Life Inside Al Qaeda: A Destructive Devotion

Los Angeles Times/September 24, 2001
By Mark Fineman and Stephen Braun

New York -- The soldiers of Al Qaeda move seamlessly from nation to nation, continent to continent, changing names, passports, entire identities time and again.

Osama bin Laden's men shed their devout sacraments to elude detection, shaving beards in secular lands and carrying duty-free cigarettes and cologne to throw profiling border agents off the scent.

Some work in dead-end covers as fishermen, grocers or burger flippers, while others carry suitcases bulging with down payments for Kalashnikov rifles, night scopes, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, enriched weapons-grade uranium.

Their commitment is unyielding. They film their own suicide videos before they hop into Toyota pickup trucks loaded with hundreds of pounds of TNT, turn on audio cassettes chanting praise to those who will die for the cause, and blow themselves to bits to weaken the social foundation of their worst enemy: the United States.

The profile of Al Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base," unreels in recorded testimony tucked away in the federal courthouse here in lower Manhattan. Largely unnoticed by the public at the time, a trial that ended in May generated insights into the terrorist organization that ultimately would be linked to the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

A jury found four Al Qaeda members guilty of staging the August 1998 suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.

Bin Laden himself was charged in the 308-count indictment as the leader of the conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals in Africa and for exhorting his Al Qaeda followers to murder. A $5-million reward was offered for information leading to his arrest.

The Al Qaeda depicted in the 76-day trial is capable of relentless, selfless efficiency and, at the same time, amateurish dysfunction. The same secret organization that succeeded in demolishing two embassies in two different lands almost simultaneously was also prone to petty feuds and embezzlement, capable of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in scams and bad business decisions. But it also is an Al Qaeda of mind-boggling commitment.

"What makes his group different from [covert groups] we've seen before--the Russian and German spying operations in the Cold War, the killers in Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah--is that so many of them are willing to die," said Robert M. Bryant, former deputy director of the FBI.

For David P. Baugh, who defended Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali--a would-be suicide bomber who survived the embassy blast in Nairobi, Kenya--the testimony is woven with clues to some of America's most asked questions today.

"The issue is: Why is this happening? Why do they hate us?" Baugh said in an interview last week.

Some answers came through testimony about Al-'Owhali, a young Saudi who told an FBI interrogator why he so wished to die for Al Qaeda. Other answers came from Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a Sudanese nearly twice the age of the Saudi. Al-Fadl had defected from Al Qaeda with many secrets. His testimony formed an operative flow chart of Al Qaeda for U.S. counter-terrorism officials.

The older man was well-acquainted with Al Qaeda's inner roots; the younger man stood as testimony to its bitter fruit.


Dubbed 'Confidential Source One'

Al-Fadl knows more about Al Qaeda than most. He was there when the group was formed in 1989 by Bin Laden and a group of like-minded moujahedeen freedom fighters, the CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas who ground down the Soviet army in Afghanistan and drove it into retreat.

At age 38, Al-Fadl ultimately would give U.S. intelligence agents and prosecutors their first--and perhaps best--blueprint of Al Qaeda: its origins, its structure, its modus operandi and its petty human failings.

Al-Fadl offered little evidence against the defendants in the embassy bombing trial. His testimony was aimed squarely at Bin Laden, buttressed by similar accounts by two other Al Qaeda defectors and by terror mission documents left on computer disks seized by FBI agents in Nairobi after the blasts.

For America, Al-Fadl was a gem, a secret federal witness known for five years only as CS-1, "Confidential Source One."

When he was finally unveiled, tanned and wearing an Islamic skullcap on the witness stand in the embassy bombing trial in February, Judge Leonard Sand granted prosecutors' requests that courtroom artists not sketch him. Federal marshals checked the artists' bags each day before they left to make sure.

Al-Fadl sketched his own early life as that of a drifter. From his small hometown of Ruffa in Sudan, he went to Saudi Arabia. He was deported in 1981 after he was arrested for smoking marijuana. He headed to Atlanta, North Carolina then Brooklyn, where he worked as a grocer.

