By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz,
September 12, 2002
Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a secret FBI delegation arrived in
Lebanon to discuss a potential military operation whose objective was to infiltrate
several refugee camps and arrest people suspected of links with Al-Qaida. One suspect on
the list was a man called Abu Hattab. Another was Abd Alkarim Alsaadi, known as Abu Muhjin
- a Palestinian suspected of having committed several political assassinations, who was
known to reside in the Ein Hilweh refugee camp. At the same time, the American
administration requested that the Syrian authorities allow the FBI investigators to
interrogate a number of people in the city of Aleppo; the Americans suspected that these
people either knew Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Twin Towers attack, or had been in
contact with him.
Officially, Lebanon declared that no members of the Qaida organization were in its
territory and that it would not permit any subversive activity by this organization or any
other groups affiliated with it. Unofficially, cooperation continued with the American
delegation, which met with some of the prisoners arrested by the Lebanese authorities in
December 1999 and January 2000 after the bloody clash that took place near Jrud Alddinia
in the northern part of the country. Eleven Lebanese soldiers and five men from the
Alddinia group, a gang of Muslim extremists whose goal was to turn Lebanon into a
fundamentalist Islamic state, were killed in the incident; 23 members of the group were
arrested. The FBI investigators suspected that the members of the group had ties to
In concert with Syria, Lebanon refused to approve the plan to raid the Palestinian refugee
camps, despite the suspicion (which was later confirmed) that people from the Alddinia
group had found shelter in Ein Hilweh. For its part, Syria told the United States that it
would permit the American investigators to question Mohammed Atta's friends and neighbors.
An FBI team did come to Aleppo and received the cooperation of the Syrian authorities.
The story of the Alddinia group and its ties to the Qaida organization is not a recent
development. It dates back to the late 1980s, when the group was headed by Bassam Ahmad
Alqanj. Born in 1964, Alqanj is also known as "Abu A'aisha," "the
Hajj" and "Abd Alrahman." After being awarded a scholarship from the
Alhariri Foundation (a fund established by the prime minister to give outstanding students
an opportunity to pursue advanced studies), he went to Boston. In 1985, he married Marilyn
Earl, who decided to convert to Islam after the first year of their marriage. With his
marriage, Alqanj violated the terms of his scholarship. Consequently, his student visa was
revoked and he was compelled to leave the country. Alqanj then went to Pakistan where he
joined the ranks of the mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
His wife and his daughter, A'aisha, moved into a special dormitory in Peshawar for the
wives of married Muslim volunteers.
Lebanese links abroad
When the Soviet occupation ended, Alqanj arranged for his wife to return to the U.S. Then
he returned to Lebanon in 1991 and remained there until 1993, when he traveled to America.
He returned to Lebanon for good in 1996. While in Afghanistan, Alqanj met other Lebanese
who had spent time in the U.S. One of them, Jamil Hammud, who also took part in the war
against the Soviets, says that Alqanj complained to him about the terrible plight of the
Sunni Muslims in Lebanon and how they had become fifth-class citizens. Hammud says Alqanj
told him that action had to be taken against the government in order to free the Sunnis
from their misery and oppression.
Hammud was not the only Lebanese to meet Alqanj in Afghanistan. There were also Halil
Akkawi and Hilal Ja'afar, whom Alqanj knew from back in Lebanon and later saw again in
Orlando, Florida where they studied. In Orlando, the two had attended services at a mosque
in order to meet more Arab friends. Eventually, they decided to come to the aid of their
oppressed brethren in Afghanistan. Sheikh Tamim Ali'ndani, a Palestinian zealot who was
also active at the same mosque in Orlando, instructed them on how to get to Afghanistan
via a liaison in New York. The liaison, an Egyptian citizen who ran a mosque in the city,
supplied Hilal Ja'afar with an entry visa for Pakistan, bought him a plane ticket and gave
him the name of another liaison to meet there.
