Centralized Strategic Decisions, Decentralized Operations

The ultra-impermeable al Qaeda network is an extra tough nut for any Western intelligence agency to crack – except perhaps by fundamentalist Saudi, Yemeni, Pakistani or Egyptian double agents, which would be a contradiction in terms. The information sought by Western espionage, including the Central Intelligence Agency, is virtually unobtainable. As we saw recently, in the case of a possible attack on the American financial sector, the CIA may have caught wind of the plot, but specifics like operatives’ names, whereabouts and the timing of zero hour are buried deep inside the maze-like organization and hidden from all parts of it but for the last operational cell. However accomplished and skillful a Western agency may be, it is not programmed to wring hard, updated intelligence from the recondite al Qaeda except by sheer chance.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts offers this example:

Long ago, Osama bin Laden and his close lieutenant, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, decided to demolish the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street. It was part of the master plan they developed in the early 1990s to destroy the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1993, crash a dozen airliners hijacked in the Philippines on the centers of US cities including New York in 1994 (although, oddly enough, inquiry commissions argued this year over whether or not there existed a threat to use airplanes as weapons of terror), and to strike the World Trade Center again in 2001 if the first attempt failed – which it did.

Each of these attacks was intended to destroy Wall Street as the heart and symbol of American economic might.

Seen from bin Laden’s perspective, this prime goal eluded him and he will therefore keep on trying until he succeeds.

Seen from the Western perspective, the al Qaeda leader ought to have called his top advisers together after each fiasco for a full accounting and amended forward planning.

But, bin Laden has never done any such thing. He is the strategic guide, the spiritual mentor and master who makes his will know to his followers and will continue to wait patiently in the unshakable conviction that one or more cells of his organization, all schooled in disciplined obedience and fanatical faith, will make it happen. He does not know or need to know which cell; he is sure his wishes will be carried out behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. His inaccessibility to the rank and file since losing the Afghan base both protects him and has become a part of his mystique inside the movement.

The al Qaeda mode of operation developed through different stages in time:

From 1996 to November 2001

This period ended in the battle of Tora Bora when bin Laden slipped through the fingers of US-Afghan forces and fled Afghanistan. But in the years he was ensconced there, he shaped the general contours of his terrorist philosophy and formulated al Qaeda’s strategic objectives for the years to come.

  1. Large-scale terrorist attacks on America with the aim of toppling its financial might – hence his targeting of the symbols and bastions of the US financial system. He remains convinced to this day that striking at America’s economic might will destroy US world hegemony.

  2. Preparing a guerrilla-terrorist war against the US presence in Iraq. He conceived this strategy as far back as 1998 and 1999, sure already then that Saddam Hussein was leading his country on a course that made an American invasion sooner or later inevitable. He predicted a US victory and Saddam’s downfall, and accordingly marked out Iraq as the future confrontation arena between al Qaeda and the Americans. He laid stress on cultivating good relations with Iran in good time. Those relations were to become the land bridge spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, across which al Qaeda would establish its terrorist networks for activation once the US presence was in place in post-Saddam Iraq. At the same time, Bin Laden consistently refused to meet Saddam Hussein in person because of his “black soul.”

  3. Seeking out supplies of chemical, biological, radio-biological and radioactive weapons and training groups of combatants in their use.

  4. Setting up a broad financial base with channels for funneling funds from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These channels are still functioning.

  5. Making the bulk of his terrorist, logistic and intelligence operatives computer-literate and provided with access to computers.

  6. Acquiring autonomy in technological systems able to match or even outperform the superior American electronic surveillance and computerized data transfer capability.

Bin Laden as push-button terror chief

It was then that bin Laden began distancing himself from the actual arenas of operation. He set out strategic objectives and Zuwahiri, or at most two or three others, passed the word on. Their messages or signals for action trickled through the movement’s branches in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and the hidden cells, usually disguised as arcane religious debates appearing in various fundamentalist publications, and taking root in one or more places.

