The seven al Qaeda networks partially rolled up this month were found to have operated in Syria, Turkey, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Britain, Denmark and Algeria. The upward of 50 senior commanders detained thus far described proudly and in detail how they operated under the direct command of Osama bin Laden. They revealed under interrogation that the mythic al Qaeda leader is up and running in Afghanistan having established new training camps there.
More revelations are expected as more al Qaeda operatives are detained. But already, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources report, the Belgian and Istanbul networks are emerging as key hubs of a region extending from Western Europe to parts of North Africa.
The Belgian Network – Pivotal
Khalid Abu Basir, Emir of al Qaeda in Europe, was the kingpin of the syndicate of the seven networks.
With another Moroccan-born terror operative, Khalid Asiq, he was assigned in mid-2004 to rebuild the run-down cells in West Europe and North Africa into thriving operational networks. In the first stage, they were not given terrorist commissions; working out of Brussels and Antwerp, Charleroi and Riemst, they brought the seven networks into sync and collected a pool of volunteers willing to carry out terrorist and suicide strikes.
Both men were arrested in Brussels. Our sources reveal they immediately launched into detailed descriptions of their activities, spilling everything they knew about al Qaeda’s activities and mode of operation.
Al Qaeda penetrated the Berber people through the Belgian network, which recruited suicide bombers from among radicalized elements in the expatriate community in Antwerp. It also found Berbers who volunteered to go back to Morocco and mobilize to al Qaeda more of their countrymen among disaffected Berber elements.
Brussels and Antwerp were the second communications stations for Osama bin Laden’s orders that were transmitted first to the Istanbul center. Belgium relayed those orders to the European, North African and Middle East cells, including bin Laden’s instructions for Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq.
This week, Moroccan security service agents visited Brussels to study the data procured from the interrogations of the chiefs of the Brussels network and their ties to Morocco.
As part of the investigation into the Belgian terrorist network, the Paris police arrested a 27-year old Tunisian man Wednesday, Nov. 30, with alleged links to the Belgian cell.
Earlier this month, the trial began of 13 Belgian and Moroccan nationals accused of providing logistics for the Islamic fundamentalist group which carried out the 2004 Madrid rail attacks in which 191 people died and the 2003 Casablanca bombings that killed 45. They were charged with supplying a safe house, false papers and logistical aid to the al Qaeda-linked Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.
Belgium had clearly emerged by then as a center for supplying terrorists with fake Belgian passports, among the myriad functions provided the fundamentalist terror movement.
The Chechen-Turkish network
Just as Brussels was the operations and planning center for West Europe and Morocco, Istanbul turns out to be the communications and money distribution center.
Chechens living in Turkey ran the two vital services from Istanbul, although the two were so strictly compartmented and secretive that neither knew about the other.
As al Qaeda’s financial center, this network was responsible for the collection and distribution of funds, most streamed from the various networks to Istanbul through regular postal bank deliveries picked up from post offices in Istanbul, or brought in by special courier. Couriers also collected the allocations for Zarqawi’s operations in Iraq, which were sent to Istanbul from Damascus by Khalid Salibi, or picked up by Salibi in person on visits to Istanbul.
Moroccan security officials found in possession of the al Qaeda operatives they detained the round sum of $40,000 in cash which had been remitted from Istanbul. In Morocco this is a vast sum, enough to pay for large and numerous terrorist attacks.
Communications and Signals: The Chechen communications section in Istanbul was much larger and more sophisticated than the financial center.
The fundamentalist organization was discovered to have kept its network commanders connected and relayed orders from Afghan headquarters by means of an army of couriers and coded messages through the Internet.
The arrested suspects revealed that these couriers carried bin Laden’s instructions to senior al Qaeda commanders in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe from Afghanistan to Istanbul.
