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THE HUNT FOR AL QAEDA

Bin Laden's Henchmen Seen to Be Regrouping

Terrorism: Al Qaeda members have moved to Iran, Syria and Lebanon, intelligence sources say.

September 15, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network who fled Afghanistan have blended into the volatile Middle East, regrouping in such places as Iran, Syria and Lebanon, where they may be even harder to detect and combat, highly placed Arab intelligence sources say.

Two key leaders are among those who have fled to Iran, and many other Al Qaeda members have gone to Syria and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, according to the sources. Al Qaeda has also refined its use of the Internet to communicate, simplified its means of sending cash to operatives and continued to aggressively plot major terrorist strikes, said the sources, who spoke on condition that neither they nor their country be identified.

Although the United States and its Afghan allies killed or arrested hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters and destroyed Bin Laden's camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, they destroyed neither the core of the terrorist network nor its commitment to keep fighting.

With no base of operations, and even less of a structure than it had before, Bin Laden's network is becoming more difficult for intelligence services to track and may be even more dangerous.

Authorities in the region fear that if Al Qaeda takes root in the Middle East, it will find plenty of partners who may not completely share its ideology, but do share common enemies: the United States and Israel. Operating under the cloak of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it might thereby increase its following and credibility in the region.

"The result of so many people leaving Afghanistan is, it is now very difficult for us to follow them," said an intelligence officer whose agency has a proven record of infiltrating and cracking terrorist cells.

"It broadened their sphere of operation and increased the danger. It gave Al Qaeda members the opportunity to give their expertise to other people in other countries."

The intelligence official said he was more concerned about Al Qaeda members turning up in Palestinian camps in Lebanon than in Iran. In Lebanon, the source said, "Al Qaeda will be able to operate under a false flag."

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Suspects Turned Over

Lebanon, Syria and Iran have all denied that Al Qaeda members are living in their territory. Indeed, Iran has turned over more than a dozen Al Qaeda suspects to Saudi Arabian authorities. Syria also has arrested some terrorists and provided valuable intelligence information to the United States.

But Arab intelligence sources said some power centers such as Iran's Revolutionary Guards are actively supporting the organization, providing everything from safe houses to phony travel documents.

Arab sources say there may be hundreds of Al Qaeda members in Iran alone.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials concur that Al Qaeda operatives have probably reached Iran, Syria and Lebanon, but say they believe that the number in Iran is lower than estimated by the Arab sources, perhaps only dozens.

"When you step on an ant pile, as we did in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda members run off in different directions," said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Many are from different areas in the Middle East, and you expect them to go back to where they or their friends came from."

The Arab intelligence sources say they have solid information that Bin Laden, his right-hand man Ayman Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are alive, still in Afghanistan, and using the Internet to communicate. U.S. officials say they don't know the fate of Bin Laden or his top aides but continue to hunt them because there is no evidence that they are dead.

Arab intelligence officials are more concerned about what is going on outside Afghanistan.

In the months since the Taliban fell, intelligence agencies say they have stopped about half a dozen attempted attacks, including one in Morocco, where Al Qaeda operatives allegedly planned to blow up ships in the Strait of Gibraltar.

By cracking that cell, intelligence services learned that Al Qaeda members ask ordinary people with no connection to their group to open a bank account. When money is transferred to the account, the obliging account holder gets a payoff and the terrorists get their capital. In Morocco, that is how the group got its hands on $15,000 in cash, the intelligence source said.

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Secret E-Mail

From other cases, the agencies have learned that Al Qaeda has found a simple way to use e-mail that can't be easily traced. Two people use the same e-mail account. One person writes a note and files it in junk mail. The intended recipient logs in under the same name and reads the note without its having been transmitted, making it harder to detect.

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