Osama bin Laden Looks Like Heading for Iraq
Coded electronic signals bandied in recent days among al Qaeda Middle Eastern elements across secret Internet sites all carry the same message: the supreme leader, Osama bin Laden, has come out of hiding in Afghanistan and set out, or is about to set out, for Iraq. This is the sense gained from this correspondence by debkafile‘s exclusive counter-terror sources.
Some of the signals schedule his date of arrival as the second half of September when Ramadan is estimated to begin. His arrival in Iraq is planned to signal the launching of the biggest offensive his organization has ever launched against the US army. If these signals are a true representation of bin Laden’s plans and not a red herring, what is planned is a dramatic landmark battle in the global war on terror and the Iraqi conflict.
The signals cap a secret exchange of messages in recent weeks in which al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al -Zarqawi attempted to persuade bin Laden to leave Afghanistan and take command of the Ramadan offensive in Iraq. Zarqawi argued the importance of his transferring from Afghanistan to Iraq on two grounds: to boost al Qaeda’s standing as it embarks on an “offensive whose scale and importance rival the September 2001 operation.” and in the interests of his own personal safety.
Zarqawi stressed, according to our sources, that bin Laden will be safer in Iraq than in Afghanistan – an indication of Jordanian terrorist’s inflated self-confidence.
debkafile and DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts have authenticated the messages as emanating from Zarqawi. Their secret contents have begun to leak out and set up a huge flap in al Qaeda networks, cells and affiliates in many countries and talk of “a new jihad to honor the leader.”
If bin Laden was indeed swayed by Zarqawi and aims to reach Iraq by mid-September, he has little time to lose and must already have set out on his winding secret journey, or be about to depart. One of his options would be the long way round through Pakistani and Iranian Baluchistan and across the border into Iraq.
But there is an alternative route from Pakistan which he might find easier. debkafile‘s counter-terror sources revealed last May that al Qaeda had established a new marine base in the remote Gawatar Bay, a Persian Gulf inlet down the middle of which runs the Pakistani-Iranian border. Al Qaeda operatives are known to be active on both shores – on the Pakistani side, they use as sanctuaries the Baluchi villages strung along the River Dasht which empties into the divided bay; on the Iranian side, the move around the Baluchi port of Chah-Bahar (Bandar Beheshti).
From both these places, al Qaeda has for months been running a sea corridor of smugglers’ vessels into the southern Iraqi port of Basra. There, they clandestinely drop arms and fighters and collect injured men on the return trip for treatment in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda’s marine traffic from Baluchistan was first revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 211 on June 24.
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The al Qaeda leader may choose to enter Iraq by sea rather than take the long, overland route, in which case his people will have arrived at Gawatar Bay and making preparations for his journey. He would have reason to believe it is safer. Intelligence of al Qaeda’s Baluchi sea smugglers has reached the American and British naval forces operating in the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al Arb, Basra and the southern Iraqi oil terminals. Yet neither has been able to put a stop to the traffic.
Bin Laden has proved himself an undercover escape artist par excellence. In the five years since he escaped the Bora Bora siege, he and his party, including his close tribe, have managed to flit from place to place undetected – even when his pursuers were close and watching out for him.
If he does indeed make it to Iraq, the public airing of his presence in the Land of the Two Rivers, would have a radical impact on the nature of the Iraq conflict. No longer a mere guerrilla campaign, it would escalate to a full-scale fight to the finish against al Qaeda in Iraq, analogous to the all-out hostilities in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden’s organization has begun referring to the Iraq conflict in these ultimate terms.