The seven networks just broken up were nearly four years old. They were established in 2002 after US-led coalition forces destroyed al Qaeda’s Afghanistan bases in the wake of the September 11 attacks in America. The capture of a large number of their senior commanders in November has provided a rare opportunity to study how al Qaeda re-organized and recovered from the loss of its Afghanistan base and how it developed from early footholds in Iraq and Damascus established well before the US invasion of March 2003.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly traces this unfolding process in the light of the facts emerging from the interrogations of the captured chiefs of those seven networks.
In early 2002, al Qaeda commanders on the run from Afghanistan congregated in eastern Iran and northern Iraq. Through roving radicals of the Algerian fundamentalist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, they were brought in touch with Moroccan-born Khalid Salibi aka Abu Za’im. They retained him to funnel jihadi fighters from North Africa to North Iraq. This was the first contact made between the Moroccan Salibi and the ex-Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
It quickly sprouted a multinational mishmash that came to be the quintessence of many of al Qaeda’s frameworks.
Salibi set up his first operation in northern Iraq, backed by a rear base he established in Damascus and staffed with a band of fellow-Moroccans engaged in smuggling al Qaeda’s Arab fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan via Iran to Turkey and thence to Syria.
Some of those fugitives then continued to Saudi Arabia; others joined Zarqawi.
Salibi received help, some of it financial, from a group of Chechens living in Istanbul. He repaid them by diverting a number of al Qaeda fighters from Istanbul to Chechnya to help them fight the Russians.
In the early summer of 2002, the same Algerian group directed another Moroccan asset through Istanbul to Al Qaeda’s Damascus base. The arrival of Khalid Abu Basir was the last piece to be fitted into the Moroccan network that masterminded the March 2004 Madrid railway bombings.
This operation therefore took two years to set up. It was plotted several months before the US invasion of Iraq, which was presented at the time as the prime motivation behind the Madrid attack.
With bin Laden and Zarqawi still at large and active – not long
That same summer of 2002, the Damascus base was joined by the student of a local religious seminary, a Moroccan with Belgian citizenship called Mohammed Behar. In between classes, he ran a lucrative smuggling business in textile goods from Turkey to Syria through northern Iraq and Kurdistan. In the course of this pursuit, he came upon another branch of al Qaeda operating in Iraq and Iran, the violent ultra-fundamentalist Ansar al Islam.
Together these elements formed the nucleus of an efficient smuggling-cum-communications routing system that works perfectly up until the present for Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be hiding – in Afghanistan at the moment – and Zarqawi in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein who ruled Iraq at the time had no control over this underground net, any more than does Syrian president Bashar Assad at present. Perhaps this routing system could have been broken up at first, but no longer; today, the aggregate of pacts and accords that bind al Qaeda to local tribes, ethnic groups and sects would soon slide away from any hand seeking to root it out.
At the end of 2002, Behar returned to Morocco with instructions to build a terrorist network able to carry out a series of bombings in Casablanca in 2003.
The detainees rounded up in November revealed under questioning that Iraq before the American-led invasion and since is al Qaeda’s main source of the fake passports of all Middle East countries as well as stamps of entry and exit and work permits.
The big Palestinian Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus is another good place to find fake passports. An Egyptian-born Palestinian refugee known as Abu Firas handles the false passports coming from Iraq and touches them up to make them appear more genuine.
The picture taking shape of the seven al Qaeda networks is far from complete, although it is being filled in as the interrogation of dozens of senior terrorist operatives progresses. What is beginning to emerge is a terrorist organization strung between two focal points – Osma bin Laden at the northern end and Zarqawi in the south.
Damascus and Istanbul are the two hubs of activity and money and weapons movements. Messages and orders are routed through Istanbul.
This vast organization stretches from Europe and North Africa down to the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. It maintains a dark and dangerous core hidden deep in the Algerian desert lairs of the jihadist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
It stands to reason that with Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi still at large and the two mainline hubs of Damascus and the Algerian desert still in operation, al Qaeda retains the resources to reconstitute itself and its cells once again, even after losing dozens of top operatives and seven major networks.