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September 12, 2002

Lebanonwire

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Qaida's Lebanese Hydra
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 Al-Qaida.

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 government.

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 his death.

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 Alqanj's group.

Blank checks

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.

Showcase operation

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 operates.

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 countries.



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 organization.

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 apparently remained.

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