Killing or capturing Osama bin Laden is the key to defeating the Al-Qaeda terror network, US Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, told legislators on Capitol Hill. He went on to specify: “It would not defeat al Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don't think we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he is captured or killed.”
This comment in a briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Dec. 8, made his audience sit up, puzzled by McChrystal's reference to bin Laden nearly ten years after he escaped with his family from the Tora Bora siege (described in detail by this publication at the time it happened) – never to be seen since.
The senators may have wondered how his comment tied in with a remark two days earlier from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who said: “We don't know for a fact where Osama bin Laden is. If we did, we'd go and get him,” and the US media, in reporting on President Barack Obama's speech, repeating his claim that there are no more than 100 active al-Qaeda members in all of Afghanistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources reveal that the remarks was prompted by data received from the German BND spy agency in early October reporting its discovery of a network or cluster of networks, structurally similar to the Hamburg cell which planned and executed the 9/11 attacks in America. The BND could not establish whether the fragments uncovered were parts of one big network, or separate cells, some acting as decoys.
Five problems have made it hard for the German agency to sort it out:
1. Faces entirely new to Western anti-terror agencies form the new structures; none has any known association with al-Qaeda operatives or even their family members. So other than establishing the network's existence, the BND has no clue to its affiliation.
More secretive than ever, fair Westerners are the new operatives
2. Al-Qaeda has clamped down further on its already tight secretiveness and the compartmenting of cells.
Network leaders and members – in and outside Europe, in such places as Afghanistan and Pakistan – are forbidden to communicate by telephone, whether cell or satellite, or use Internet lines such as email. Connections are maintained by a small band of secret couriers who memorize coded messages and transfer them orally at destination without understanding their content, a safeguard against betrayal in case they are captured.
3. Al Qaeda is believed to have taken to employing in their European networks typical Westerners of Caucasian appearance quite different from the stereotypical Muslim. They are multi-tasked, used for attacks, target selection and reconnaissance. If necessary, they procure weapons and explosives or even raise funds for operations.
4. The German agency is certain the new networks operate on direct orders from Osama Bin Laden, or his close circle of top lieutenants. However, since he was linked directly to an attack in September, 2001, nothing his known of his leadership style, tactics and modus operandi, which may or may not have changed in the interim years up to 2009.
No one knows if he still prefers to dictate the general nature of an attack and its target, leaving the finer details to local cell leaders, like the Hamburg cell's Mohamed Atta who, in 2001, led the four hijacking teams and piloted American Airlines Flight 11; Ramzi Binalshibh, who conspired with the other three members but was unable to enter the United States; and Marwan al-Shehhi, who piloted United Airlines Flight 175.
The data available to the BND indicates that bin Laden or his top lieutenants tend to more hands-on involvement in attacks than nine years ago.
Germany's master spy has no doubts of impending attacks
5. Counter-intelligence has no advance warning of al Qaeda conspiracies as to exact location and timeline. Information reaching German intelligence predicts mass terror attacks in European capitals according to the following priority schedule: Berlin or another major German city such as Hamburg or Frankfurt, followed by London, Paris, Rome and Moscow. These attacks are expected to be curtain-openers for the main action, probably during 2010, against a major US city in the US, al Qaeda's prime targets being, once again, New York as well as Los Angeles.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources report that Secretary of Defense Gates mentioned Bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora, and Gen. McChrystal referred to the al Qaeda leader's role in the Afghan-Pakistani conflict out of the blue, because President Obama has asked them to keep track of any intelligence murmur out of Pakistan and Afghanistan – however vague or illogical – which may tie in with the BND's information.
Sources in Washington rate the German data as extremely limited and based more on external symptoms than concrete facts. Nonetheless, the BND Chief and master spy Ernst Uhrlau, who may have more experience than any man alive in matters of terror and fundamentalist Islam, is certain that his information reliably portends a wave of large-scale Islamist terror across Europe, the Middle East and eventually the US.