DUBAI and BRUSSELS – Omar Abu Othman, alias Abu Qatada, a 41-year-old Palestinian born in Jordan who later moved to London as a political refugee, has been living in limbo for the past few months somewhere in bleak northern England.
He may have disapproved of England soccer captain David Beckham’s haircut during the World Cup, and he has probably learned to sing “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” – the famous song by pop group Oasis – by heart. The point is, Abu Qatada has plenty of time to sing whatever he likes. Along with his family he is being kept by British police in a safe house. He could languish there forever. Under a new anti-terrorist law, he can’t be arrested or expelled from the United Kingdom because only a select few know where he is.
Abu Qatada is believed by European intelligence agencies to be the spiritual leader and the key controller of al-Qaeda operatives all over Europe. He is arguably the biggest fish so far caught by a relentless 10-month-long secret anti-terrorist investigation spanning the whole of Western Europe. But there’s no room for euphoria: the al-Qaeda aquarium is not exactly drying up.
The key countries in al-Qaeda’s European operations are Belgium, the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. They compose a mesmerizing Thousand and One Terror Nights’ maze involving Tunisians in Belgium, Algerians in France and assorted Arabs in “Londonistan” – where all the leads seem to converge. During the 1990s, for a hardcore Islamist, London was the place to go. Three names keep popping everywhere: Essid Sami Ben Khemais, a Tunisian tracked both in Spain and Italy; Tarek Maarufi, another Tunisian arrested in Belgium; and the ubiquitous spiritual leader Abu Qutada, connected to investigations going on in London, Paris and Madrid.
European intelligence operatives are notoriously evasive, for obvious reasons, when commenting on their sketchy progress. But the evidence so far shows that investigations all over Europe have been much more efficient than in the United States. Even with thousands of agents in the field and an astronomic budget, the Americans have not managed to capture a single significant al-Qaeda operative – or to dismantle a single dormant cell. Only two important suspects are behind bars in the US at the moment: Frenchmen Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th man on September 11; and British shoe bomber Richard Reid, arrested last December on a Paris-Miami flight. Both lived for many years in London.
Brussels was also positively identified as a key al-Qaeda connection. No less than 10 presumed al-Qaeda operatives – Belgians and foreigners – are in jail in Belgium. The killing of the legendary Panjshir Lion, the Northern Alliance’s military commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, at his headquarters in northern Afghanistan on September 9, was entirely planned in Brussels.
Belgian police managed to capture three big fish. Nizar Trabelsi, a former Tunisian footballer, is one of the main suspects in an attempt to blow up the American embassy in Paris. He was connected to an already dismantled cell in Rotterdam, Holland. Mohammed Sliti, a Tunisian carrying a Belgian passport, was arrested in February in Iran and extradited to Belgium. He lived in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when he was allegedly training new recruits. He might have returned to Europe with the express purpose of participating in the planning of the Masoud operation.
Tarek Maarufi, a Tunisian carrying a Belgian passport, was arrested last December, accused of “recruitment for a foreign organization.” He posed as a harmless Tunisian opposition figure, but according to telephone surveillance by Italian anti-terrorist police he was deeply involved in recruiting new al-Qaeda members. Maarufi allegedly was the key recruiter of one of Masoud’s killers – Abdesatar Dhaman, another Tunisian who had lived in Belgium for 14 years, and who also carried a Belgian passport. For the carefully-planned and strategically crucial Masoud killing, Dhaman and one more Tunisian, Bouraoui Al-Ouaer, disguised themselves as journalists – a cameraman and reporter crew. Al-Ouaer, the “cameraman,” detonated a dynamite belt he was carrying and died alongside Masoud on the spot. Dhaman was killed by Masoud’s bodyguards a few minutes later as he tried to flee.
Yaser Al-Siri, an Egyptian, was arrested in the UK last October, accused of providing a letter of recommendation for Masoud’s killers. But British police have managed overall to accurately pinpoint only two people as al-Qaeda members. No one is in jail with a direct link to September 11. There have been more than 80 arrests in the past 10 months, but the absolute majority of the suspects have been released, or released on bail, while a few have been transferred to Immigration because they provided false information to be granted visas. British police are confident that no al-Qaeda cells operate in the country – although they estimate that there may be about 100 resident al-Qaeda militants.
Lofti Raisi, an Algerian pilot, was arrested in the UK on September 21, accused by the Americans of being the flight instructor of some of the kamikaze bombers. But there was no proof and he was released on bail. Two more Algerians, Bagdad Meziane and Brahim Benmerzouga, were also arrested last September, and they are still being investigated. Beziane is accused of having a “leading role inside al-Qaeda.” Italian anti-terrorist police unveiled an additional network based in the UK and allegedly controlled by another Tunisian, Sifallah Ben Hassine – but he managed to evade detection. Khalid Al-Fawaz, an Egyptian, was arrested in 1998, accused of being none other than the leader of al-Qaeda’s British operations. He may have been the man who ordered the bombing against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died in August 1998. The US has been waiting for his extradition for three years.
All of the roads for the French legions who fought in Afghanistan seem to go through London. The main character is Franco-Algerian Djamel Beghal, the alleged leader of a European network, accused of “association of bandits in connection with a terrorist enterprise.” In late 1997, after a few years supporting Algerian Islamists, he exchanged the suburbs of Paris for London – where he met “spiritual leader” Abu Qutada. Beghal was arrested in July 2001 at Dubai airport. Later he admitted that he had been called to Afghanistan at the end of 2000 by the powerful Abu Zubaida – Osama bin Laden’s military leader. Zubaida was finally arrested in April in Faisalabad, Pakistan). Beghal’s mission at the time was to bomb the American embassy in Paris.
