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From Canada to Kandahar: The Making of a Terrorist

Kuwaiti immigrant in U.S. custody tells of saga including Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and bomb plots.

January 22, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — The young Canadian immigrant from Kuwait seemed an outstanding prospect for membership in the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Not yet 20, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah spoke excellent English, held a Canadian passport that would allow him to travel with a minimum of suspicion and had received top marks at four Al Qaeda-run training camps in Afghanistan.

In July 2001, he met with Osama bin Laden, who accepted the eager novice and asked him to swear an oath of loyalty to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden told him he "must be ready to fight the enemies of Allah wherever they are, and specifically mentioned the United States and Jews," Jabarah said later.

Enlistment in Al Qaeda was the beginning of a saga of bomb plots, secret meetings and cash deliveries that took Jabarah from Afghanistan to Singapore and the Philippines and ended with his arrest in Oman last March. Taken to Canada and then the United States for interrogation, Jabarah admitted his role in a plot to attack Western targets in Singapore in December 2001 with as many as seven suicide truck bombs, according to a confidential intelligence document summarizing his confessions. A copy of the document was reviewed by The Times.

The story of Jabarah's eight months as an Al Qaeda operative provides a rare insight into the day-to-day running of a terror campaign. It shows the high level of attention that senior Al Qaeda leaders still at large pay to operational details, and their willingness to give important responsibility to an untested recruit.

Jabarah's account to authorities also provides solid evidence of the close working relationship between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, a group believed to be responsible for dozens of bombings throughout Southeast Asia, including blasts Oct. 12 in Bali that killed nearly 200 people.

Jabarah's job was to serve as the intermediary between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, which also contributed men, money and explosives to the Singapore conspiracy. If the plan had succeeded, it would have been Al Qaeda's biggest assault on American interests outside the United States, authorities say.

The plot was foiled by authorities in Singapore who learned of the existence of Jemaah Islamiah a few months before the strikes were to be carried out. Police arrested more than a dozen suspects and issued a worldwide alert that led to Jabarah's arrest.

Jabarah is the product of a childhood split between two worlds: the devout life of Islamic Kuwait and the middle-class life of a small city in Ontario. Born in Kuwait in 1982, he moved to St. Catharines, Canada, with his family when he was 12. He lived on a quiet street in the city of 130,000 people, which is close to Niagara Falls and the U.S. border.

He prayed regularly at the local mosque with his father, a leader of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines. His high school photograph shows a handsome young man with a mustache.

According to his account, Jabarah was attracted to radical Islam as a teenager, especially when he returned to Kuwait during summer vacations. He was particularly interested in the Chechen separatist movement in Russia and spent hours searching the Internet for information about the conflict. He also was influenced by a friend who had fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina to protect its Muslims.

After high school, he traveled to Pakistan and from there was recruited to attend Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where his courses included weapons handling, urban guerrilla warfare, mountain warfare and sniper training.

Between sessions, he received religious training in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and went to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. He also went on a sightseeing trip with friends to central Afghanistan to see the ruins of the ancient stone Bamian Buddhas after the Taliban regime destroyed them in March 2001.

As Jabarah was training to become an Al Qaeda member, the terrorist network was -- apparently unknown to him -- allegedly in the final stages of planning the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. In Kandahar, Jabarah told investigators, he met four of the future hijackers at a guesthouse. One, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, could recite the entire Koran from memory.

Jabarah said he met Bin Laden four times. In June 2001, the Al Qaeda leader came to speak to graduates of the mountain warfare course and hinted that attacks were coming that would be "severe enough to make the United States forget Vietnam," according to Jabarah's account.

But Al Qaeda's chiefs were making other terrorist plans in other parts of the world too, and Jabarah fit right in. Bin Laden sent him to Karachi to report to "Mohammed the Pakistani," better known as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda lieutenant believed to have planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

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