By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 24, 2005
LONDON, July 23 -- The back-to-back nature of the deadly attacks in Egypt and London, as well as similarities in the methods used, suggests that the al Qaeda leadership may have given the orders for both operations and is a clear sign that Osama bin Laden and his deputies remain in control of the network, according to interviews with counterterrorism analysts and government officials in Europe and the Middle East.
Investigators on Saturday said that they believed the details of the bombing plots in Egypt and Britain -- the deadliest terrorist strikes in each country's history -- were organized locally by groups working independently of each other. In Sharm el-Sheikh, where the death toll rose to 88 people, attention centered on an al Qaeda affiliate blamed for a similar attack last October at Taba, another Red Sea resort. In London, where 52 bystanders were killed in the subway and on a bus, police have identified three of the four presumed suicide bombers as British natives with suspected connections to Pakistani radicals.
But intelligence officials and terrorist experts said they suspect that bin Laden or his lieutenants may have sponsored both operations from afar, as well as other explosions that have killed hundreds of people in Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Morocco since 2002. The hallmarks in each case: multiple bombings aimed at unguarded, civilian targets that are designed to scare Westerners and rattle the economy.
The officials and analysts also said the recent attacks indicate that the nerve center of the original al Qaeda network remains alive and well, despite the fact that many leaders have been killed or captured since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States. Bin Laden may be in hiding, the officials and analysts said, and much is still unknown about the network. But they added that his organization remains fully capable of orchestrating attacks worldwide by recruiting local groups to do its bidding.
"What the London and Sharm el-Sheikh attacks may have in common are the people giving directions: This is what needs to be done, and this is how you do it," said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Prince Turki al Faisal, the former director of foreign intelligence for Saudi Arabia who was named this past week as the kingdom's new ambassador to the United States, said in an interview, "All of these groups maintain a link of sort with bin Laden, either through Internet Web sites, or through messengers, or by going to the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and maybe not necessarily meeting with bin Laden himself, but with his people.
"Since September 11, these people have continued to operate," he said, speaking at his residence here, where he has been serving as ambassador to Britain. "They are on the run, but they still act with impunity. They can produce their material and get it to the media, it seems, anytime they like. Along with that, of course, are the orders they give to their operatives, wherever they may be."
Overthrowing the Saudi monarchy has been a longtime goal for bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi native who was once close to the kingdom's rulers but was stripped of his citizenship in 1994.
Some senior U.S. officials have argued that bin Laden has been effectively bottled up since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and question whether al Qaeda still has the ability to plan major operations such as the Sept. 11 attacks.
In April, for example, the State Department concluded in its annual report on terrorist activity around the world that al Qaeda had been supplanted as the most worrisome threat by unaffiliated local groups of Islamic radicals acting on their own, without help from bin Laden or his aides. The pattern of attacks in 2004, the report stated, 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."
Some regional Islamic radical groups function independently of al Qaeda but enter into mutual alliances for specific operations or campaigns, experts say. In Iraq, for instance, one of the primary networks of insurgents fighting the U.S. military is led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who has pledged his loyalty to bin Laden and acts publicly on behalf of al Qaeda but has developed his own organization.
But intelligence officials and analysts from European and Arab countries say there is increasing evidence that several of the deadliest bombings against civilian targets in recent years can be traced back to suspected mid-level al Qaeda operatives acting on behalf of bin Laden and the network's leadership. In some cases, counterterrorism investigators have concluded that bin Laden or his emissaries set plans in motion to launch attacks and then left it up to local networks or cells to take care of the details.
"The rather well-formed structure that they had prior to 9/11 does seem to be degraded," said a senior British counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But there is still a fairly potent, if diffuse network out there that still aspires to make decisions. We should be very wary about writing them off."
Saudi officials said the interrogation of terrorism suspects in that country, as well as intercepted electronic communications, show that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, dispatched cell organizers to Saudi Arabia in 2002 and weighed in on basic strategic decisions made by the local al Qaeda affiliate. The al Qaeda leadership also gave direct orders to attack specific targets in the kingdom, Saudi officials said.
