Odyssey of an Al Qaeda Operative

Saudi policemen display weapons and ammunition seized after a three-day gun battle with militants holed up in a building in the desert town of Ar Rass, in which 15 militants, including Karim Mejjati and his teenage son, were killed.
Saudi policemen display weapons and ammunition seized after a three-day gun battle with militants holed up in a building in the desert town of Ar Rass, in which 15 militants, including Karim Mejjati and his teenage son, were killed. (Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 2, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In the post-Sept. 11 world, Karim Mejjati was the perfect undercover al Qaeda operative. The former medical student from Morocco could speak several languages, had many passports and excelled at building bombs. He was also good at avoiding attention as he crisscrossed four continents to organize a wave of catastrophic attacks.

On May 12, 2003, an al Qaeda network that investigators say was put together by Mejjati in Saudi Arabia blew up three residential compounds for foreign workers in Riyadh, leaving 23 dead. Less than a week later, about 3,000 miles away, suicide bombers trained by Mejjati carried out the deadliest terrorist attacks in Moroccan history, killing 45 people in Casablanca.

For the next two years, authorities in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America pressed a secret but intensive global manhunt for the French-schooled suspect, fearing that he had set up other al Qaeda sleeper cells that had yet to be activated. Saudi Arabia put him near the top of its list of most wanted terrorism suspects. In Morocco, he was sentenced in absentia to 20 years for the Casablanca bombings. The FBI named him in a global anti-terrorism alert, warning that he was suspected of planning attacks in the United States.

According to investigators, his success in organizing terrorist networks in multiple countries is clear evidence that al Qaeda can still order devastating attacks around the world, even though most of its commanders have been killed or on the run since Sept. 11, 2001.

The search for Mejjati, 37, ended last month in a small town in the heart of Saudi Arabia when he was killed in a gun battle with security forces who stumbled on his hideout. Now, investigators trying to retrace his footsteps acknowledge that they still do not know how many more sleeper cells the well-educated explosives expert may have created.

"They need guys like him in the field in order to remain effective," said Mohammed Darif, a political science professor at Mohammedia University in Morocco, who is an expert on Islamic radicals in the country and has studied Mejjati's background. "He was very valuable for them. They could use him in different places and rely on him to complete the job."

U.S. officials have said that the direct threat posed by al Qaeda's central leadership has diminished and that it has taken on a different role of providing encouragement, but little concrete assistance, to local cells or networks that plan attacks on their own. On Wednesday, in its annual report on global terrorism trends, the State Department said the shift illustrates "what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al Qaeda organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al Qaeda itself."

But an examination of Mejjati's role in organizing cells in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and possibly Spain -- three of the countries hardest hit by Islamic terrorism since Sept. 11 -- challenges that assumption.

In interviews, security officials in Saudi Arabia said that Mejjati was dispatched from Afghanistan by top al Qaeda leaders in 2002 to help recruit and train a network of cells dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi royal family. Saudi officials said Mejjati served as the general strategist to the network's first chief, Yusuf Ayeri, who reported directly to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Starting with the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh, the network has rattled the kingdom with a series of explosions, kidnappings and beheadings that have taken more than 90 lives and contributed to a global rise in oil prices.

In Morocco, counterterrorism officials said Mejjati provided explosives training to a cell of Islamic radicals recruited from the slums surrounding Casablanca. At first, investigators thought the operation was conceived and planned locally. But a suspect who later divulged Mejjati's name to interrogators led them to conclude that those responsible for the attacks were taking their cues from al Qaeda's top leadership.

Some U.S. and European officials say they believe Mejjati may also have been involved in the planning of the March 11, 2004, bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid in which 191 people were killed and more than 1,800 were wounded, although other investigators disagree. Spanish authorities have not issued an indictment against him. A local cell consisting mostly of Moroccan immigrants is believed to have carried out the attacks, but Spanish investigators have been unable to determine whether they acted on their own or took orders from al Qaeda middlemen such as Mejjati.

European Suspicions

The son of a French mother and Moroccan father, Mejjati had a privileged upbringing in Casablanca. He attended an exclusive French-language school and, at his father's urging, applied to medical school in France.

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