8/09/2004

US outing of Khan Enabled 5 al-Qaeda to escape

From Juan Cole's blog

US outing of Khan Enabled 5 al-Qaeda Cell Members to Escape Capture

Neville Dean of PA News reports that a magistrate has given British police only until Tuesday to finish questioning 9 of 13 men arrested August 3 on suspicion of being part of an al-Qaeda cell. The men had been in email correspondence with Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who since mid-July has been functioning as a double agent for the Pakistani government. He was arrested in Lahore on July 13 and 'flipped.'

The Bush administration revealed Khan's name to US journalists on Sunday August 1 on background, and it appeared in the US press on Monday. The Bush administration thus effectively outed Khan as a double agent (he sent emails to his London contacts as late as Monday).

The British MI5 was forced to have the London cell of 13 arrested immediately on Tuesday, fearing that they would flee now that they knew Khan had been arrested two weeks earlier. The British do not, however, appear to have finished gathering enough evidence to prosecute the 13 in the courts successfully.

It now turns out, according to Neville, that 'Reports last week also claimed that five al Qaida militants were on the run in the UK after escaping capture in last Tuesday�s raids.' If this is true, it is likely that the 5 went underground on hearing that Khan was in custody. That is, the loose lips of the Bush administration enabled them to flee arrest.

Of the 13 taken into custody on Aug. 3, two were released for lack of evidence and two others were 'no longer being questioned on suspicion of terrorism offences."

By Tuesday, British police must charge the remaining 9, release them, or ask the magistrate for yet more time for questioning. Terror suspects may be held in the UK for up to two weeks without being charged, in accordance with the Terrorism Act.

One of the 9, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, is a high al-Qaeda official also wanted by the US. Because Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's identity was prematurely released, however, the British may not have enough evidence to extradite him.

Who is Khan ?
A 25-year-old computer specialist Mohammed Neem Noor Khan was the hub of a connection between bin Laden's inner circle and Al Qaeda operatives all over the world

Khan practically grew up in Al Qaeda. He was only a teenager when he caught the group's attention on a 1997 flight from his hometown of Karachi to Dubai, according to the senior official. Khan fell into conversation with a Qaeda member. The bright, soft-spoken youngster made a splendid prospect for recruitment. He had just entered Pakistan's top engineering school, and he identified with radical causes from the Palestinians to Bosnia and Chechnya, although his family background could scarcely be called Islamist. He had a valid passport and could fly almost anywhere for practically nothing, thanks to his father's job as a senior purser for Pakistan International Airlines. Soon the impressionable teen met other Qaeda members who welcomed him into their midst. In 1998 he attended a three-month commando-training course at bin Laden's Al-Farooq training camp near the Afghan city of Khost.

Returning to Pakistan, Khan set up a small Qaeda communications center. It began as little more than a hobby—until the Taliban's collapse sent bin Laden and his men fleeing for their lives. Suddenly Khan found himself running a network that kept the group's leaders in touch with their agents and each other. Bin Laden and his inner circle couldn't use radios or satphones for fear of revealing their hideouts. Instead, Khan became their nexus between the caves and the Internet cafes. Some communications arrived from the mountains in handwritten notes or on computer discs delivered by secretive relays of couriers who never saw each other, using dead drops to avoid being traced. Other messages came in electronically from far-flung "cutouts," intermediaries who forward e-mail with no clue what it means, where it goes or who sent it.

Khan's task was to encrypt and pass on orders from the caves. Some he posted on jihadist Web sites; others he would e-mail directly to Qaeda operatives—not only in Britain, America and terrorist crossroads like Indonesia and Malaysia, but even in such unlikely places as Nepal. Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain as active as possible, a senior Taliban source in Pakistan says. For security's sake the Qaeda chief meets with his senior officers only when absolutely necessary. Most of his messages are more inspirational than operational, urging militants "to remain vigilant and walk carefully because we have a long and hard struggle ahead of us," as the Taliban source puts it. Al-Zawahiri is said to be more directly engaged, touring the border areas to meet with Qaeda and Taliban agents and make fundraising appeals. But both men continue to approve and reject plans submitted from the field, the Taliban fighter says.

That was the other half of Khan's job. He handled operatives' reports and recommendations, collating them, adding related documents, maps and his own observations, and sending them via courier into the mountains. Sometimes he collected intelligence on his own. The senior Pakistani official says Khan made at least six trips to Britain over the past six years, including a brief stint at City University in London, until he reportedly got bored and quit. The search of his computer turned up photos and drawings of Heathrow airport he apparently made—which evidently helped inspire last week's warnings of a possible Qaeda attack there.

Security experts worry that Khan may typify a whole new generation of Al Qaeda field officers. Karachi alone has more than 20 small, Qaeda-linked cells led by educated young men, according to Pakistani intelligence.

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