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Friday, February 13, 2004

Could this be the BBC?

The Secret war against al Qaeda by Peter Taylor

BBC News Magazine: The West has never encountered an enemy like al-Qaeda before.

The problem for the world's intelligence agencies is that it is not a unified organisation with an identifiable structure, like the IRA, but an amalgam of groups around the world whose members embrace Osama bin Laden's ideology of global jihad, or holy war.

These Jihadi warriors share the belief that they have an obligation to fight the oppressors of their Muslim brothers, from Palestinians in the Middle East to Muslims in Chechnya. And to all Jihadis, the chief oppressor is the United States, a nation they regard as the "Great Satan".

A detailed examination of the Algerian terror network in Europe illustrates the enormity of the intelligence task.

The initial breakthrough came over Christmas 2000 when the German equivalent of the SAS burst in on a flat in Frankfurt. They arrested four men and uncovered an arsenal with bomb-making chemicals, weapons, cloned credit cards and false documents.

The men were all finally convicted of plotting to bomb Strasbourg. What was believed to be a reconnaissance video was found in the flat, its most prominent feature a lingering sequence on that city's famous Christmas market. That, investigators believed, was the intended target. If the bomb had gone off, there would have been carnage.

Jihad warrior in the UK

The four prisoners were Algerians whom German investigators refer to as unaligned mujahideen, rather than al-Qaeda members. Nevertheless, according to David Veness, the head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit, this Algerian network has been "a key dimension of the al-Qaeda agenda within western Europe".

When I interviewed the Frankfurt cell's alleged ringleader, Salim Boukari, in a German top security prison, he said he did not want to talk about the 11 September attacks or Osama bin Laden.

He said he was a Mujad - a holy warrior. Boukari had been living in England on and off for almost 10 years and another of the plotters, Lamine Maroni, had been living in Sheffield as an asylum seeker. MI5 and Special Branch appeared to know next to nothing about them and both had got under the wire.

Working closely together, Europe's intelligence agencies began to piece the complex network together.

The French had bitter experience of Algerian Islamic extremists, and had fought them for many years after their offshoots had carried out a series of bombings in Paris and Lille in the mid-90s.

The intelligence built up over this period by the French proved invaluable. The role of the UK's MI5 and Special Branch was also crucial since many Algerian extremists had sought refuge in London after the crackdown in France. The centre of the network was believed to be in London.

Investigators were even more alarmed when they discovered that its tentacles crossed the Atlantic to Canada and the US, where cells had been planning to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on Millennium Eve, 1999. The would-be bomber, another Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, who trained in Afghanistan, was arrested and the plot was foiled just in time.

But was the hand of al-Qaeda behind the network?

Use the link above to continue reading.
Peter Taylor's report, Third World War: al-Qaeda, was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesday 10 February at 2100 GMT.