In the very week that Osama bin Laden surfaced in two audio tapes outlining his next plans of action in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, the US Central Intelligence Agency decided to dismantle its Hunt-for-OBL unit.
Codenamed Alec Station, the unit was formed exactly ten years ago. Because the masters of US intelligence have come to the conclusion that al Qaeda is no longer the hierarchical organization that it was before 9/11, the unit’s staff has been reassigned to tracking regional networks rather than individuals, according to one source.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts estimate that, barring an unexpected opportunity or an intelligence bonanza, the Americans have little hope of laying hands on the al Qaeda leader in the foreseeable future.
Bin Laden, in contrast, is full of new plans.
According to our counter-terror sources, al Qaeda’s next big target is the Yemeni president, Abdallah Salah.
In the first tape he released Saturday, July 1, bin Laden calls Salah “an American agent and traitor to Islam”, a Muslim who betrayed his faith and threw in his lot with infidels. He accuses the Yemeni ruler of collaborating with the CIA and abetting American troops in firing rockets at key al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
Al Qaeda’s top priority now is the overthrow of the Salah regime in Sanaa.
The decisive and authoritative tone of the message is backed up, according to DEBK-Net–Weekly’s counter-terror sources, by a directive from the boss himself to Saudi fighters in al Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq, and those who returned home, to turn around and head for Yemen with all possible speed to take up arms under his orders.
From mid-2005 until the first half of 2006, US intelligence experts estimated that most of the Saudis fighting in Iraq had already gone home, while the Saudi security authorities had beaten al Qaeda networks in the kingdom into the ground and their cells were no longer operational.
Al Qaeda’s Saudi cells spring back to life
Then, round about June of this year, this assessment was reversed.
A new CIA report on the condition of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s network and its affiliates in Iraq after he was killed on June 8 stated that 70 percent of the foreign al Qaeda terrorists captured by the US army in Iraq in the last six months were Saudi nationals.
A similar picture of broad Saudi participation emerged from a Jordanian intelligence investigation into the bombings at three Amman hotels in November 2005, in which 60 people were killed. The Jordanians reversed their original assumption that the bombers came from Iraq and established that they hailed from western Saudi Arabia, where they had trained and prepared for the attacks.
A recent discovery about the new ways of al Qaeda cells in the oil kingdom demonstrated that, far from being extinguished, they are alive and well and obey their invisible leader. DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that Saudi terror operatives gave up their distinctive beards and shaven heads in order to trick Saudi intelligence into the false assumption that they had packed in their al Qaeda associations and gone home to their families or tribes.
In fact, they had only changed their appearance, not their occupation. In the guise of non-religious young men, they continued to be active in most Saudi cities, including Riyadh.
The Saudi authorities uncovered the deceit in the battle they fought with a large group of al Qaeda gunmen cornered in the high-end Nahil suburb of Riyadh on June 23. Six al Qaeda operatives were killed – all dressed in the indistinctive clothes of modern young men. They had shorn the beards mandatory for pious Muslim men and acquired Western style hair cuts. No one would have picked them out for Muslim fundamentalists. They also carried $5 m in their pockets.
A brief investigation brought to light the special dispensation bin Laden in person had given al Qaeda fighters in Saudi Arabia to assume non-religious fronts to elude capture.
His call to hundreds of his followers to cross Saudi Arabia’s southern border into Yemen and forgather for battle on the new frontline against its ruler is part of the new bin Laden scheme; it is the key to the new strategy he is in the process of shaping.
Yemen is bin Laden’s ancestral home, where many tribal leaders, especially in Hadhramauth and the borderlands with Saudi Arabia, own greater allegiance to the al Qaeda leader than to Abdullah Salah.
Furthermore, a month ago, Somalia’s fundamentalist Union of Islamic Courts defeated the pro-US alliance of warlords and seized power in Mogadishu. Among the leaders of the victorious group were several senior al Qaeda East African operatives.
This tidal change in the Horn of Africa’s fortunes reignited in bin Laden his old dream of establishing a new caliphate stretching from Afghanistan to Arabia and across the sea to East Africa.
In recognition of Zarqawi’s operational prowess, Bin Laden was shrewd enough to give him free rein to pursue his strategic goals, although he did not altogether share them. For instance, bin Laden never really endorsed Zarqawi’s aspiration to shift the focus of al Qaeda’s campaign from Iraq to Jordan, Sinai, Egypt and Palestine. But he gave him his head and did not interfere.
Now that the chief of the Iraq wing is gone, the al Qaeda leader is taking advantage of the moment to regain command of al Qaeda’s strategic directions.
After analyzing the contents of the coded messages circulating around the terrorist organization, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s al Qaeda experts have concluded that bin Laden is convinced that by toppling Abdullah Salah in Sanaa and replacing his government with a pro-al Qaeda regime, as in Mogadishu, his fundamentalist organization can go on to build a strong axis linking Afghanistan-Pakistan, Somalia, Sanaa and Baghdad.
For this reason, the latest bin Laden tapes show little interest in the Levant, Egypt and Palestine, which were Zarqawi favorites.