A top-secret gathering took place Wednesday, July 13, in one of the most out-of-the-way towns in the world, Nouakchott, capital of Mauaritania. It was attended by linchpins of the services responsible for the war on al Qaeda, the American Central Intelligence Agency, the British domestic and foreign secret services, MI5 and MI6, and the security chiefs of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources report that the meeting was called by British anti-terrorist services after their experts concluded that the team of terrorists that blew up three Tube trains and a bus in London on July 7 received their orders, explosives and operating funds from al Qaeda’s West Africa arm.
Very little is known about this remote wing of the Islamist group. Known as the West African Jam’a, it functions from deep inside the Sahara Desert under the command of Mukhtav bin Mukhtar, known also as the Blind One because he is one-eyed.
Al Qaeda refers to this area of operations as Zone 9 and it is one of the most remote, bizarre and hazardous of all its sectors.
West African Jam’a members live in hiding among the strange Tuareg tribes, no more than a million strong, of the Sahara desert. Predominantly nomadic, these Berber-speaking people roam mostly through the northern reaches of Mali near Timbuktu and Kidal.
The Tuareg are often referred to as the Blue Men of the Desert for their men’s indigo-dyed robes and blue face veils.
They live in small tribes and in families of between 30 to 100 members in large mat-covered tents and keep camels, goats, cattle and chickens. The Tuareg are proud of their fighting prowess and artwork. The two-edged sword is his most valued possession. It may be passed from generation to generation and is believed to be protected by the victories of its past owners.
Traveling unseen across seven countries
The exotic nature of their hosts is not what attracts the fundamentalist terrorists, but their manifold uses:
1. They range across seven African countries: Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Benin, large parts of Niger, Nigeria and Mauritania. Al Qaeda operatives traveling with the Tuareg have access to terrorists and smugglers away from prying eyes. In all these places, except for Algeria, security is lax.
2. For a terrorist moving around in northwest Africa, the blue veil is the perfect disguise.
3. Al Qaeda agents have learned some of the Tuareg tribes’ Berber dialects and use them as a form of internal code to guard their secrets from Western ears.
The West African Jam’a stages terrorist attacks only very rarely. Al Qaeda experts believe that even those few are carried out to divert attention from their main missions in the Sahara, which are the smuggling of arms, money and drugs.
For instance, al Qaeda’s drug shipments from Afghanistan to Europe, a primary source of funding for terrorist attacks, are routed by the West Africa Jam’a through the Sahara. Some people in counter-terror agencies believe that if anyone knows where al Qaeda has stowed its nuclear materials, it would be bin Mukhtar, who rules the West African wing of the terror organization and is also exceptionally well-connected with Russian, Central Asian, Balkan and Persian Gulf mafias.
Because of its functions and connections, the West African Jam’a is al Qaeda’s operational arm in the international crime world.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that British intelligence has mapped the route by which the explosives used in London reached the British Isles in the last two years:
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or another senior terrorist planner located in the Middle East, employed Jordanian, Syrian or Lebanese crime mobs to relay the money for purchasing explosives to the Serbia Mafia in Belgrade, which specializes in the acquisition of illicit weapons (See debkafile‘s exclusive report in HOT POINTS below).
The purchased explosives – only a part of the consignment was used, according to the British officials’ report in Nouakchott this week – were shipped from the Balkans to West Africa and conveyed by local smugglers to the al Qaeda agents of the West African Jam’a.
The explosives were divided into small packages for dispatch to the UK. Some of the merchandise was carried by smugglers boats sailing from Africa to Spain or Gibraltar, some through Algeria or Morocco.
The need to plug the terrorists back door from West Africa to Europe
This way of getting explosives materials into Britain may seem unnecessarily roundabout and tortuous. It should not be too hard to smuggle small packets of explosives or cash from one European country to another past the security checks at European ports? However, al Qaeda wants to be absolutely sure its deliveries are safe. It cannot rely on haphazard routes. Passing illicit goods through the ordinary underworld channels is chancy since most are either penetrated by informers or willing to sell information to anyone for the right price. But goods that go to ground in the Sahara among the Tuareg tribes are both safe and invisible; their trail vanishes and no modern intelligence agency is equipped to pick it up.
The Nouakchott meeting was called because the British believe that the directives and funds for the London bomb team made their way to the United Kingdom by this route. They wanted to discuss with their foreign colleagues ways of plugging this African back door to Europe, which provides Islamist terrorists the means to develop their schemes in deep cover.
Our al Qaeda experts note that in the past too, al Qaeda has exploited backward and isolated population groups to conceal terrorist plots. In 1993, five years before attacking American embassies in East Africa, al Qaeda sent its regional commander Mohammed Fazul – an operative as dangerous as Zarqawi – to live among the poor fishermen of the Comoro Islands. He even married a local woman and, for some years, appeared to have settled there for good – except that in between fishing expeditions, he masterminded all the terrorist attacks that struck that part of the world. After the 1998 embassy bombings, US intelligence picked up his trail in the Comoros. He escaped just ahead of capture.