The notorious Abu Qutada is described by French national intelligence service as “an Islamic religious chief well known for his implication on the envoy of volunteers to Afghan training camps.” Abu Qutada was in touch with all of the Frenchmen who were sent to London. Beghal lived with his wife in Leicester, where he was close to Abu Hamza, a trusted associate of Abu Qutada. Beghal himself might have recruited the alleged 20th man, Zacarias Moussaui, as well as shoe bomber Richard Reid – not to mention Nizar Trabelsi, the former footballer later arrested in Belgium and connected to the plot to bomb the American embassy in Paris.
In February, Italian police were in self-congratulatory mood: They might have foiled an attempt to bomb the American embassy in Rome. This week, the influential Milanese daily Corriere Della Sera said that there may have been other foiled al-Qaeda plots – including a bombing of the Vatican and a bombing in Venice. Since September 11, Italian police have made about 80 arrests, and almost 100 people remain under surveillance.
The key character here is Essid Sami Ben Khemais, alias “Saber,” a Tunisian who also pops up in Spanish investigations. He is the alleged chief of a Milanese cell and possibly the chief al-Qaeda recruiter in Italy. Abdel Hafed, an Algerian, Yassine Checkouri, a Moroccan and Nabel Bennatia, a Tunisian, were all interrogated in connection with the two main centers of Islamic studies in Milan. Hafed was directly connected with “Saber” and also to Omar Chaabani, alias Abu Jaffa, who was supposed to be close to bin Laden himself.
Italian investigations, maximizing inter-European cooperation, ascertained that Italy – as well as Spain – was not just a stop-over for hardcore Islamists but a recruiting base and training camp for the manufacturing of explosive devices, with ramifications in the neighboring south of France. Spain – through investigations led for many years by media star judge Baltazar Garzon – positively established that it had become a logistical base for a myriad terrorist groups, not only al-Qaeda.
Last November, the Spanish managed to dismantle cells in Madrid and Granada, created between 1994 and 1995, which were apparently important financial sources for al-Qaeda. The cells were involved in a credit card scam. The alleged leader was Imad Barakat Yarbas, alias Abu Dahdah, a Syrian carrying a Spanish passport. The Spanish have not managed to prove a direct connection between Abu Dahdah and September 11, but they place a lot of weight on some telephone conversations between Abu Dahdah and a certain “Shakur,” a man very close to Algerian Mohammed Bensakria, an alleged bin Laden emissary.
The Spanish certainly established that Abu Dahdah travelled a lot, and that his phone number was found in a notebook belonging to Said Bahadji, an aspiring pilot who shared a flat in Hamburg with Mohammed Atta, the chief September 11 pilot. Abu Dahdah also met many times with the ubiquitous Abu Qutada in London.
The Spanish are still trying to connect the dots on dozens of arrests – but the conclusions are already the same as in Italy: Spain was and probably remains a crucial node in the Islamist galaxy. “Saber” was practically on a shuttle between Italy and Spain. The parallels with Atta’s travels are evident. Atta came from Miami on July 8, stayed close to Senasa – the only school teaching Boeing 757 flight simulation in the country (Iberia’s is not open to the public), and returned to Miami on July 17.
It is well known that Atta and two other pilots – Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Al-Jarrah – lived in Hamburg and studied at the local university in the months preceding September 11. But at the moment in Germany only one person is in jail connected to al-Qaeda. He is Munir Al-Motasadek, a Moroccan, suspected of being in close contact with the other former Hamburg residents. He allegedly managed a bank account opened in the name of Al-Shehhi, which was bulging just before September 11.
The Germans have issued three international arrest warrants concerning other people linked to the Hamburg cell: two of the people cited, Zakaria Essabar, a Moroccan, and Hamzi Binalchib, a Yemenite, shared a flat with Mohammed Atta. In August 2000, Binalchib tried, with no success, to get a US visa so that he could take a pilot training course at the Florida flight training center. He was recognized by European investigators in a videotape found in Afghanistan by the CIA.
The whole al-Qaeda European connection reveals itself to be a mind-boggling labyrinth, and August Hanning, chief of the German intelligence service, sums up the current situation, “We still don’t know exactly how the structures work in Europe, how much they were damaged, or if they were dismantled. We still have a lot of work to do.”
There are not many certainties in this business. Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan swears in public that Saudi Arabia “is not a target for al-Qaeda,” but he is nevertheless holding seven al-Qaeda suspects, six Saudis and a Sudanese. European intelligence sources are convinced that al-Qaeda’s Pakistani operation is thriving – with help from crucial Inter-Services Intelligence sectors, tribal leaders and wealthy, extremely discreet Saudi and Pakistani donors. Suspected “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, alias Abdullah al-Muhajir, an American citizen, took a bomb-making course in an al-Qaeda safe house in Lahore and met key al-Qaeda operatives in Karachi last March. In America, where the FBI has been notoriously ineffective, the White House is forced to admit on the record that the country is as vulnerable now as it was on the morning of September 11.
Exactly one year ago, from July 4 to July 14, Osama bin Laden was undergoing medical treatment at the American Hospital in Dubai. He arrived by plane from Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan (daily flights either with PIA or Emirates Airlines). He met many wealthy Saudi princes and businessmen. He was also visited by the local CIA chief. He could have been arrested on the spot – and there would be no excuses for a war against terrorism. He was not arrested. The rest, of course, is history – with an al-Qaeda hand in the screenplay.