First Western contacts with al Qaeda

It is now universally evident that President George W. Bush’s consent to the UN Security Council having a go at disarming Iraq made Saddam Hussein the priceless gift of a breathing space before an American assault. He needed that breather to hold onto – and even further advance – his hidden missiles and weapons of mass destruction, as well as developing a counter-offensive.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and intelligence sources believe that al Qaeda has a similar purpose – to hold off the next all-out round of America’s global war on terror by aiming its bombs and suicide killers against Israeli and Jewish targets, giving the terror network time to set up large-scale strikes against America.

This change of target from “the Crusaders” to “the Jews” did not come out of the blue.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources have discovered that certain European and Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, initiated informal diplomatic overtures to Osama bin Laden’s organization in an effort to pry open a chink for first contacts. At the back of their minds was the hope that putting Israel in the frying pan might take some of the heat off themselves.

Those first contacts took place under cover of an innocent sounding international trade fair held in Baghdad last month. Ignoring protests from Washington, the Saudis opened their Arar crossing point into Iraq on November 1 for the passage of people and goods – for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War. Mingling with the visitors to the fair, representatives of Iraqi, French and Saudi firms got together on the sidelines with al Qaeda agents.

The French and Saudi participants were introduced as “private individuals with business interests and very good contacts with the security services of their respective countries.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the al Qaeda operatives who came to Baghdad from Yemen, via Abu Dhabi, introduced themselves as “traders from the Gulf with business and intelligence links in Iran and Pakistan”. No one gave his full name.

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources have learned that certain US intelligence agencies procured a partial list of the participants in this parley, with names and summaries of some of their conversations.

There were four such meetings. Its participants pretended they wanted to ascertain in general if any September 11-type al Qaeda strikes were planned for other parts of the world. But according to intelligence data, their concern was much more specific, namely, was bin Laden targeting any European nation or the Saudi kingdom for similar carnage.

Three ominous replies were quickly forthcoming from Al-Qaeda representatives:

1. Washington has left al-Qaeda no option but to continue its attacks against America.

2. If the US continues to pursue its global war on terrorism and launches military action against Iraq, al-Qaeda will strike back in Europe and Saudi Arabia.

3. Al Qaeda invited the talks’ initiators, the Europeans and the Saudis, to present any ideas or new information that might persuade the terrorist group to rethink its strategy or objectives.

The second time they met, the two sides bandied harsh words. At one point, an al-Qaeda representative warned his organization would not find it difficult “to repeat the August 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania”.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and intelligence sources, the other participants interpreted this as a threat of a fresh round of terrorist attacks on Western targets in Kenya. This suspicion prompted the terror alerts issued for East Africa in mid-November, two weeks before the Mombasa attacks. These alerts, still in effect, came from the United States, Australia, France, Germany and Britain and, latterly, Israel.

At a later stage in the talks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the European and Saudi representatives presented an implied suggestion that al Qaeda might consider alternative targets – at least at this juncture – to their own countries. Although no names were mentioned by either side, the al Qaeda delegation grasped exactly who were the subjects of those hints: Russia and Israel. However, the Islamic terrorists cannily put a price tag on their willingness to play ball. Yes, they said, alternative targets do exist, but we shall consider them only if you stop cooperating with the United States. The more you disassociate yourselves from US policies, the smaller the danger to your countries and interests. Conversely, the more profound your military and strategic relations are with Washington, the greater al Qaeda’s wrath against you.

American and Israeli counter-terrorism and intelligence experts, who analyzed the transcripts of all four exchanges at the Baghdad Fair, mark them as a strategic milestone for al-Qaeda and the cue for its decision to start preparing a wave of 9/11-type attacks inside Israel and a campaign against Israeli targets overseas. Participants at the meetings in the Iraqi capital concurred with the assessment.


Israeli targets instead of European? Or both?


According to our counter-terrorism sources, Israel was not apprised of those contacts. Aside from the general terror alerts picked up in Tel Aviv, Israel’s policy-makers and security officials were not forewarned of any directional changes by al Qaeda and therefore made no adjustments to meet them. As far as Israel was concerned, the terrorist violence it faced was primarily Palestinian in nature, aided by the Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi military intelligence.

Back in May, Israel had indeed picked up signs that al-Qaeda operatives had slipped into the country and set up secret cells. However, according to the conventional wisdom to which Sharon subscribed, those cells would operate only in conjunction with Yasser Arafat’s security apparatus – or in the worst- case scenario, with Iraqi military intelligence. No one in Israel imagined the al Qaeda sleeper cells would be operating autonomously within months.

Israeli security sources also ignored three messages that DEBKAfile’s sources intercepted on Monday, November 25. Analysis of the transmissions, sourced to the Saudi Red Sea town of Jeddah, pointed to a party associated with al Qaeda being poised for a terrorist attack on the morning of Thursday, November 28. The word “paradise” featured prominently in the message, which DEBKAfile ran on its website that night:

In the last few hours debkafile counter-terror sources report a heightened volume of traffic over the Arabic Internet forums frequented by al Qaeda and its partisans. Most of the last messages end: “The zero hour has come.”

One particular release was aired three times today, all posted by “ARAMCO boy”. The first one to reach our sources was issued at 12:28 EST, 19:28 IST.

“Today, at 6:20 hours, there will be a surprise program, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen over our Qatari channel. Anyone who knows what I mean must tell no one so as to keep the surprise whose content everyone will love. Only God knows what I mean. The program forced me to write these lines at great speed and I ask God to forgive me and reserve Paradise and not Hell for me. The zero hour has come.”

Three days later, on the morning of Thursday, November 28, the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombassa was attacked. It was only then that Israeli policy-makers began to appreciate they had been hit by a new force of nature and that Israeli security and intelligence agencies had been suddenly confronted with no less than a survival test.

Events in Mombasa were al Qaeda’s way of saying it had accepted the unspoken proposal presented informally at the Baghdad Trade Fair. For the time being, bin Laden was willing to swing his terrorist axe round to strike Israel and Israeli overseas targets.

At the same time, a number of key questions remain unanswered:

A. Can al Qaeda be understood to have agreed to desist from terrorist attacks in Europe?

B. If so, which countries will be spared? London for sure remains in the Islamic terror network’s sights despite the Blair government’s efforts to stay in Arab good graces.

C. Will Saudi Arabia, or any other Gulf regime, be let off al Qaeda attacks on their oil fields?

Al Qaeda preachers have often referred to Arab oil as a Muslim resource exploited by the Western infidel instead of benefiting the Muslim masses.

D. How, when and where will Israel respond to the terrorist attack in Mombasa? What targets will it single out for retaliation and where will that response take the global war on terrorism?

Some answers to these questions come up in a different context: (See separate article hereunder on the collapse of Sharon’s security conception for the anti-terror war and the secret Wolfowitz visit).

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