But in New York, he found religion at the Farouq Mosque, where Emir Mustafa Shalabi was urging all Muslims--young, strong, male and able--to head to Afghanistan and fight the Soviet infidels who had invaded in 1979. It was a holy call to arms that would become Bin Laden's fertile recruiting ground.

"We have to make jihad out of them. . . . You have to follow the rule of the emir," Al-Fadl recalled.

The siren song echoed in mosques around the globe. Fellow Muslims were under attack. Islam was perceived in danger.

So, like thousands of others in the years to come, Al-Fadl left in 1988 for Peshawar, the dusty and destitute Pakistani border town that was home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees. It was the launch pad for the jihad, or holy war.

There, at gritty guerrilla training centers that often doubled as refugee camps, he learned to fire a Russian-made Kalashnikov rifle, to hit helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades and to slip in and out of identities. His friends there knew him only as "the Sudanese."

As the days passed, Al-Fadl told the jury, as his fervor was honed, he came to "follow the rule" of a new emir.

Al-Fadl said he met often with Bin Laden, the ascetic Saudi exile, in Peshawar's cramped guest house chambers and gardens. Often, they spoke in veiled terms about the overarching reach of jihad.

It was in 1989, Al-Fadl recalled, in an explosives-training camp in the battle-scarred Afghan town of Khost, that he learned of Al Qaeda's birth. The group's "general emir" was Bin Laden. And when asked whether he wanted to be one of the founding members, Al-Fadl readily agreed.

He was handed a document by an Al Qaeda commander. "I read it," Al-Fadl testified, "and after that, I swear in front of him and I sign the papers."

It was an oath of allegiance to Bin Laden and his lieutenants. Called the bayat, the basic and once-secret rite of Al Qaeda endures through today. It is not unlike the omerta oath taken by members of the Mafia, which President Bush has compared to Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden, whose father bequeathed to him part of a corporate empire in Saudi Arabia, structured "the Base" as a cost- and personnel-efficient terrorist conglomerate.

At the top, Al-Fadl explained, is the "shura council," veteran clerics and military leaders from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen and other nations--all freedom fighters who have proved themselves in jihad.

The council is divided into four committees, Al-Fadl said. A military group is headed by field commanders. There's a group of mullahs and religious clerics who mesh Islam with Bin Laden's jihad battle plan. There's even a media group that handles Al Qaeda's public relations. Al-Fadl said he became a key player in the fourth committee: finance, the trusted aides who would buy farms and other businesses to give cover for Bin Laden's terror operations.

As for recruits to this new holy army, Al-Fadl said, the brutality of the Soviet occupation, the Persian Gulf War's Muslim casualties and oppressive Arab and African regimes took care of that.

Along with their weapons training, they learned to cluster in small cells, operate on scant bits of command information, hew to the discipline of silence. And, always, Al Qaeda's moles followed Bin Laden's exhortation "to be patient."

Thousands of motivated, rootless young Muslims from Manila to Mecca, Jakarta to Jidda, Bosnia to Brooklyn flocked to Al Qaeda's core. And as the bayats stacked up, Bin Laden's commanders enforced a strict regimen: All recruits would live furtively, slip in and out of their enemy's lands like ghosts.

"You need to be a normal person," Al-Fadl was told by one commander. "If you go with beard and Islamic dress, the intelligence officer [in target countries] . . . want to ask a lot of questions."

Leave the Koran and prayer books behind, Al Qaeda's men were told. On a trip to Egypt, Al-Fadl got the standard line from his commander, Abu Talal al Masry: Buy cologne and cigarettes.

"He [would] say if somebody in customs" sees the cologne and cigarettes, "he is not going to think you in Islamic group or anything like," Al-Fadl testified. The cologne, he added, would make them think "I like smelling" good for women.

Al Qaeda also began acquiring ventures, mimicking Western corporations. Al-Fadl bought farms, one for $250,000 to grow sesame, peanuts and corn in the Sudanese countryside. He sent the crops to Afghanistan in planes that returned with British and American-made night goggles, rifle scopes and other advanced military gear, he said.

The origin of the money was unclear. Some came from Bin Laden's personal bank account in Khartoum, Sudan, Al-Fadl testified. Other Al Qaeda leaders had accounts in banks in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Dubai, and one patronized Barclays Bank in London. There were hundreds of thousands in donations to the jihad too, from the Arab world--religious corporate sheiks and fundamentalist governments.