No one will ever know if the Hamburg Group led by Mohammed Atta which carried out the 9/11 attacks in America was the only one to set it up. Many followers must have seen the message as a theoretical doctrinal text. Some cells may have understood it as a signal for action and been beaten to the draw by the Hamburg Group – or decided to stand aside. All we know nearly three years after that horrendous attack is that, of all the cells preparing to strike in America, the Hamburg Group was the fastest, most daring and best organized; also the most lavishly supplied with money, several million dollars spent on setting up a mission on that colossal scale.

Even this we know only from the fact that Atta actually went to Afghanistan and met bin Laden several times in the two or three years leading up to the attacks, reporting to him on progress in getting set and collecting funds to keeping his group moving forward.

Those meetings conferred great prestige on the Hamburg Group.

Its importance in retrospect is that the hard core selected for the 9/11 attacks consisted mostly of Saudi fundamentalists, giving rise to speculation in some intelligence circles that bin Laden calculated this makeup as a stratagem for destroying the traditionally close relations between Washington and Riyadh.

Western intelligence knew of the existence of the Hamburg Group. Had US agents or proxies penetrated this and other al Qaeda cells in Pakistan, Europe and North Africa before September 11, 2001, they might have found in the terrorists’ computers enough data to prevent the monstrous attacks in America – plus the very information of the plot to destroy buildings in America’s financial sector that turned up on the hard disks of Ghailani and Khan in the last two weeks.

Intelligence as Internal Currency

Al Qaeda’s long-standing goals to devastate Wall Street, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were and are known to many of its cells, but not all are endowed with the operational ability to bring them to fruition. Some carry out other useful functions, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts point out.

In the larger al Qaida cell clusters or groups, a trade often springs up in information gathered by undercover surveillance, the result of local enterprise. Bin Laden in person and his top men do not need to order al Qaeda operatives to spy out specific buildings and gather intelligence on security measures or the ebb and flow of staff in a building like Citigroup. Such surveys appear have been carried out on the simultaneous initiatives of different groups. Instead of hanging about in the targeted sites, these operatives may have used sympathizers who worked there, lived in the vicinity or visited family there – especially in the summer holidays – as informers. Those spies at once remove might even have had their fares paid to and from Pakistan or Egypt to deliver the information by hand rather than chancing a phone call or e-mail.

Information such as that put together in Khan’s computer in Pakistan may have come from intelligence swaps or been paid for in cash, weapons of explosives.

A group or cell with high-value information on targets in al Qaeda’s sights in the US, Britain, Italy or Israel possess a commodity with a ready market.

It is worth noting here that al Qaeda does not maintain a central intelligence pool for storing the data gathered by the various groups and cells. Much of this input therefore never reaches the top echelons and may be scattered almost at random in unexpected corners of the fundamentalist network.

This diffusion accounts for another US intelligence difficulty in digging any structured information out of al Qaeda.

Bin Laden and Saddam’s Iraq

Every Western espionage service and intelligence probe has sought in vain for evidence to prove or negate a link between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden or his close associates.

It was never there to find.

From the moment the al Qaeda leader reached a strategic decision to prepare the way for a campaign of guerrilla and terrorist warfare in post-Saddam Iraq, he bowed out. His pronouncement percolated through his network and became a vibrant rallying point for a spontaneous new jihad in the making.

Among those attracted to the future endeavor was Musab alZarqawi, who in the years leading up to the Iraq War was a lowly foot soldier in the terrorist world. Some time in 1997 or 1998, the Jordanian decided the kingdom was too small for his talents. If he did not make tracks he would be caught sooner or later, so he headed over with a small band to the Ansar al Islam enclave in northern Iraq where they were taken in. Although he was never a member of al Qaeda’s top echelon or bin Laden’s charmed circle, like Mohammed Atta, he made several pilgrimages to Afghanistan before 2001 to see the al Qaeda leader and report on the work he was doing in Iraq to further bin Laden’s grand design for Iraq. Bin Laden cared little about whether Zarqawi was a regular member of his network, but he was very interested in the foothold the Jordanian terrorist had carved out in Iraq.

This information placed before any Western government as early as 1998 (as it was by two or three intelligence agents) met with complete disbelief and was ignored.

