WASHINGTON, D.C.—At least four Muslim organizations with past connections to Osama bin Laden or other terrorist fundamentalists operate within the U.S. and Canada.
At least two of them have ties with the Saudi royal family, which initially supported Bin Laden and the fundamentalist cause in Afghanistan. The royal family consists of some 2000 members and represents a wide spectrum of political beliefs, from playboys to fundamentalists. And it pays at least lip service to fundamentalists by allowing their religious police to roam the streets harassing the populace. The late king Faisal was a friend of Bin Laden’s father. While Saudi Arabia claims to have broken relations with Bin Laden and the Taliban following the September 11 attack, Bin Laden reportedly still has ties with family members. After the September 11 bombing, King Fahd, the current Saudi ruler, phoned his nation’s ambassador in Washington and asked him to protect Bin Laden’s family in the U.S. Under FBI supervision, family members were quickly gathered together and sent home. (The Saudi royal family has always denied any connection to terrorism.)
The number of terrorists within the U.S. Muslim community, which numbers more than 7 million, is unknown. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the government had detained 500 people and is looking for another 400.
Experts think the total number is relatively modest, anywhere from less than 100 to more than a thousand. “I would say small,” says David Isby of Jane’s Intelligence Review. “What we saw took five years to put together.” “I would say dozens, rather than hundreds,” estimates Mark Pitcavage, fact-finding director of B’nai B’rith’s Anti Defamation League. “There are terrorist groups in the U.S. But many terrorists view us as a big piggy bank. Terrorists do fundraising here, whether soliciting funds from immigrant communities, à la the IRA, or setting up businesses to siphon off money or charities designed to collect money.”
Where do they live? FBI portraits of the hijackers show them melding into the suburban American landscape. One suspect was even a sergeant in the U.S. Army. “Al Qaeda and others like it . . . have carefully thought about evading law enforcement detection,” says terrorism expert Jessica Stern, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “A manual that came to light during the African embassy bombing trial instructed operatives living in enemy territory to dress so they could not be identified as Muslims, to shave their beards, to rent apartments in newer areas where people do not know one another, and to not chat too much, especially to cab drivers.” Adds Paul Wilkinson of St. Andrews College in Scotland, which has become the world center of terrorist studies: “It is clear they didn’t attract much attention to themselves. They didn’t take any part in political activities. They blended in well to their environment. They were not suspected by neighbors of any malevolent or illegal activity. It indicates a well-briefed, tightly controlled operation.”
“A good terrorist is the most boring person,” adds Isby. “Totally law abiding and never drives above 55 miles per hour, because they’re afraid they’ll get stopped for speeding and caught on that.”
Neil Livingstone, another terrorist expert in Washington, says that “betrayal is probably the biggest fear they have. That someone will sell them out, even close relations. Ramzi Yousef [the 1993 WTC bomber] was sold out in Pakistan.”
By Monday, October 1, the Taliban was reportedly beginning to crack inside Afghanistan, with some members trying to jump ship before it was too late. If this turns out to be true, it could be a big break for Western intelligence, and might lead to the whereabouts of Bin Laden himself.
The Muslim organizations with past operations in North America:
• The notorious Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HUM)— “movement of holy warriors”—labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. With leaders trained in Afghanistan, HUM focused its activities on Kashmir, killing tourists there. It was responsible for the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian airliner to Afghanistan. The group fought the Soviets during the war and has close ties to the Taliban. It reportedly has recruited in North America.
• International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) and the Muslim World League, two closely associated Muslim charities. Both are tightly tied to the Saudi royal family and have been previously investigated for possible terrorist activities, according to The Washington Post. The IIRO has given $60 million to the Taliban. In 1999 an Orlando, Florida, resident who had worked for the Muslim World League in Pakistan was jailed after he refused to explain his connections to people involved in the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. The IIRO said it has nothing to do with terrorism, and Saudi intelligence claims there are no ties to the Saudi royal family. But Jonathan Winter, a former State Department official, testified before Congress last week, saying that Islamic charities have “either provided funds to terrorists or failed to prevent their funds from being diverted to terrorist use,” according to the Post.