After landing in Peshawar, Ja'afar met with the liaison, a Syrian named Abu Tarik. He,
too, had once resided in the U.S. Abu Tarik brought Ja'afar to one of the training camps
run by Arabic-speaking Afghans, where he received his initial training in handling weapons
and explosives. After a month of training, he was given the choice of doing more training
or heading to the front to fight the Soviets. Ja'afar preferred to continue training and
became an instructor himself. Following a further period of training, he went off to the
front and later returned to participate in a special course reserved for the most
outstanding fighters. For three weeks, he learned how to manufacture explosives, as well
as the principles of guerrilla warfare and intelligence gathering.
In 1994, Alqanj traveled to Lebanon and made contact with another friend from the
Afghanistan days, Ahmad Alkasam. Together, they went to the Ein Hilweh camp and met with
the head of the Ansar organization, a fundamentalist Islamic group led by Abu Muhjin, a
Palestinian. A very close bond developed among the men, thanks to the common background in
Afghanistan shared by some of them, and because of the guerilla actions they later
volunteered for in Bosnia and Chechnya. This marked the formation of the nucleus of the
Lebanese organization whose objective was an Islamic jihad against the Lebanese
Meanwhile, Alqanj again returned to America and Abu Muhjin continued to nurture the idea
of founding an Islamic organization. He did a careful study of the war in Afghanistan and
asked his friend Alqanj to send an imam to Ein Hilweh to preach about Islam and the
religious path that was to be followed in order to achieve equality for the Sunni Muslims.
Within a short time, religious teachers and instructional material (books and videos from
a now-defunct organization called Guidance and Compassion, based in Tripoli in northern
Lebanon, which was headed by Alqanj) arrived.
Strong ties developed between the Ansar people (who adopted the names of friends of the
Prophet Mohammed), based in Ein Hilweh, and the Guidance and Compassion organization in
Tripoli, but there was also competition between them. Abu Muhjin wanted to see Alqanj's
organization become a branch of his own, but Alqanj wanted to maintain his independence.
Despite the disagreements, the links and cooperation between the two groups grew even
stronger in wake of the murder of Sheikh Nizar Halabi and of four judges in Sidon, which
were carried out by people from Alqanj's organization. With the help of Abu Muhjin's
people in Ein Hilweh, the suspects in both incidents were smuggled into the refugee camp.
A religious `army'
Alqanj's organization continued to carry out terror attacks inside Lebanon - the most
prominent being the attacks on churches in Tripoli - out of faith in the mission to which
he first devoted himself back in the mid-'80s: establishing an Islamic state that operates
in accordance with religious law. Northern Lebanon seemed the natural place to start
because of the high concentration of Sunni Muslims in the area and because the Lebanese
government's control in the region was weak. The idea was to establish a powerful
organization that would develop into a religious "army" headed by an amir
(supreme commander) whom all would obey.
Alqanj began the preparations for the building of such an army in 1997, when he
reconnected with his friends from Afghanistan and set up three training camps for young
Muslims near Tripoli. He also enlisted the help of Omar Aliyali, an autodidact who had
been a preacher and religious teacher for several years and now began to give lessons in
religion to Alqanj's new recruits. Among other things, the recruits were taught that a
fifth of the spoils belonged to the amir, and the rest were to be shared by the members of
the group. They also learned that the body of a warrior for God remains warm even after
The organization obtained weapons from Lebanese and Palestinian sources, and through
theft. Funds came from Lebanon and other places, including from some mosque-goers in
Canada, Denmark, Austria and the United States. In each of these countries, the group's
emissaries attached themselves to Islamic organizations that operated legally and then
persuaded their administrations to transfer donations for the Lebanese Muslims "who
were suffocating under the Christian regime."
Most of the details about the connections between the members of the various organizations
were made public in the indictment filed about a year ago in Lebanon against the suspects
in the murders of the judges. The indictment indicates that the Lebanese organization's
network extended to many places in the Western world, especially in places where the
organization found it was able to raise funds. Its leaders made particular use of their
past ties in Afghanistan, which created odd friendships between people, organizations and
movements that were active in Arab countries, Europe and the West even without explicitly
being labeled part of the Qaida organization.
