Al-Qaeda’s African connection

2011-05-07 00:00

AN aspiring karate champion, a failed shark fin dealer and high-end car dealer are among the Africans who swelled the ranks of the global terror network, Al-Qaeda, leaked secret documents reveal.

Intelligence dossiers of more than 700 suspected Al-Qaeda operatives held at the U.S.’s controversial Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, recently published by WikiLeaks, provide intimate details of the well-oiled international network of NGOs, charities and funders that ferried Islamist fighters to various training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and other states.

Among those are the dossiers of 88 African nationals, which outline how they got drawn into Al-Qaeda and how some of them became close allies of Osama bin Laden.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (37), the only Tanzanian among the 88, fled his home country after acting as a courier in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A high school dropout, he had run a failed business transporting Somalian shark fins between Zanzibar and Dubai before being recruited by one of the organisers of the embassy bombings in Mombasa. Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan in 1999, he met Osama bin Laden and became his bodyguard and cook.

Mustafa Ait Idr (40), an Algerian national, fought on the Bosnian side in the Bosnian War from 1993 to 1995. A martial arts expert who claimed to have trained other Islamist fighters, he was apparently also an aspiring member of the Bosnian national karate team. He was one of six Algerians arrested in 2001 for plotting to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo.

Akhmed Aziz (41), a Mauritanian with degrees in literature and economics, started off working in the family’s real estate business and then became a buyer and seller of second-hand cars, which drew him to travel to Spain, Belgium and Germany. He became a language teacher at an Al Qaeda-affiliated school in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1999 and became a member of Al-Qaeda’s religious committee. He was even a guest at the wedding of Osama bin Laden’s son.

Mauritanian national Mohamedou Ould Salahi (40) was invited to Germany on an engineering scholarship. While studying, he became a chief recruiter of Al-Qaeda in Europe, and was named by one of the surviving planners of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York as the man who recruited three of the four hijackers involved: the commander, Muhammad Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, who destroyed the South Tower, and Ziad Jarrah, the pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Salahi was also claimed to be involved in the “Millennium” bombing plot to attack the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999.

Several of the detainees had entered Europe via Italy, where they did odd jobs in vineyards, shops or the drug trade before being recruited at mosques in Milan and Turin and shipped off to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Four of the 12 Tunisian detainees served prison sentences on drug-related charges in Italy, including Ridos al-Yazidi, a possible bodyguard of Bin Laden who is claimed to have forged passports to ease operatives’ passage through Europe to the Middle East.

In Libya most of the recruits’involvement in Al-Qaeda was bound up with opposition to the reign of Muammar Gadaffi. Eight of the 10 Libyan-born detainees whose dossiers are available fled the country after becoming aware that they were being investigated by Libyan government intelligence.

Most of them spent time working for Osama bin Laden’s companies in Sudan in the early to mid-1990s before making their way to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. Among them was Abu Al-Libi (41), appointed Al-Qaeda’s operational chief after Bin Laden’s number two, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence service in 2003.

Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies, said the recruitment patterns of the Guantánamo Bay detainees echoed the general trend of Islamist fighters. She says there is no single “profile” of an Islamist fighter or extremist: people from all walks of life are drawn to the Al-Qaeda ideology, motivated by their own individual reasons.

The entire movement of militant Islam fighters in Africa can be drawn back to the Soviet-Afghan war, says Botha. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, it left the militants with the impression that they can defeat a superpower.

Upon their return to civilian life, they wanted to replace the corrupt governments they saw with governments based on religion. To them Islam offered a return to a value system that wasn’t borrowed from the “outside” such as communism and capitalism.

Botha warned the recent death of Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. troops does not change any of the underlying causes of religious extremism.

She also echoed warnings raised earlier this week that corruption in South Africa makes the country a convenient conduit for terrorists. “The ease with which one can obtain SA citizenship and a SA passport enhances the country’s vulnerability to be used as a safe haven to terrorists and criminals.”

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