to act
as underground organizers and operatives for Al Qaeda in their home
countries—and their yearlong training course is just about finished. 

U.S. and British security agencies have known this threat would come sooner
or later. While saying he could not confirm the English brothers' case
specifically, a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office (unnamed as a matter
of standard policy) calls it "common knowledge" that jihadist recruits have
been traveling from Britain to Pakistan for indoctrination and training. The
existence of a Qaeda pipeline between those two countries has grown harder
to deny with every new terrorism story that has broken since the suicide
bombings in London that killed 52 subway and bus passengers on July 7, 2005.
Each new case that emerges features at least one or two suspects with ties
to Pakistan—such as an alleged plot that began before 9/11 to bomb financial
buildings in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, and this past summer's
alleged plot to blow up airline flights from Britain to the United States. 

A few weeks ago Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director-general of the
British security service M.I.5, publicly disclosed that British authorities
are monitoring 200 networks and 1,600 individuals "actively engaged in
plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here and overseas." A "substantial"
fraction of those 1,600 people have connections to Pakistan, says a British
official, declining to be named because the subject is sensitive. The M.I.5
chief added that her investigators had identified nearly 30 separate plots
"that often have links back to Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and through those links
Al Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers
here." 

Indeed, while often thought to have become mostly an inspiration to
jihadists around the world, Al Qaeda appears to be gaining strength along
the unruly Afghan-Pakistani border. Within the past year, M.I.5 has produced
detailed reports about a group of British men, ethnic Pakistanis, who
traveled to jihadist training camps in Pakistan by way of Saudi Arabia,
Syria and Afghanistan, according to a counterterrorism official in London
who requested anonymity because of the sensitive subject. And the scariest
part is not what M.I.5 knows but what it doesn't know: there's no way the
authorities can watch more than a tiny percentage of the 400,000 British
residents who visit Pakistan every year. 

U.S. security agencies are no less worried. American intelligence officials
tell NEWSWEEK that their people are definitely concerned about terror
suspects and operatives shuttling back and forth between Britain and
Pakistan. One particular worry is that under current practice, British
visitors to the States are not required to apply in advance for temporary
visas, which are routinely granted to any British passport holder who is not
on a watch list. In other words, the door is wide open for Britain's growing
ranks of young jihadists, even those who have attended Qaeda training camps,
if they are unknown to intelligence agencies. U.S. officials are discussing
how the visa system could be tightened. "For the most effective background
checks on passengers, the United States needs information and assistance
from the country where the traveler resides," says Homeland Security
Department spokesman Russ Knocke, adding that such help should be "routine."


While the Americans talk, Al Qaeda is pressing on with its training plans,
Farooqi says. He confidently described those plans to a NEWSWEEK
correspondent at a mud-brick house in Paktia province, not far from the
Pakistan border, mentioning the English brothers almost in passing as an
example of the jihad's recent successes. The specifics of his story could
not be independently corroborated. But one gunman among the dozen or so
guarding the house, with most of his face hidden by a black-and-white
kaffiyeh, appeared to be a European with light-colored eyes; Farooqi later
confirmed that the guard was one of the brothers. An open notebook lay on
the carpet where Farooqi sat, and the NEWSWEEK correspondent caught a
fleeting glimpse of scrawled names and phone numbers, including several that
were preceded by the United Kingdom's country code: 44. 

Farooqi says he first met the brothers, all of them in their 20s, soon after
they reached Waziristan in October 2005. He recalls one of them, known as
Musa, telling him that the 7/7 bombings in London "were just a rehearsal of
bigger acts to come." A few, he couldn't say how many, had arrived in
Pakistan by air, but most had taken a clandestine overland route across
Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, escorted by a network of professional
smugglers. As NEWSWEEK has reported previously, Al Qaeda uses the same
underground railroad to transport Iraqi bombmakers and insurgent trainers to
share their skills with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

According to Farooqi, the brothers' travel arrangements were made by Abdul
Hadi al-Iraqi, one of Al Qaeda's top operations men and a liaison with
insurgents in Iraq. (His name has also cropped up in an ongoing British
criminal trial in which seven London-area defendants of Pakistani descent
are accused of conspiring to bomb British targets with homemade explosives.
Prosecutors have alleged that Abdul Hadi's deputy even visited Britain and
prayed at a mosque near London with one of the suspects.) The
transcontinental journey took a month to complete, but Farooqi claims the
brothers left no official traces of their passage, slipping past every
border-control post without showing any travel documents. Once they get
home, there may be no record that they ever visited Pakistan. 

That's something a British Qaeda operative would certainly want to keep
secret. A newly issued International Crisis Group report on the tribal areas
says the militants have been able to "establish a virtual mini-Taliban-style
state there" where they can "provide safe haven to the Taliban and its
foreign allies." In the words of a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, who
asks to remain nameless to avoid offending his hosts: "The Pakistanis simply
don't control the territory in any meaningful way, and that means a common
enemy has a place [to operate]. You have to assume Al Qaeda will make the
most of it." Before September 11, Al Qaeda had no network inside Pakistan
and only limited contact with Pakistani militants. Now the group has close
support on both sides of the border. 

Inside Afghanistan, Taliban field commanders depend on regular visits from
their Qaeda paymasters. Guerrillas in eastern Ghazni province say the Arab
money teams ride in from the direction of the Pakistan border astride
motorcycles driven by Taliban fighters. The Qaeda men ask each local
commander what weapons, money and technical assistance he needs—and then
deliver the aid that is required. According to Zabibullah, a senior Taliban
official who has been a reliable source in the past, Al Qaeda has more than
100 specialists, mostly Arabs, helping support Taliban forces in
Afghanistan. 

Still, Al Qaeda took no chances with the English brothers' safety. They
received much of their training behind mud-brick walls in the sprawling
compounds that are typical of Pakistan's tribal areas. The idea was to keep
the men hidden from U.S. and Pakistani reconnaissance planes. Farooqi says
the recruits were taught a wide variety of subjects, from religious and
ideological doctrine to the art of molding, assembling and detonating
state-of-the-art Iraqi-style shaped-charge IEDs. They learned how to make
and use suicide-bomb vests, how to rig car bombs, how to motivate other men
to sacrifice their lives for the jihad and how to maintain communications
with Al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. They're not meant to be
suicide bombers themselves, Farooqi says; they are far too valuable to
waste. The recruits that M.I.5 was tracking also seemed bound for bigger
things than cannon fodder. 

Some counterterrorism experts argue that Al Qaeda has become only a
figurehead, with no real control over the local terrorist cells it has
spawned around the world. The English brothers—and the Pakistan pipeline—are
signs that the organization is still in action. Farooqi says he believes,
based on overhead conversations, that Al Qaeda is planning for the very long
term, a decade into the future. He says the terrorist group is talking about
gradually fielding more than 1,000 operatives in Europe over the next 10
years. From what he has heard, only 10 percent of those jihadists are in
place so far. Based on information from M.I.5, the British Home secretary,
John Reid, recently warned that a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom
could be highly likely during the holidays. 

The English brothers completed their Waziristan stay in October, Farooqi
says, but before going home, they had one final assignment. Their Arab
handlers separated them into several smaller groups and sent them into
Afghanistan to see the jihad firsthand, embedded with Taliban units in
Khowst and Paktia provinces. The unit commanders were warned to avoid
putting them in any danger. After that, the brothers were supposed to return
to Britain the same way they got to Pakistan. That means most of them could
be getting home any day now—if they aren't there already.

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