For example, one bit of testimony makes mention of an episode in which people from
Alqanj's organization took weapons from the arsenal of Munir Makdah, head of the Fatah
branch in the Ein Hilweh camp, with the intention of transferring them to Jordan. They
wanted to transport the weapons through Syria, but after the liaison in Syria was
arrested, the weapons were moved to Alqanj's residence in Tripoli. At the same time,
another group arose in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and soon afterward joined forces with
Meanwhile, Alqanj established an advisory council composed of four of his close friends,
took the title "Amir" for himself and even issued an edict that the funds that
had been designated for Afghanistan should be transferred to his Lebanese organization.
His fund-raisers set off for Brazil, Austria and Canada and sent back funds in the form of
bank checks that were deposited in a Lebanese bank. The approximately $150,000 collected
in this round was designated for the purchase of weapons for the group's members.
The most important fund-raiser was Kasem Daher, a Lebanese man who had been arrested and
interrogated in Canada in 1998 on suspicion of involvement in the first World Trade Center
bombing, but was later released and returned to Lebanon. Upon his return, Alqanj appointed
him head of the group's Bekaa branch, after a dispute erupted between Alqanj and the
previous head of that group. Daher was also given a code name - Abd Alhaleq. In 1999,
Daher went to Syria to meet two "Afghanistan alumni" who lived in Germany and
had come to Alqanj's training camp to offer instruction in the construction of
sophisticated explosive devices. The group members also obtained a coding program, which
they passed on to the people at Ein Hilweh so they could use it to send coded messages
over the Internet.
While the Bekaa branch and the Ein Hilweh branch were under his command, which was
centered in Tripoli, Alqanj continued to set up a Beirut branch, which he entrusted to his
friend Halil Akkawi, whom he had known in the U.S. and Afghanistan. The members of this
branch also received religious instruction at Alqanj's camp and underwent training in the
use of weapons and explosives.
Another friend from the same period, Hilal Ja'afar, also joined the group and became the
chief combat instructor. He was an expert at intelligence gathering, in the collection and
analysis of information and the art of misleading investigators. In order to elude
surveillance, the training and instruction was done at a different private home each time,
and sometimes even at the yoga club in Tripoli.
When the organization's ranks expanded, Alqanj set up an apparatus consisting of six
members, each with his own department and area of responsibility: fund raising, military
training, religious preaching, logistics, recruitment and operational planning. The
organization was becoming a movement with branches in different parts of Lebanese cities;
it had liaisons and coders, organized weapons training and regular religious lessons.
Meticulous records of operations were kept; members of the organization brought in people
for interrogation; they set up an internal security apparatus to catch informants and,
most importantly, a compartmentalized system designed to prevent the authorities from
tracking the organization's activities. Members were strictly forbidden from using their
real names, the serial numbers on weapons were rubbed off, and trainees were drilled to
remember instructions, signals and numbers by heart. The model for the operation was taken
from the training camps in Afghanistan.
The types of weaponry were also similar to those used in Afghanistan: Kalachnikov rifles,
shoulder-held rocket-launchers, and so on. In 1999, Alqanj opened the main camp in
Alddinia and brought elite groups of recruits from all over the country there. After a
long course of training, he decided that the time had come for a showcase operation and he
ordered his men to take over the Islamic broadcast station in Tripoli.
The "conquest" of the station last just a few hours. A Lebanese army force that
was in the area wasn't even aware at first that the station had been taken over. When it
was informed of the incident, it began firing on the invaders. By the end of the battle,
four Lebanese soldiers had been killed. Alqanj's forces took two soldiers captive and
moved on to Alddinia, where the battle continued between them and the Lebanese army.
