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AFTER THE ATTACK | THE TERROR NETWORK

Life Inside Al Qaeda: A Destructive Devotion

September 24, 2001|MARK FINEMAN and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — The soldiers of Al Qaeda move seamlessly from nation to nation, continent to continent, changing names, passports, entire identities time and again.

Osama bin Laden's men shed their devout sacraments to elude detection, shaving beards in secular lands and carrying duty-free cigarettes and cologne to throw profiling border agents off the scent.

Some work in dead-end covers as fishermen, grocers or burger flippers, while others carry suitcases bulging with down payments for Kalashnikov rifles, night scopes, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, enriched weapons-grade uranium.

Their commitment is unyielding. They film their own suicide videos before they hop into Toyota pickup trucks loaded with hundreds of pounds of TNT, turn on audio cassettes chanting praise to those who will die for the cause, and blow themselves to bits to weaken the social foundation of their worst enemy: the United States.

The profile of Al Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base," unreels in recorded testimony tucked away in the federal courthouse here in lower Manhattan. Largely unnoticed by the public at the time, a trial that ended in May generated insights into the terrorist organization that ultimately would be linked to the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

A jury found four Al Qaeda members guilty of staging the August 1998 suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

Bin Laden himself was charged in the 308-count indictment as the leader of the conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals in Africa and for exhorting his Al Qaeda followers to murder. A $5-million reward was offered for information leading to his arrest.

The Al Qaeda depicted in the 76-day trial is capable of relentless, selfless efficiency and, at the same time, amateurish dysfunction. The same secret organization that succeeded in demolishing two embassies in two different lands almost simultaneously was also prone to petty feuds and embezzlement, capable of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in scams and bad business decisions.

But it also is an Al Qaeda of mind-boggling commitment.

"What makes his group different from [covert groups] we've seen before--the Russian and German spying operations in the Cold War, the killers in Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah--is that so many of them are willing to die," said Robert M. Bryant, former deputy director of the FBI.

For David P. Baugh, who defended Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali--a would-be suicide bomber who survived the embassy blast in Nairobi, Kenya--the testimony is woven with clues to some of America's most asked questions today.

"The issue is: Why is this happening? Why do they hate us?" Baugh said in an interview last week.

Some answers came through testimony about Al-'Owhali, a young Saudi who told an FBI interrogator why he so wished to die for Al Qaeda. Other answers came from Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a Sudanese nearly twice the age of the Saudi. Al-Fadl had defected from Al Qaeda with many secrets. His testimony formed an operative flow chart of Al Qaeda for U.S. counter-terrorism officials.

The older man was well-acquainted with Al Qaeda's inner roots; the younger man stood as testimony to its bitter fruit.

Dubbed 'Confidential Source One'

Al-Fadl knows more about Al Qaeda than most. He was there when the group was formed in 1989 by Bin Laden and a group of like-minded moujahedeen freedom fighters, the CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas who ground down the Soviet army in Afghanistan and drove it into retreat.

At age 38, Al-Fadl ultimately would give U.S. intelligence agents and prosecutors their first--and perhaps best--blueprint of Al Qaeda: its origins, its structure, its modus operandi and its petty human failings.

Al-Fadl offered little evidence against the defendants in the embassy bombing trial. His testimony was aimed squarely at Bin Laden, buttressed by similar accounts by two other Al Qaeda defectors and by terror mission documents left on computer disks seized by FBI agents in Nairobi after the blasts.

For America, Al-Fadl was a gem, a secret federal witness known for five years only as CS-1, "Confidential Source One."

When he was finally unveiled, tanned and wearing an Islamic skullcap on the witness stand in the embassy bombing trial in February, Judge Leonard Sand granted prosecutors' requests that courtroom artists not sketch him. Federal marshals checked the artists' bags each day before they left to make sure.

Al-Fadl sketched his own early life as that of a drifter. From his small hometown of Ruffa in Sudan, he went to Saudi Arabia. He was deported in 1981 after he was arrested for smoking marijuana. He headed to Atlanta, North Carolina then Brooklyn, where he worked as a grocer.

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