Ripping Apart a Network of Terror

The 'Sleepers' Are Among Us

Shortly after the American bombardment of Afghanistan began in early October, there were many warnings that more terror attacks throughout the West could be expected. Then Ramadan came and more warnings were issued. But once again, nothing happened.

On Christmas, St. Peter’s Dome was not blown up, as was feared, and on New Year’s Day there were no spectacular attacks. What went wrong? Did the heads of the global secret service agencies exaggerate the threat in order to win bigger budgets for their organizations? Did security measures, greatly strengthened after Sept. 11, actually work? Or has the foundation of terrorism, the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, been so shattered that it no longer poses
any danger?

Experts on terrorism agree that it was some of each. But at the same time, they caution us not to underestimate the threat, even though not much has happened yet. “Al-Qaeda remains dangerous,” says, for example, Habib al-Adli, Egypt’s minister of the interior. And the acting assistant director of the FBI’s anti-terrorism division, J.T. Caruso, echoes his warnings about Al-Qaeda, and presents some real numbers as well: As many as 80,000 people may have been trained in Afghanistan under Bin Laden.

It is true that the number of people capable of carrying out terror attacks in the West is just a few hundred. But they pose a great threat. Caruso, incidentally, believes that the danger is more from “minor” attacks than from any “spectacular” event like that at the World Trade Center.

“Shoe-bomber” Richard Reid is the latest example of how terrorism is still hovering over us. Reid, a British convert to Islam, aroused the suspicions of French airport security agents in Paris just before Christmas, but ended up being allowed to board an airliner. If it had not been for an alert stewardess, he might have been able to detonate the plastic explosives he had hidden in the soles of his shoes.

Reid did set off alarm bells among the security agencies, for—after initial reports that he was acting alone—it was revealed that he was connected to Bin Laden. Reid had come into contact with the terrorists in one of the London mosques that for years has been the site of radical activity. The extremist activities in these mosques were so widespread that clerics within the Muslim community went to alert the police.
Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French citizen of Moroccan descent, also passed through one of these mosques. He is now facing trial in the United States. He was allegedly active in the preparations for the terror attacks there.

The agents learned a great deal about the beliefs and methods of the Al-Qaeda terrorists from another source: Jamal Beghal, from France, was arrested at the end of July in Dubai—for having a counterfeit visa. Beghal tried to save his skin and began to “sing.” Dozens of agents were put to work following up on the information he provided. But before the pieces of the puzzle could be put together, Sept. 11 came around....

Beghal is a typical example of how radical Islamists in Europe can be transformed into assistants to terrorists. He grew up in France, but never forgot his North African Muslim roots. He eventually became an activist and was recruited by Al-Qaeda agents.

But it was no accident that Beghal ended up being arrested. He had been watched by French security agencies for a long time. Paris, after all, has had to deal with Arab terrorists for a long time, and has devoted major resources to the task. For example: While American agencies do not even have enough translators to work on classical Arabic, the French have separate interpreter divisions for each of the 20 Arabic dialects spoken in Algeria.

Many of the radical Islamists living in the West are hard to detect. They reside here for many years as “sleepers,” meaning that they behave as normal individuals until they get the “call” from their leaders. Then they form small groups, carry out a task, and the group dissolves again.

The experts analyzing the Al-Qaeda network have also discovered that units in different countries were given different tasks. While London, for example, was, and perhaps still is, responsible for recruitment and logistics, the groups in German cities specialize in financing the organization, while in Belgium and Spain, the members work on creating and providing counterfeit documents.

In recent weeks, people have been tracked down—picked up because of suspicions that they were connected to Bin Laden’s organization—in several European countries: Spain, Italy, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Apparently at least 50 people, helpers of helpers of Bin Laden, have been taken in for interrogation.

But the authorities are not providing details. And the documents that were found in abandoned Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan are giving the experts new things to worry about as well. Many of them reveal very detailed plans for additional attacks in the West. But the documents also show that Al-Qaeda could have counted on help from many sympathizers in the West. Until now all that was known was that a handful of Americans, Australians, and Germans had fought with the Taliban. But there are now reports coming from London that there were at least 40 British Al-Qaeda fighters. There is even greater concern in Paris, for apparently there are about 100 Frenchmen—mostly of North African origin—in the Al-Qaeda network. Most of them seem to have escaped. According to a high-ranking intelligence officer in Paris, “They did not flee to Pakistan in order to check out the mosques. They will be looking for ways to get back to Europe in order to set off more bombs here.”

A recently published document gave grounds for more worry: The letter is supposed to have been written by one of Bin Laden’s closest colleagues. “If a military defeat looms before us, then the movement (Al-Qaeda) must bring as many members as possible to safety. Some must stay behind and fight to
the death. If they know that key members of the movement have escaped and will be able to carry on the fight somewhere else, at another time, then they can die without fear.”