Several disturbing discoveries emerged quickly from a joint defense department-CIA inquiry ordered by U.S. President George W. Bush to trace the operational evolution of terrorism over the past decade. He specifically asked the team:
For an in-depth catalogue of Al Qaeda’s terrorist operations and the associations Osama bin Laden’s organization has formed with national terrorist groups in various countries and fellow terrorist groups from the time the Islamic group first attempted to blow up New York’s World Trade Center in 1993.
Any ties formed between Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.
The joint team’s initial findings did not bear out the boast by the president and top security officials like FBI Robert Mueller that two-thirds of al Qaeda’s leadership had been put out of action by American and allied moves in the global war on terror. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources in Washington, the group’s backbone and that of its partner, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad led by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is intact and fully operational. The Egyptian half of al Qaeda in particular has led a charmed existence. Since the US 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, only two senior Jihad operatives have been killed and not a single active member captured.
So alarmed were the investigating team by this discovery that they rushed to Bush without delay. “We have a gap in our intelligence the size of a big black hole,” they noted in their first interim report to the president.
Another disquieting discovery was the spanking pace of al Qaeda’s recruitment in Europe since the September 11 attacks in the United States.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reveal that Osama bin Laden in person is behind the latest push into Europe after gaining the upper hand in a debate within his organization’s top leadership over its next focal arena. Bin Laden urged fostering the war on the “far enemy” (Europe), against the argument in favor of concentrating on the “near enemy” (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Asia).
The panel appointed by Bush claimed al Qaeda’s drive into Europe has been mostly ignored by American counter-terrorism agencies. It cited a few statistics readily produced on request by domestic security agencies in key European countries. Put together for a very preliminary assessment, they demonstrate that al Qaeda is in the process of evolving from terrorist networks and cells to building a professional fighting force with military features.
According to French counter-intelligence, al Qaeda has recruited in France alone between 35,000 and 45,000 men and is organizing them in military-style units. They meet regularly for training in the use of weapons and explosives, combat tactics and indoctrination and are controlled from local and district command centers under the organization’s national French command.
In Germany, Al Qaeda has recruited 25,000 to 30,000 men. The British domestic intelligence agency MI5 estimates 10,000 faithful have joined up in Britain.
Al Qaeda is a lot less active in Italy where counter-terrorist agencies hunt its cells to earth relentlessly. Moreover, al Qaeda does not need an important foothold in Italy because it already maintains a thriving presence next door in the Balkan countries of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, from which weapons, money and false documents are easily secreted to its European bases.
But unknown numbers are enlisting also in Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Sweden and Norway.
Recruitment across Europe continues apace and in greater secrecy than ever as a result of a switch to new recruiting techniques and appeal to fresh target-populations for building the Euro army. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, the authors of the interim report found that al Qaeda, intent on beating surveillance and penetration by intelligence services, no longer selects combatants at its usual hunting grounds in mosques, Islamic culture centers and Muslim immigrant neighborhoods. Instead, recruiters are now seeking out native Europeans freshly converted to Islam.
They call their new campaign their “white recruitment drive” or “coffee shop conscription”. Operational cells and recruiting agents have taken to meeting in ordinary cafes on the high streets of Europe’s major cities where they blend into the crowds.
European intelligence is baffled in its efforts to identify the new al Qaeda operatives. Their names, addresses and home and cellular telephone numbers are unavailable. A rough profile of a recent “white” European recruit to al Qaeda would show a possible social misfit or disgruntled youngish boy or man – aged 16 to 30 – who is gainfully employed, member of the lower middle class and not primarily motivated by financial gain or vocational ambition. He will have converted to belief in the Islamic ethic and developed a burning urge to spread it worldwide. These leanings are reinforced in regular meetings.
He may be a family man but, most important, al Qaeda only recruits law-abiding citizens who have never attracted police interest and are therefore anonymous.
These conscripts live their Islamic lives completely underground. Unit level meetings for instance, requiring 30 or 40 men to gather for training sessions, may take place under cover of social activity such as a holiday camp in a remote part of Europe.
The experts say tracking down members of bin Laden’s new Euro army is becoming a tall order as its numbers expand to tens of thousands, and the hard to identify “white” recruits may already form some 25 percent of the total.
The joint team had little to show the president on Saddam’s ties with terrorists – not because the links did not exist but because they were ignored for too long. Even preliminary conclusions are therefore held off. What has begun to emerge is that the US administration and intelligence agencies, including the CIA, dismissed without enough forethought the possibility of operational cooperation between the secular Iraqi Baath regime and the rabidly fundamentalist al Qaeda as a hare that would not run. As a result of Washington’s blind spot, which was soon detected and exploited, the Saddam regime and Al Qaeda were able to work together without interference and almost invisibly.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources have learned that the inquiry group has collected enough evidence to finally establish that the disputed rendezvous in Prague did indeed take place in April 2002 between Al Qaeda’s lead 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, and an Iraqi intelligence official.