Al-Qaeda tales from Osama's volunteers

Intelligence reports from captured Western recruits suggest the terror network is weakening

Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri photographed at an undisclosed location.

The meeting was tense. The six recruits, from immigrant communities in France and Belgium, had decided to confront their al-Qaeda handler. Before leaving their homes, they had watched al-Qaeda videos on the internet and seen massed battalions of mujahideen training on assault courses, exciting ambushes and inspiring speeches by Osama bin Laden.

Now they had spent months in Pakistan’s rugged frontier zones and had done nothing more than basic small arms training, some physical exercise and religious instruction. They had been deceived, they complained to the Syrian militant looking after them. The videos had lied.

Their handler was unapologetic. The flashy videos were a ‘trick’ that served a dual purpose, he told them, “to intimidate enemies and to attract new recruits — propaganda”.

The exchange, which took place a year ago, is revealed in interrogation documents obtained by the Guardian. The six would-be recruits are currently on trial in Europe after being arrested on their return home. But their experience is illuminating, amplifying suspicions about the current capability of the al-Qaeda movement, and raising crucial questions: how strong is Osama’s terrorist group? What control and influence does it exert beyond its safe havens in south-west Asia? As British troops fight and die to secure Afghanistan to make Britain safer, where does the main threat come from? How close is the image of al-Qaeda to the reality?

Eight years after the Sept 11 attacks in the US, it is clear that the threat to the UK remains. Britain is regularly cited as a target in militant propaganda and several dozen young British men, security sources say, travel every year to Pakistan to realise their ambitions of violent jihad.

Role in Afghanistan and Pakistan

This week’s conviction of three Britons of Pakistani origin for the 2006 ‘Lucozade’ plot against transatlantic flights was a sobering reminder. Others are recruited in Kashmir or the Punjab when they visit relatives. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan often involve al-Qaeda.

But if the will to strike remains strong, the ability of al-Qaeda’s central leadership to commission or execute spectacular attacks looks weaker than sometimes thought, experts say.

The reality in the Pakistani tribal areas is certainly different from the popular image. The European volunteers told of crossed wires and confusion. Having been cheated by people smugglers on their journey via Turkey, no one was expecting them when they arrived in North Waziristan. Next, they were surprised to find they were expected to pay around $1,000 for their equipment, weapons and accommodation. The statements appear to confirm intelligence reports that al-Qaeda is short of cash.

The disappointments continued. Osama was impossible to see, they were told. Nor was there any real need for them as fighters in Afghanistan. Training involved little live firing; they underwent weeks of religious instruction from a junior cleric; an instructor made a bomb, but they had no opportunity to try themselves. They were often forbidden to venture outdoors.

One of the six did eventually participate in operations against US forces. But the others, some ill and all disillusioned, gave up and returned to Europe. They deny prosecution claims that they came back to bomb the Brussels metro or football stadiums.
Their account of life at the heart of what intelligence sources call “the grand central station” of international Islamic militancy is corroborated by Bryant Neal Vinas, a young American convert arrested in October 2008. He also described moving from house to house and attending makeshift training sessions. His account, given to the FBI by Belgian investigators, stresses the militants’ bureaucratic mindset, and even describes filling in forms in triplicate before sitting exams to test his suitability for a suicide attack.

Vinas did finally participate in several raids on US army posts over the border in Afghanistan before being arrested by Pakistani agents. But though a motivated recruit, he describes the fragmented nature of al-Qaeda’s operations. He refers to the deaths of senior al-Qaeda figures in strikes by unmanned Predator drones.

The European volunteers speak of the almost neurotic concern about invisible ‘chips’ supposedly planted by spies to guide in missile attacks. Fear of interception meant no use of mobile phones, only radio and notes carried by hand — though one recruit was allowed to contact his girlfriend from an internet cafe in a nearby town.

Under pressure

Analysts agree with the picture of al-Qaeda under pressure. Intelligence services stress the efficacy of drone attacks eliminating a layer of ‘middle managers’ and the fatal vulnerability of electronic communications. Others point to the infrequency of statements from the leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama’s Egyptian deputy, speaks more often than the al-Qaeda leader. Messages are ‘opportunistic and vicarious’, claiming responsibility for events that are nothing to do with the group. “For aspirant followers and local groups it is very difficult to join up and get strategic planning or help, and that is a significant problem,” said Richard Barrett, co-ordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team.

“The leadership are losing relevance. Even 9/11 is now history for many younger potential recruits. al-Qaeda’s threats need to be credible. If not, they weaken quite quickly.”

Nigel Inkster, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, a former deputy director of MI6, said: “It’s a lot harder for al-Qaeda central to continue to orchestrate a coherent suite of operations against western targets.”

Although this month’s bombings have shown that al-Qaeda in Iraq is still active, the group is a shadow of its former self. al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, once focused in Saudi Arabia, Osama’s homeland, has been forced into exile in neighbouring Yemen, where poverty and conflicts have led to an upsurge in activity that has included bomb attacks on the US embassy and foreign tourists.

Saudi authorities, with US help, have run successful ‘deradicalisation’ programmes. Last month they arrested 40 suspects, but one man posing as a repentant militant blew himself up — with explosives hidden in his rectum — in a failed attempt to kill Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the mastermind of the kingdom’s counter-terrorist effort.
Elsewhere, al-Qaeda-related groups in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey remain weak in the face of popular hostility and effective and ruthless security services. al-Qaeda’s opposition to Hamas and Hezbollah, seen as the vanguard of resistance to Israel, is a serious handicap.

The Guardian

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