Al Qaeda Messages Still Invisible

US intelligence knows that al Qaeda uses the Internet for its in-house communications, but is stumped by its inability to trace the Islamic network’s electronic messages in general – and its exchanges with the groups operating in Macedonia, in particular. This failure is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources in other countries too, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where similar contingents are based.

One year after 9/11, save for rare occasions when agents or terrorists linked to these groups have risked using satellite or cellular telephones, neither the US nor any allied intelligence agencies has been able to intercept a single transmission or broadcast relating to the operational or financial activities of al Qaeda decision-makers or the organization’s affiliates.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts say the last time electronic messages or satellite telephone calls were picked up from bin Laden himself was late November and early December, 2001 when US special forces, backed by local Afghan fighters, waged battle against al Qaeda in the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. At the end of the fierce engagement, al Qaeda men dropped out of sight. American intelligence and scientific experts, combing through the detritus left in the empty caves, found a large number of computers, telephones and communications gear with hard disks, floppy disks and data cassettes in tape recorders containing pre-recorded messages worded so as to mislead US commanders and intelligence experts.

However, since then, all electronic surveillance of al Qaeda has drawn a blank.

The issue of al Qaeda and its use of e-mail came up last week, more than 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) from Macedonia, at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the 9/11 attacks. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered the FBI to provide an affidavit explaining why no comprehensive examination was made of the defendant’s electronic mail – whose address – — was similar to millions of others used in the United States and elsewhere. The angry judge in Alexandria, Virginia, demanded to know whether the FBI had even bothered to ask for help on the matter from the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA). Sources described in media reports as “familiar with the workings of the court” told reporters that when FBI agents arrested Moussaoui on immigration charges in Minnesota on August 16, 2001, the Justice Department turned down the bureau’s request to examine his computer. It issued a new request several weeks later after receiving intelligence information from France about the suspect, but was again turned down. In documents submitted to the court, the government said the agents tried unsuccessfully to access Moussaoui’s email accounts. An affidavit filed by Hotmail said the company had no records of the xdesertman account.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts note that in the Moussaoui case, the US government and its intelligence agencies have run into the same type of problem that has baffled them in Macedonia: a failure to discover just how al Qaeda agents and allies move their electronic traffic and what it contains. The experts are asking themselves if the Islamic fundamentalists have hit on a revolutionary technology for transmitting and receiving e-mail undetectably.

To this day, not a single line has been found recorded on paper or on the Internet referring to the preparations made by the 19 hijackers of four US airliners to crash their planes on September 11 into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Investigators have managed to put together no more than fragments of testimony and oral information (See “A digital mole in the White House”, in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 30, September 21, 2001)

Over the past year, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts report no significant breakthrough in uncovering al Qaeda’s methods for transmitting messages. The Islamic fundamentalist organization therefore remains virtually untouched by the intensive global drive to expose its command structure, logistical set-up and the ways it moves fighters, weapons and money. Its leaders can hope to stay out of reach as long as they observe electronic invisibility and avoid the trap into which senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah fell last winter. He was located and captured after one of his men was persuaded to accept a cell phone from Pakistani agents so that he could talk with his family.

In solitary confinement at the US naval base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, this member of bin Laden’s inner circle has betrayed nothing significant to his American captors, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources. Though responsible for recruitment and the administration of the group’s training camps, Abu Zubaydah is ignorant about the operational side of the organization or its secret communications systems. Compartmentalization – in which operatives are told no more than they need to know to carry out their own tasks — is religiously upheld in al Qaeda.

This confronts counter-terrorism authorities in the United States with the biggest question of all: Is there a secret higher command structure behind the known faces of the ultra-extremist Islamic terrorists? Who, for example, is really running the show in the autonomous Islamic enclave of Macedonia and keeping five disparate groups working in harness to build a fresh, presumably jihadist, fighting force?

A year after 9/11, much of the Western intelligence community has come to believe the terror war against the West is run by a political alliance, rather than a coalition of intelligence forces.

They cite four arguments to support this thesis:

1. It has now been concluded that the two extremist Islamic organizations, al Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, possessed neither the intelligence capability nor the logistics for staging an attack on the scale of 9/11 unaided.

2. No mega-attacks have been pulled off in America since that date – evidence of al Qaeda’s operational limitations.

3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources are increasingly convinced that the hands behind the September 11 atrocities belonged to the same professional and national operational and intelligence services now at work raising an Islamic legion in Macedonia, namely a combination of Saudi, Iranian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese Hizballah intelligence factions, together with the intelligence and terrorist agencies of fundamentalist Islamic movements active in different countries. This is the ad hoc entity which attacked the United States then and may be gathering for a fresh assault.

4. The foregoing three arguments point US intelligence and counter-terror agencies inexorably toward a dead end in their 9/11 investigation. However forthcoming the intelligence bodies involved in the attack may be about individual terrorists or double agents, they will always refrain from coming clean on the most vital elements required by the American investigation for building up a true picture.

Syrian intelligence is a case in point. President Bashar Assad ordered Syrian intelligence informers to hand over to Washington a bulky dossier on the al Qaeda Hamburg cell in Germany. It contained some of the hijackers’ names including that of their commander, Mohammed Atta. But the Syrians, while disclosing much, omitted to mention Atta’s three visits to Damascus in the months leading up to September 11. They also concealed the fact that bin Laden’s Syrian-born wife and son were in Syria as late as late as two weeks before that date.

Diplomatic sensitivities further obscure the picture. Washington, like any government, faces hard dilemmas before it can come forward and publicly point a finger at any foreign national intelligence service as a player in the most devastating man-made disaster ever perpetrated on US soil. This is most problematic when it comes to governments with whom the United States maintains friendly relations.

US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld alluded to the insuperable difficulties posed by the new kind of warfare in an interview he gave to the New York Times on September 5, marking the first anniversary of September 11. He said:

“It is impossible to guard against terrorist attack in every place and at every time. So self-defense requires preemption, which means taking the battle to the terrorists and to those states that harbor them or support them or might arm them.”

Rumsfeld’s solution for the diplomatic difficulties posed by putatively friendly nations known to be involved in terror was forthright. There must be a more flexible way of establishing alliances, he said: “The mission must determine the coalition. Coalitions must not determine missions.”

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