Counter-intelligence authorities in the United States, Europe and Israel have been bracing for a new al-Qaeda terrorist offensive ever since the foiling of shoe bomber Richard Reid’s pre-Christmas 2002 attempt to blow up an American Airlines Paris- to-Miami flight.
The feared general assault failed to materialize on any of the expected dates. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources maintain it has begun nevertheless – not with a deafening bang, but under tight wraps. Between five and eight al-Qaeda terror squads are reliably reported making their winding, undercover way to their targets, after setting out from four secret bases in Iran, Yemen, Pakistan and the Kyrgyz side of the Ferghana Valley.
The terror squads are ignorant of their objectives, blindly accepting the dictates of the tightly compartmentalized organization they are part of. Some sources say they are heading for a spectacular strike in a West European city or else a simultaneous multi-pronged assault in several urban centers in Europe and the Middle East. Possible targets are London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Rome and Madrid.
One or two of the teams are heading for one of Israel’s main cities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ashdod or Beersheba.
The two squads from Yemen and the Ferghana Valley are making for Larnaca or Paphos in the Greek sector of Cyprus, or for Beirut, Lebanon, where they may be plotting a showcase attack at the Arab summit convening there on March 27. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Abdullah and most of the leaders of the Gulf States will be in attendance.
There is no firm information about any of the al Qaeda squads planning to reach American shores. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s anti-terror experts say some of the militants may be laying false trails to hoodwink intelligence and counter-terror watchers, especially US agencies, while their comrades slip into the United States unnoticed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say the FBI, which published an extraordinary national terror alert for February 15, is now focusing on February 23 and 30 as the nearest sensitive dates for possible terrorist attacks. The 23rd marks the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa prescribing the duty of all Muslim believers to martyr themselves in the war against America. On exactly the same date, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein proclaimed a new annual national anti-American holiday called Freedom Day.
Four years ago, only a handful of Middle East and United States counter-terrorism insiders noticed that both men chose the same day for their declarations. Today, the coincidence would have drawn banner headlines.
The date could conceivably attract terrorist action in the United States, because the Winter Olympics Games break up at Salt Lake City, the next day, Sunday, February 24. As the athletes prepare to leave for home, the US Secret Service, which is in charge of security, may be expected to let its guard down, making it easier for terrorists to move in to strike.
The undercover comings and goings of top al Qaeda chiefs in late January were further omens of action afoot. It was then that intelligence and counter-terrorism authorities received word that the Iranian-Lebanese arch-terrorist who is one of bin Laden’s top operations officers, Imad Mughniyeh, had passed through the Lebanese Beqaa and disappeared, shortly after Abu Zubaidah, one of the al Qaeda’ leader’s most trusted lieutenants, turned up in Lebanon (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly edition 48, February 2, 2002).
At about the same time, Shamil Basayev, the Chechen operative who liaises between the rebel movement and bin Laden’s group, left Chechnya for an unknown destination. Information reaching some Central Asian intelligence agencies traced him to the Ferghana Valley, where he is believed to have assembled, instructed and organized the terrorist teams from Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Balkans for their next missions in the al Qaeda master scheme.
Mughniyeh can be reliably taken to be setting up and priming terrorist groups in the Middle East, utilizing the al Qaeda fugitives who landed in Iran and Lebanon.
Shortly after Basayev and Mughniyeh dropped off the radar screens, intelligence agencies began hearing of the terror squads heading out to Europe and the Middle East.
Whatever routes they take, these hit squads have to transit Turkey. The terrorists coming from the Ferghana Valley travel through central Kyrgyzstan, usually through the northern suburbs of the capital Bishbek, then on to Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, Georgia and Turkey.
The al Qaeda militants setting out from Tehran cross directly into Turkey.
From the Yemen base, they head to Cyprus before making their way to Turkey.
These terrorists move in groups of three to five and carry false papers or travel documents, as well as small sums of money. While en route, they are unarmed, carry no explosives and are kept ignorant of their final destination and target.
In Turkey, they make contact with a local branch of the network, are given their next stop in Europe or the Middle East and told whom to contact there
They then turn to facilitators on the ground, ten per squad, who are scattered round Turkey, although the largest concentration is situated in Istanbul and near the Iranian border.They provide the terrorists with documents, money and confirmation of their destination and next contact address.
An al Qaeda terrorist only discovers the identity and location of his mission when he reaches the last infrastructure link at his final destination. Only then, is he given his final briefing, the weapons or explosives for carrying out his mission and the name of his target. These contact men also lay on the vehicles for bringing the terrorist to target.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s anti-terror experts estimate that a logistical base running to 500 or even 700 operatives is currently employed around Europe and the Middle East for preparing the next al Qaeda terror campaign – not counting the actual terrorists. Imad Mughniyeh is responsible for creating the setup, helped by Iranian and Palestinian intelligence networks in Europe.
This week in Turkey, the veil was partly lifted from al Qaeda’s modus operandi. The authorities in the east Turkish province of Van apprehended a terrorist squad made up of two Palestinians and a Jordanian, who had entered illegally from Iran. The three, Mustafa Hasan Yusuf Fehim, Firaz Suleyman Ali Hejr and Ahmed Muhammed Mustafa, told interrogators they were al Qaeda members and had fought in Afghanistan. In late December, they had moved with a larger al Qaeda group of fighters from northern Afghanistan to the south and then crossed into Iran. There, they spent two months receiving terrorist training in camps in the Evin Quarter of north Tehran. Last week they were sent out to the Turkish border and told to call on Turkish drug and arms runners to help them cross into Turkey.
Under interrogation, the trio admitted they had been told to make contact with their support group in the Uskudar district of Istanbul.
Armed with their addresses, Turkish security forces Monday, February 18, picked up the al Qaeda support group members in their homes. Under preliminary questioning, they disclosed their orders were to dispatch the three-man terrorist squad to Israel through alternative routes via Damascus and Larnaca, Cyrpus. On arrival in Israel, they were to be given their weapons and explosives by Palestinian and Israeli Arab cells and told their objectives.