Bin Laden told Al-Fadl: "Our agenda is bigger than business." The companies were fronts for the terror cells and cash cows for future operations. Al-Fadl was given several units to run.

Soon, the jihad found its natural enemy--America's huge Gulf War military presence in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden and his clerics expanded their target list in 1992 as the U.S. sent peacekeeping troops to Somalia. All Americans, even civilians, were now at risk. Jihad warriors no longer "had to worry" about distinctions, one cleric told Al-Fadl. Bin Laden was even blunter a few days later. "The snake is America," he told Al-Fadl and other disciples, "and we have to stop them. We have to cut the head of the snake."

Bin Laden's commanders were already ordering arms: Stinger-missile shipments. Anti-tank rockets. A plane.

Cash flowed freely for bigger and bigger equipment. Bin Laden acquired an $80,000 satellite phone from Germany--later junked when he discovered that it was being monitored by U.S. agents. And he entrusted an Egyptian, who had trained at a Texas flight school, with $210,000 to buy a small corporate jet. Bin Laden was ebullient with the purchase until the jet fell into disrepair and crashed on a Khartoum runway.

In 1993, Al-Fadl said, a Bin Laden lieutenant told him to check out a deal to buy weapons-grade uranium offered by a former Sudanese government minister.

When Al-Fadl ultimately traded $1.5 million for a "heavy, shielded cylinder" purportedly containing the deadly ore, he was given a $10,000 bonus in cash, he said, adding that he had no clue whether the cylinder actually contained uranium--or whether the deal even went through.

But the bonus still wasn't enough for holy warriors like Al-Fadl, who complained about his Al Qaeda salary of $500 a month. So, several years later, he stole $110,000 from Bin Laden's accounts. When he was caught, Bin Laden seemed understanding at first.

Then "The Director" hardened.

"He say, 'I can't, I can't forgive you until you give all the money,' " Al-Fadl recalled, "and the meeting end like that."

So did Al-Fadl's Al Qaeda career.

He went to the visa office of an unidentified U.S. embassy in mid-1996, patiently explaining that he was among Al Qaeda's founders and feared Bin Laden's wrath. He was soon in the protective hands of American intelligence.


Portrait of Al Qaeda Suicide Bomber

That same year, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali's career as an Al Qaeda suicide bomber began.

It was in the mid-1990s that the young, zealous Al-'Owhali stepped foot in the Khaldan camp, the first in a series of progressively advanced Al Qaeda training facilities that he would attend in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains and barren desert plains.

Before he was done, according to the FBI agent who debriefed him, Al-'Owhali would become a trusted member of the Third Martyr Barracks, First Squad of the El Bara bin Malik Division of the Army of Liberating the Islamic Holy Lands.

In short, he was on his way to paradise in the name of Allah, assigned to slip into the front seat of the Toyota truck that blew up the embassy in Nairobi.

Prosecutor Michael Garcia said Al-'Owhali "was young, he was wealthy, he was educated. He was 21 years old. Not a sheltered 21, but an educated and hardened 21." Al-'Owhali did not testify during the New York trial. But FBI agent Stephen Gaudin explained from the witness stand how Al-'Owhali got that way.

Gaudin had spent four straight days interviewing Al-'Owhali at the criminal investigations division of the Kenyan police in Nairobi after the young man signed an agreement waiving his rights. Al-'Owhali's only condition before he "told his whole story" to Gaudin was that he be tried in the U.S. "to face his enemy."

Al-'Owhali's story is a portrait of an Al Qaeda suicide bomber.

The scion of a prominent Saudi family, Al-'Owhali was born in Liverpool, England, and moved to his parents' homeland as a boy. There, he was steeped in devout Islam, attending a religious university in Riyadh. He read books about Muslim martyrs and listened to the speeches of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

When Al-'Owhali arrived at the Khaldan camp, he was ready to fight, he told Gaudin.

Basic training lasted just a month: light weapons, demolition, communications, religious ideology. Al-'Owhali told Gaudin he excelled and was given an audience with Bin Laden, who "impressed on them the need to fight the Americans and cast them out of the Arabian Peninsula."