In Saddam’s Iraq, there was no way a terrorist like Zarqawi could have operated in northern Kurdistan without the permission of Iraqi military intelligence. Word of his presence there must have been reported to Baghdad. This meant that although bin Laden had avoided direct contact with the Iraqi ruler whom he loathed, they were nonetheless hooked up together by the enterprising Zarqawi who was living out the al Qaeda leader’s unspoken directives.

End of 2001 up to the present

No witness has gone on any intelligence record as having laid eyes on Osama bin Laden since he smuggled his family and then himself out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan between December 6 and10, 2001. Neither has anyone reported hearing him speak live outside taped recordings.

The Tora Bora escape was the main milestone in bin Laden’s career, marking two different modes of operation. Zarqawi can no longer visit him because no one knows where he is. For this reason, the report of a messenger being caught in Iraq last week carrying a letter from Zarqawi to the elusive al Qaeda leader is hardly credible. The Jordanian terrorist may have posted an open letter to bin Laden to raise the spirits of his forces. But even a successor to Mohammed Atta lurking somewhere in the United States or elsewhere would not be able to reach the al Qaeda leader either.

Some might be tempted to presume that bin Laden is no longer among the living, so thoroughly has he vanished, were it not for occasional signs of life. The passing of this fundamentalist Islamic icon would have been a major event to be marked as such by his followers.

However, he has undeniably succeeded in doing the almost impossible in the world of 2004: disappearing without trace, an even more remarkable feat for the head of a financial empire estimated at $600 million with an annual revenue of between $75 million and 120 million, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

His disappearance from view has left Al Qaeda without senior commanders or a general staff.

This situation has spawned local commands and rival groups who are struggling to impose their version of the fundamentalist cause on the Saudi, Yemeni, East African and Southeast Asian al Qaeda movements and affiliates.

In Saudi Arabia, a dispute has just sprung up between factions who believe it is possible to proselytize the Saudi royal house and those who want to overthrow the throne altogether and establish a theocracy.

But all these groups are bound by the common burning ambition to impose fundamentalist Islam on the world by jihad and totally committed to the two first strategic steps laid down by bin Laden during his Afghan period, namely, to strike America’s financial heart and fight the Americans to the death in Iraq.

His followers needed no reminders of his commands. As soon as US-led forces were in control of Baghdad at the end of April 2003, thousands of al Qaeda adherents from around the world – from Chechnya to Saudi Arabia – began streaming into Iraq by every possible route, without being specifically ordered to do so, so ingrained were bin Laden’s guidelines. They had come to join the epic confrontation between al Qaeda and the United States which he had told them would be resolved in Iraq, urged on by the ambiguous messages folded into religious tracts disseminated over the Internet or by messengers visiting the different groups.

Bin Laden’s guidelines still hold for Europe too

The wave of terror threatening Europe in the coming weeks derives from a separate bin Laden guideline which holds that the portions of that continent which Muslim Caliphs governed in the Middle Ages must be returned to true Muslim rule. This guideline produced a welter of fatwas (religious edicts) that laid four missions on al Qaeda adherents:

  1. In Turkey, bin Laden’s network must avenge the honor of the Ottoman Empire which was swept away by Christian forces in 1917 at the end of the First World War. This edict resulted in the November 2003 terrorist raids against Jewish and British locations in Istanbul, which had nothing to do with America or the Iraq War.

  2. In Spain, the organization is called upon to restore the Muslim government that ruled Andalusia from Granada until 1492 when it was defeated by Christians. This objective motivated the May 2003 rail bombings in Madrid, causing close to 200 deaths and injuring some 2,000. The withdrawal of the Spanish troop contingent from Iraq was only one of the objectives of this atrocity – and not the main one, which is why even after the withdrawal, al Qaeda still has Spain in its sights.

  3. Italy and Rome are viewed by al Qaeda as the heart of world heresy because of the Vatican. As in the case of Spain, the fundamentalist terrorists will be glad to force Italy to remove its army from Iraq, but that is a side-issue.

  4. Vienna is targeted for terror because it was there that the Muslim armies’ drive into Europe was halted in 1683.

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