This week, Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Osama bin Laden‘s senior partner, gave the impression of having been goaded into speech by angry contempt. His words, recorded on audiotape and aired by the Arab television station al Jazeera on February 23, angrily rejected the claim US President George W. Bush made in his State of the Union address that two-thirds of al Qaeda’s known leadership has been captured or killed.
Bush is lying, he declared. He has not crushed two-thirds of al Qaeda. “On the contrary, thanks to Allah, al Qaeda remains on the battleground of the holy war, raising the banner of Islam to fight the Zio-Crusader campaign against the Islamic community.
“Bush, strengthen your defenses and tighten your security measures,” the tape said, “because the Muslim nation, which sent brigades to New York and Washington, has decided to send you one brigade after another, carrying death and seeking paradise.”
The Egyptian terror chief might have been a lot less arrogant had he known that the day after the tape was released his son Khaled, 34, would by chance fall into the hands of Pakistani forces in South Waziristan. Our sources report that the capture of the son of one of the two top men in al Qaeda is of high importance, though more of a psychological blow to his father than a useful source of information. Khaled fought in the region in which he was caught. He has not seen his father for three years or more and has no more notion of his whereabouts or the doings of the top al Qaeda leadership than any other rank-and-file fighter in this highly compartmentalized organization.
Otherwise, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-intelligence sources concede that the Egyptian surgeon has a point. Only three senior Al Qaeda men have been killed since September 2000 and, save for the partial destruction of the organization’s infrastructure in Germany, its terrorist cells have doubled in number and broadened their theaters of operation.
In fact, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 146 revealed on February 20, far from being crushed, al Qaeda’s leaders function ably enough to conduct a switch in tactics. They have refocused their covert recruiting efforts on Europe, bringing “white” Muslim converts into their violent embrace.
Al Qaeda cells are also operational in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Chechnya and most of Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan — where they are incorporated into the local radical Muslim underground known as IMU – as well as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the Ferghana Valley bordering on China.
The Egyptian Islamic Jihad arm of al Qaeda runs well-organized, medium-sized training camps in the Ferghana Valley and in Iran with capacity for training several hundred fighters concurrently.
Bush referred to al Qaeda, but Zawahiri’s point of reference is his own Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The two groups merged ceremonially in 2002, but they are disparate in important ways.
Al Qaeda, for example, operates in Iraq. EIJ does not. Al Qaeda is active in Saudi Arabia, but it was an EIJ man, Iran-based Sayef al-Adel, who organized the Al Qaeda bombings of Westerners’ compounds in Riyadh on May 12, 2003.
Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian operations master is another such case. He has been described as belonging to the al Qaeda leadership. He is in fact a semi-independent terrorist-for-hire and much closer ideologically and personally to Zawahiri than to Bin Laden.
In a sign that it is branching out, EIJ recently opened a joint liaison office with al Qaeda in Cairo, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-intelligence sources report. The small bureau may lack the stylish trappings of Western premises, but it does take care of one of the most urgent personal needs of the terrorist, safe contact with his family. Terrorists on overseas missions are finding it harder than ever to maintain family ties. Back in the days before 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorists were allowed home visits once or twice a year and could spend long periods with their families before heading back to base. Now, the fundamentalist battleground embraces the whole world, keeping terrorists constantly on the go. Their destinations are often changed in mid-journey to shake off trackers. Their time at home at home has shrunk correspondingly. Knowing that the Cairo office is looking after their nearest and dearest eases the minds of the hard men of terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report the liaison bureau operates out of the Zayat legal offices which specialize in defending Muslim fundamentalists in Egyptian courts. For security reasons, couriers are used to ferry messages to and from terrorists all over the world. The legal firm’s large staff takes care of all the travel arrangements.
Wednesday, February 25, the day Zuwahiri’s son was caught, his group suffered a second setback. Sudan’s president Umar Hasan Ahmed Al-Bashir yielded to demands from Washington to sack intelligence chief General Karim Abdallah and start purging Sudan’s security services of his supporters. Abdallah and his men were long a thorn in American sides in the entire Red Sea and East Africa region because of their close interrelations with Zuwahiri’s operations officers.
For handsome fees, Sudanese agents gave Egyptian fundamentalist terrorists intelligence information, provided hideouts and forged documents and protected the Jihad and al Qaeda gangs moving around the region. In 1995, General Abdallah personally helped move a Jihad- al Qaeda assassination squad through Sudan to Addis Ababa for a failed attempt on the life of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Today, he is suspected of acting as a live wire in the liaison network operating out of the Zayat legal office in Cairo.
The al-Zawihiri tape was more than disputatious; it was threatening. Its tone confirmed the sense of anticipation permeating intercepts of electronic traffic put out in recent days by al Qaeda and EIJ. Operatives from both groups are talking about the launch of three major terrorist offensives in the spring – in the United States, Afghanistan and Iraq.
US counter-terrorism authorities find the chatter corresponds with intelligence coming to light. In one of the clearest signs that something big is afoot, Al Qaeda and EIJ operatives on family leave have been ordered to be back at their bases by late March. Anticipation of this offensive was a driving force behind the current US military operation in Afghanistan and the intense activity of Pakistani forces in the Waziristan region with the aim of encircling the mountainous area in northern Waziristan dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan and pinning al Qaeda and Zawahiri loyalists down until the spring thaw.
These mountains are even more rugged than the Tora Bora cave complex of Afghanistan from which bin Laden gave the Americans the slip in 2001. Until the spring, US-backed Pakistani forces are picking up collaborators of al Qaeda or Taliban among the tribes living at the foot of the mountains. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s doubt that these fighters will wait for the spring before they melt away themselves through the many hidden mountain passes.