• Al-Fuqra (AF), which began clandestine activities in the Muslim communities of North America and the Caribbean in the 1980s. This group is reported to have raised money for fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and recruited groups of African Americans to train within Pakistan. Based in Hancock, New York, the group had an estimated 1000 to 3000 members in the U.S. in the ’90s.
Documents seized in Colorado reportedly revealed the group was doing surveillance on various targets including Colorado gas, electric, and hydroelectric projects, along with National Guard armories, police stations, communications control sites, and airports [see “The Next Attack? sidebar]. Fuqra attacks during the 1980s included assassinations and fire bombings across the U.S. Fuqra members in the U.S. have been linked to murder and fraud.
It goes without saying that numerous individuals associated with these groups look for spiritual guidance from Sheik Umar Abdel-Rahman, jailed for life for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing. The blind sheik has ties with Egypt’s once large Islamic Group. It’s best known for its efforts to kill Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak and successfully murdering tourists at Luxor. According to the State Department, IG has operations in Great Britain, but not the U.S. It has ties to Bin Laden as well.
Law enforcement thinks that many members of the September 11 hijack team were “sleepers”—operatives sent some years ago to blend into American society. Sleepers are a big problem and can only really be stopped by penetrating their command structure. British efforts to find sleepers among the IRA offer an example of just how difficult it can be to ferret out such individuals. Over the last 20 years, the IRA sent secret agents to live in England. On call, these individuals drove trucks full of explosives into the London financial district and set off other spectacu-lar attacks. Eventually, British intelligence managed to break into the IRA command structure, found the sleepers, and put an end to their operations. With their sleepers gone, the IRA had to assemble big bombs in territory they control near the Northern Ireland border with Ireland, and ship them to England for detonation.
The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington underlined just how weak our intelligence services are. Shortly after the attack, Le Monde reported a meeting between French and U.S. intelligence: “The first lapse has to do with the processing of intelligence items that come out of Europe. According to our information, French and American officials did in fact hold important meetings in Paris from the 5th to the 6th of September, that is, a few days prior to the attacks. Those sessions brought representatives of the American Special Services together with officers of the DST (Directorate of Territorial Security) and military personnel from the DGSE (General Overseas Security Administration).
“Their discussions turned to some of the serious threats made against American interests in Europe, specifically the one targeting the U.S. Embassy in Paris. During these talks, the DST directed the American visitors’ attention to a Moroccan-born Frenchman who had been detained in the United States since August 17 and who was considered to be a key [high-level] Islamic fundamentalist. But the American delegation, preoccupied above all with questions of administrative procedure, paid no attention to this ‘first alarm,’ basically concluding that they were going to take no one’s advice, and that an attack on American soil was inconceivable. It took September 11th for the FBI to show any real interest in this man, who we now know attended two aviation training schools, as did at least seven of the kamikaze terrorists.”
Originally it was thought the terrorists had cleverly encoded their communiqués by hiding them within porn sites on the Web, but FBI assistant director Ron Dick, head of the U.S. National Infrastructure Protection Center, said they in fact had just used the open Internet where anyone could have read their messages—if they knew where to look. Some 35 to 40 open messages, sent from libraries or personal computers in Arabic and English, were sent within the U.S. and abroad.
Brian Gladman, former chief of electronic security at the British Ministry of Defense and for NATO, told The Guardian last week that the National Security Administration’s problem is that the “the volume of communications is killing them. They just can’t keep up. It’s not about encryption.”
And that’s not the only trouble at the CIA. According to a new report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “Written materials can sit for months, and sometimes years, before a linguist with proper security clearances and skills can begin a translation. Intelligence officers overseas often cannot contact and recruit key potential sources because they do not possess the requisite language skills.”
The committee argues that the intelligence agencies must undertake drastic changes to remedy the mess and doubts that the Bush reviews of intelligence now under way will result in substantive changes.
Sidebar: “The Next Attack?”
Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson, Sarah Park, Curtis Lang. Translation: Arlette Lurie.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2001