They had regular geographic beats which they traversed with letters or funds with relay stations en route. A courier heading into Iran from Afghanistan, for instance, would hand his burden over to the next messenger at a regular handover station. Pick-ups were arranged by dates or coded signals transmitted by Internet. The chain extended from Afghanistan to Istanbul and thence to other points in the Middle East and Europe. Couriers would cross from Syria into western Iraq at al Qaim with messages and instructions from bin Laden in Afghanistan to Zarqawi in Baghdad.
Under interrogation in Brussels, Khaled Azig recounted how he visited Istanbul to pick up bin Laden’s letters for the terrorist networks in Morocco and Europe. He revealed that the letters were written in the supreme leader’s own handwriting. The Istanbul center would request couriers from Morocco to carry Bin Laden’s letters to al Qaeda terror chiefs in Saudi Arabia.
Aziq’s frequent calls on the Chechens in Istanbul were his undoing. The suspicions of Turkish intelligence were aroused and they began to follow him. They were led to the Chechen cell and uncovered its link to Brussels and alerted Belgian intelligence who took it from there.
A Footnote on couriers in spy history
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence experts recall two classical spy agencies which used couriers as the safest and most undetectable form of message-transmission. One such shadowy courier service was set up in the early 1940s by the innovative Egyptian-born spymaster Henri Curiel who operated undercover for Moscow – also out of Istanbul. His army of runners served the networks of the British turncoat Kim Philby. The second agency using couriers up until the present day is China’s MSS and its military intelligence. One can only wonder from which cloak-and-dagger agency Osama bin Laden learned his courier trick – the Russians or the Chinese. But like the Chinese, he sticks to this basic method even in the electronic age.
The Moroccan network – strategic and domestic
Most of the Moroccan network’s members were recruited outside that country, primarily among expatriates teaching and studying at the medressas and theological seminaries in and around Damascus.
The al Qaeda executive in charge of their recruitment is Khalid Salibi aka Abu Za’im, Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s principal contact man in Damascus. Salibi takes care of all of Zarqawi’s logistical requirements for manpower, weapons and funds. He also coordinates the activities of Zarqawi’s henchmen outside Iraq and handles Zarqawi’s interchanges with bin Laden and network commanders in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Abu Zaim obtained from Khalid Abu Basir and Khaled Asig in Brussels the names of all the Moroccan teaching staff and students at schools in Damascus, including lists of those attached to Damascus University’s religious studies faculty. The lists were relayed to the Brussels headquarters by the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Mohammed R’ha and Khalid Azig paid regular trips to the Syrian capital to keep track of recruitment and get their orders from Zarqawi.
Azig spent some time in Damascus this year and in June traveled to Morocco after setting up a link with Khaled Abu Basir at the Brussels headquarters.
R’ha arrived in Morocco on Sept. 29 at the head of a group of terrorists who had completed their training in Iraq and Syria. The group passed first through Istanbul where they were given funds for activating the Moroccan network and mounting terrorist attacks. But this group was caught. The American CIA tipped off Moroccan intelligence on the date of arrival. Its members were followed and arrested and the Moroccan network broken up.
Other members of the Moroccan network are named here as Mohammed Mazouz, 32, Brahim Benchekroun, 26, and Redouane Chekkouri, 33.
The latter two were held in the American Guantanamo Bay terrorists facility in Cuba and released later, only to return to Morocco in August 2004 to pick up their former terrorist activities. All three were picked up in Morocco on Nov. 11
The Moroccan Network’s assignments: This network had been given several missions.
Its bombers were told to carry out suicide attacks on US warships based at Essaouira (Mogador) on Morocco’s Atlantic coast south of Casablanca, opposite the Portuguese Madeira Islands.
In Agadir, they were to target de luxe hotels hosting American, Israel and British tourists.
In Tangiers – the casino was their objective.
In Rabat, suicide bombers were ordered to blow up the Moroccan parliament during a well-attended session.
In Casablanca, they were to have blown up the US consulate and the Jewish synagogue when it was filled with worshippers.
This network’s field of operation included also Mauritania and Tunisia. The Berber network was an integral part of the Belgian and Moroccan rings.