Al-'Owhali then graduated to the jihad camp for training in intelligence, information management, kidnappings and hijackings, Gaudin said, adding that the young man "explained to me that Al Qaeda is not a particular place, but it's a group, and it stands for the base of God's support, and that Bin Laden is in overall charge of Al Qaeda."

Al Qaeda's top-tier camp, which accepted Al-'Owhali only after he battled bravely for months alongside the Taliban for control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, was to provide an advanced degree in the equivalent of terrorist management.

Gaudin said Al-'Owhali called it "the operation and management of cell training," where he learned video skills for target surveys, advanced communications and the detailed, four-tiered structure of Al Qaeda's terror cells: intelligence, administration, planning and execution.

At one point during his final training, Al-'Owhali told Gaudin, one of his superiors said, "There are targets in the U.S. that we could hit, but things are not ready yet, we don't have everything prepared yet.

"First we must . . . have many attacks outside the United States, and this will weaken the U.S. and make way for our ability to strike within the U.S."

Gaudin testified: "At the end of this training, he had met with Mr. Bin Laden several times and had expressed to him interest in missions that he would like to do, and Mr. Bin Laden told him that, take your time. Your mission will come."

Soon, Al-'Owhali was ordered to shave his beard and go to Yemen. He was given a passport identifying him as an Iraqi, Abdul Ali Latif, Gaudin said.

Al-'Owhali told Gaudin he spent about two months living with other Al Qaeda camp graduates in the Red Sea nation. With the help of well-established Al Qaeda operatives there, he got a Yemeni passport with yet another identity: Khalid Salim Saleh bin Rashid.

Al-'Owhali was then ordered to Pakistan, where a senior Al Qaeda operative told him "that the mission was going to be a martyrdom operation that would result in Al-'Owhali's own death; that there was going to be . . . a target against the United States where Al-'Owhali would be assisting in driving a truck full of explosives," Gaudin testified. The target: "somewhere in East Africa."

"He was never specifically told that this mission was Osama bin Laden's mission, but he always believed it to be so," Gaudin added. "The way things work is that Osama bin Laden, it's not likely that he would take direct credit for attacks like this."

Finally, Al-'Owhali was told to make a martyrdom video that "would be played upon the successful completion of his mission," Gaudin said.

But in the end, Al-'Owhali didn't die.

The reason, his attorney and Islamic scholars say, is an important nuance in understanding Al Qaeda.

His precise mission was to ride in the passenger seat of the bomb truck. His partner--a close and equally committed friend from the Taliban wars named Azzam--was to drive. At the embassy gate, Al-'Owhali was to hop out, throw stun grenades at the embassy's entrance guard, lift the gate for the truck to pass and then blow up with it. Al-'Owhali threw the grenades. The gate went up. The bomb blew, along with Azzam, and Al-'Owhali was left with only cuts and bruises.

He went to the hospital instead of paradise, later explaining to Gaudin that "to die after your mission had already been complete . . . is not martyrdom. It's suicide," which is a taboo in Islam.

But it was only at the end of Gaudin's week of exhausting interviews with Al-'Owhali that the agent asked him what so many Americans are groping to understand now.

"What would it take for this fighting to stop, you know, how can we prevent this? How can we end this?" Gaudin said he asked Al-'Owhali.

What Gaudin got was boilerplate Al Qaeda: Stop supporting Israel; pull all U.S. forces out of the Arabian Peninsula; and stop "preventing Muslims from instituting sharia [Islamic law] worldwide."

It's unclear today whether Al-'Owhali's views have changed. The 12-member jury convicted him and three other Al Qaeda members in the bombings. It decided not to order the death penalty after his lawyer Baugh argued that Al-'Owhali was in a rage toward America for its support for Israel, its forces in Saudi Arabia, its war on Iraq and the punishing sanctions against that country. Ten of the jurors said they did so because they didn't want Al-'Owhali to become a martyr who would inspire future bloodshed.

When the World Trade Center towers collapsed 13 days ago, Al-'Owhali and nearly a dozen others charged in the embassy case were in their cells on the 10th floor of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, just six blocks away.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.