Several of Alqanj's men were wounded and the army arrested two of the organization's
leaders, who had attempted to get to Tripoli. Alqanj, a group of his men and the two
captives retreated to nearby Kafr Habu, where they broke into the house of a Lebanese
policeman, killed his pregnant wife and his mother-in-law and then continued to wage the
battle against the Lebanese army, which was closing in on them.
It was Alqanj's final battle. He rejected the army's demand that he surrender, as well as
the entreaties of Muslim religious sages who urged him to give himself up. He and his
besieged group used a cell phone to call their families and say good-bye. Then they opened
fire at the army forces. In the end, Alqanj and two of his aides were killed, as were 11
Lebanese soldiers. Some of the organization's other leaders managed to escape to Ein
Hilweh, using false passports. There, they were sheltered by the Ansar group and some
still live there to this day.
The events at Alddinia made the governments of Lebanon and Syria realize that they were
not immune to the fallout from the war in Afghanistan or beyond the grasp of Bin Laden's
tentacles. Washington's appeals to the Lebanese government after September 11 were
therefore answered on two different planes: Publicly, the Lebanese government declared
that no Qaida militants or suspects were to be found in its territory; unofficially, the
American representatives were given old information about people from Alqanj's group and
about the terrorists who had fled to the Ein Hilweh camp. The American investigators
believe that, despite Lebanese claims to the contrary, there is a close link between
Alqanj's group and Al-Qaida, both because of their common background in Afghanistan and
because there are no other convincing explanations for the Lebanese organization's sources
of funding. Up to now, no documented proof of a link between the two organizations has
been presented. Such proof may never be found, given the way that Bin Laden's organization
Bin Laden is only willing to assist terror organizations around the world once they have
proved their effectiveness. Only then can they serve as infrastructure for the operations
that he plans. For example, when he was just starting out in Afghanistan, Bin Laden
established an information center for volunteers in the war against the Soviets, where all
of the fighters were registered. He said the purpose was to be able to supply family
members with information about their relatives, but, along with names and telephone
numbers, these lists included information about each volunteer's hometown, level of
education and military expertise. Thus was created a worldwide network of people, some of
whom returned to their homelands after the war in Afghanistan and became peaceful
citizens, others who went on to fight in Bosnia or Chechnya, and some who returned with
enough training and experience to set up fundamentalist terror organizations in their own
Bin Laden's Syrian connection
Osama bin Laden's connection to Syria predates his birth. His father, Mohammed bin Laden,
arrived in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in 1956, on business, and married A'alia
Ghanem, a woman from a Sunni family. The couple had one son, Osama. A'alia, who was
Mohammed's fourth and last wife, moved with her husband to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind
her two brothers and one sister. She often brought Osama back to Latakia to spend the
summers there with her family. They stayed in the home of her brother, Naji.
When Osama was 13, his father was killed in a helicopter accident and he became the
beneficiary of an $80-million inheritance. Four years later, when he was 17, he turned his
attention to the family business and to his studies, and stopped accompanying his mother
on her yearly visits to Latakia. The Syrian branch of the family never saw any of his
wealth; to this day, his aunts and uncles make their living from farming.
In 1974, when he was 18, bin Laden contacted his mother's family in Syria to arrange to
"collect" the bride who had been promised to him, 14-year-old Najwa Ghanem.
Najwa, Osama's first wife, came to Saudi Arabia and bore him 11 children, including Omar
who would one day become the head of the American delegation of the World Congress of
Muslim Youth. This organization operated freely with Saudi funding and encouragement, and
attracted the curiosity of the FBI. Despite the Saudi connection and the suspicion that
the organization was funding terror organizations around the world, the American
authorities did not shut it down. According to reports in the American press, before the
September 11 attacks, the administration had asked the FBI agents not to touch the
Bin Laden went on to marry three other wives. Najwa did not return to Syria for a visit
until just over a year ago, when she stayed for a month, not long before the attack on the
Twin Towers. Right after that, she traveled with her son to Afghanistan where she has