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Al Qaeda's Possible Hidden Operatives

5 MINS READMay 3, 2005 | 22:50 GMT
A three-day gunbattle in early April between Saudi security forces and al Qaeda militants in the small central Saudi town of Al Ras left eight militants dead, including Abdel Karim al-Majati, an internationally wanted fugitive from Morocco. Al-Majati was one of many mid-level al Qaeda operatives assigned to organize cells throughout the world — with the goal of conducting attacks. Although the global war on terrorism has made such operatives vulnerable to exposure and interdiction, it is possible that some remain at large. Al-Majati belonged to a network of graduates of al Qaeda training camps that operated in Afghanistan before the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Graduates of these camps spread throughout the world, acting as "sleeper cells" in Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States. Sources within radical Islamist circles in Saudi Arabia say a great many of the 40,000 or so people who trained at the Afghan camps from 1996 to 2001 did not formally pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden or become part of the al Qaeda organization. The graduates, however, did become part of the wider jihadist movement, returning to their home countries or going elsewhere to carry out independent jihadist activities. Al-Majati fit the profile of a successful al Qaeda militant: French-educated, cosmopolitan and linguistically proficient, he moved easily between Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. By some accounts, al-Majati spoke better French than Arabic. Saudi authorities, who considered him a significant al Qaeda member, believe he set up cells in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Spain. The most spectacular example of al-Majati's work, according to Saudi security officials, was the May 2003 attack against a Western expatriate housing compound in Riyadh. Moroccan officials implicated him in a series of suicide attacks in Casablanca, also in May 2003. Although al-Majati was not directly connected to the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, European investigators say he trained in the Afghan camps in the 1990s, where he met Amer el-Azizi, a Moroccan wanted by Spanish authorities for his part in that attack. Another militant who performed the same function as al-Majati is Abdel Basit Karim, alias Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing and numerous other plots around the world. One of Yousef's most notorious plots involved blowing up five airliners simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. Yousef was associated with bin Laden in the days before bin Laden — having been stripped of his Saudi citizenship — moved to Afghanistan to establish al Qaeda in its definitive form. Yousef and militant Ahmed Ajaj left bin Laden's Khaldan training camp in September of 1992 and traveled to New York, where they established contact with the al-Kifah Refugee Center, popularly known as the Brooklyn Jihad Office. While in New York, Yousef formed the cell that would carry out the 1993 WTC bombing. Following the attack, Yousef returned to Afghanistan and from there was sent to the Philippine capital of Manila, where he planned the airliner attacks, dubbed Operation Bojinka. In January 1995, investigators on the scene of a fire in Yousef's Manila apartment discovered his plans, forcing him to flee the country. In Islamabad, Pakistan, he formed another team, which traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, to continue work on Operation Bojinka. Suffering from cold feet and/or greed, however, recruit Istaique Parker, a South African Muslim who had been living in Pakistan, turned Yousef in for the reward money. U.S. agents then moved in for the arrest. Wadih el-Hage, another such mid-level al Qaeda operative, was a Maronite Christian Lebanese who converted to Islam. El-Hage, who had lived in Kuwait, entered the United States in 1978 to attend college as an urban planning major. (His education was funded by a Kuwaiti sheikh.) He interrupted his schooling in 1979 to fight in the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and returned to the United States in 1985 to finish school at the University of Southern Louisiana. After graduation, el-Hage moved to Sudan to work for al Qaeda, and in 1994 he traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to form a cell there. El-Hage left Kenya in September 1997 under pressure from Kenyan and U.S. investigators. The cell he had established, however, went on to conduct simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998. He later was arrested in Arlington, Texas, charged with conspiracy to kill Americans and, in 2001, sentenced to life in prison. The conditions under which these operatives established their various cells, however, no longer exist. Troops involved in the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan broke up the training camps that had been instrumental in establishing the worldwide jihadist network. As time passes, this network shrinks more and more as its members are captured or killed. To make up for this personnel shortage, operatives like al-Majati have had to draw from Muslims who have recently arrived from their home countries. This, of course, exposes the recruiters to possible apprehension as word of their presence spreads among the immigrant community. The assumption that most of al Qaeda's mid-level operatives have been captured or killed is based on another assumption — that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have identified all those who do remain. Although the old network has been compromised, effective operatives possibly remain at large.

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