The local al Qaeda network carried out its first attack on May 12, 2003, driving explosive-laden cars into the gates of Western residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine Americans. The explosion stunned Saudi government leaders, who only a few months before had said publicly that there were no terrorist groups operating inside the kingdom.
Less than one week after the Riyadh bombing, explosions hit Morocco, which has a long history of close relations with the United States and little history of terrorism. On May 16, 2003, suicide bombers launched multiple attacks on hotels, restaurants and other civilian targets in Casablanca, killing 45 people.
At first, counterterrorism officials in Saudi Arabia and Morocco saw no connection between the two attacks other than the fact that they occurred four days apart. They assumed that the timing was coincidental, or that the Moroccan bombings were prompted in part by the publicity generated by what happened in Riyadh.
Today, however, counterterrorism officials in both countries say there were connections between the two groups that carried out the attacks. Two Moroccan al Qaeda operatives suspected of helping to organize the Casablanca bombings, Karim Mejjati and Hussein Mohammed Haski, surfaced as leaders of the local al Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia and were named to the kingdom's list of most wanted terrorist suspects.
Mejjati was killed in a shootout with anti-terrorism police in a small Saudi town in April. Haski was arrested in July 2004 in Belgium, where he faces charges of helping to organize another sleeper cell with al Qaeda connections, according to Belgian officials and court documents. Both Haski and Mejjati were veterans of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, documents show.
A similar connection has emerged between the Casablanca bombings and the March 11, 2004, train explosions that killed 191 people in Madrid. Spanish investigators have identified a suspected ringleader of the Madrid attacks as a Moroccan al Qaeda operative named Amer Azizi, who is also wanted by authorities in Morocco on charges of involvement in the network that organized the Casablanca attacks.
Like Mejjati and Haski, Azizi spent time at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before 2001 and is believed to be a conduit to the al Qaeda leadership, intelligence officials said.
Counterterrorism investigators and analysts said it was highly unlikely that the people who organized the July 7 London bombings were directly involved in the Sharm el-Sheikh attacks. But they predicted that both plots would eventually be traced directly to al Qaeda.
Ranstorp, the terrorism expert in Scotland, predicted that Egyptian investigators would pursue possible links to Zawahiri, an Egyptian-born physician who has served as bin Laden's top deputy and al Qaeda's leading ideologue since the early 1990s. "I doubt very much that this was done by the same group of Pakistanis who were apparently responsible for what happened in London," Ranstorp said. "But this very well could have been directed by Zawahiri, in terms of activating the Egyptian front."
U.S. and European intelligence officials said they believe bin Laden and Zawahiri remain in hiding along the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where access and communications with the outside world remain difficult. But many other al Qaeda leaders have found refuge in Pakistan's urban areas, where they are freer to move around and make contact with operatives visiting from other countries.
Pakistani officials have confirmed that three of the four suicide bombers involved in the London attacks this month visited Pakistan for extended periods over the past two years, spending time in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan's largest cities. Investigators suspect they may have met with al Qaeda operatives who gave them instructions for carrying out the bombings.
British officials and counterterrorism analysts said the trail of the investigation was clearly leading to Pakistan, which has faced renewed criticism for giving haven to al Qaeda sympathizers and other Islamic radical groups. Several highly wanted al Qaeda leaders who have been captured in recent years by the FBI and CIA were caught not in the remote terrain along the Pakistani border, but in major cities such as Karachi, Rawalpindi and Lahore.
"Why is it that all the roads keep going back to Pakistan?" said M. J. Gohel, a terrorism analyst and chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based think tank. "Is it a coincidence, or is there something more? The linkages there are just too strong and consistent. The whole backbone of the jihadi infrastructure is not being dismantled. It is still functioning."
The Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, pledged this week to renew his crackdown on "extremists" and Islamic radicals in the country and said officials were doing everything they could to cooperate with the investigation into the London bombings. But he bristled at the idea that Pakistan has remained a haven for al Qaeda.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.