A German counterterrorism investigation was a key source for a claim by Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael Hayden that Al Qaeda is now deploying operatives who look and sound like Westerners.
Appearing on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Hayden told host Tim Russert, "It's very clear to us that Al Qaeda has been able, over the past 18 months or so, to establish a safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that they have not enjoyed before, that they are bringing operatives into that region for training, operatives that … wouldn't attract your attention if they were going through the customs line at Dulles [International Airport] with you when you're coming back from overseas." Russert asked whether such suspects would look "Western." Hayden said they would, and therefore could "come into this country … without attracting the kind of attention that others might."
According to U.S. and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials, Hayden was referring to recent information indicating that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are making a concerted effort to recruit and activate operatives who, by virtue of their Western appearance, can more easily slip through heightened airport and border security nets—particularly in the United States. The 9/11 hijackers were all from Middle Eastern backgrounds—most were Saudi—and U.S. and Western agencies long ago greatly increased surveillance of travelers coming from that region.
"Al Qaeda has an obvious interest in attracting individuals who can gain access to Western societies despite the higher levels of scrutiny given to travelers there," a U.S. intelligence official told NEWSWEEK. (The official, like others quoted in this article, declined to be named talking about sensitive matters.) "That not only means converts to Islam from Western nations and people with legitimate identity documents from those places, but militants from anywhere who simply look Western." The official added, "These guys are resourceful. They learn. They think about different means and methods to try to place operatives in the countries they target."
There is little hard information on how many Al Qaeda recruits actually fit the mold Hayden was talking about. But the CIA chief's concern was triggered by an inquiry, made public last summer by German authorities, into the activities of an alleged jihadist cell purportedly linked to the Islamic Jihad Union of Uzbekistan (IJU). Originally an Islamic militant group based in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, elements of the IJU migrated to the tribal areas of Pakistan and loosely affiliated themselves with other jihadist factions in that region. Those factions, it is believed, sometimes take direction from the fugitive central leadership of Al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian sidekick, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Last summer German authorities arrested a handful of alleged IJU operatives who came under suspicion after they were spotted by U.S. personnel apparently casing American military bases in Germany. Particularly alarming to both U.S. and German investigators was the early discovery that the leader of the group, Fritz Gelowicz, was a Caucasian native-born German who had converted to Islam. Gelowicz, who attended an Islamic center in southern Germany, became a radical and traveled with two fellow suspects to Pakistan for indoctrination and training by militants in the tribal region where Al Qaeda leaders are thought to be hiding out.
German agencies mounted a massive investigation of the suspects. Hundreds of police and intelligence officers watched them around the clock for months as they allegedly plotted and assembled large quantities of raw materials that authorities believed could be used to make explosives. At one point during the investigation one of the surveillance cars following the suspects had its tires slashed; German investigators concluded that the IJU suspects knew that they were being watched. Investigators were particularly alarmed that the suspects appeared to proceed with their plans anyway.
Shortly before German authorities believed the IJU plot was about to come to fruition, the counterterrorism officers staged a stealthy operation to neutralize the would-be explosives. They managed to sneak into the building where the suspects had stashed large quantities of high-concentrate hydrogen peroxide—a homemade bomb ingredient also used in hair bleach—and replaced it with identical containers of a harmless liquid. Gelowicz and a handful of other suspects were then arrested, and an international manhunt was launched for suspected co-conspirators, some of whom had allegedly fled to Turkey and at least one of whom was believed to be in Britain. Gelowicz is still in jail in Germany awaiting trial.
Counterterrorism officials in Europe and the United States say that Al Qaeda is not only seeking to recruit Western-born converts like Gelowicz as future terrorist operatives but also native Muslims who can pass for Westerners when going through security checkpoints. A German counterterrorism official told NEWSWEEK that German authorities are doing their best to track suspected militants going to and from the Pakistani border region. The problem: the most popular travel route for suspects is from Germany to Turkey and then via Iran to Pakistan, and it is very difficult for investigators to determine who among the hundreds of thousands of travelers might be planning an onward journey for terrorist training. (As Terror Watch reported last year, German authorities set up a special project to monitor dozens of suspects traveling back and forth between Germany and war-torn Iraq.)
British counterterrorism officials are also monitoring the huge volume of people who travel between the United Kingdom and Pakistan—an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 per year. British investigators have produced evidence showing that suspects in recent U.K.-based terrorist plots made trips to Pakistan for terrorist training. Among the suspects are British-born or British-raised operatives in several notorious terror plots, including the July 2005 bombings of London subway trains and a double-decker bus, a plot to bomb U.S. financial buildings, and a 2006 plot to bomb airliners crossing the Atlantic from Britain. The trial of several suspects in the airline bombing plot—reportedly including at least one British convert to Islam—is soon set to begin in London.
Other U.K.-born converts to Islam have been detained by antiterrorism investigators in the U.K. and Kenya. One of the most notorious British-born Muslim converts who subsequently became involved in an Al Qaeda plot was Richard Reid, a petty criminal from South London who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner in December 2001 using a bomb built into a shoe. Investigators believe Reid initially converted to Islam while serving time in a juvenile prison and that he later became more radical while attending extremist London mosques.
A handful of American converts to Islam have also become involved with Al Qaeda or related groups. The most prominent is Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki (Adam the American), a California native who has appeared frequently in Al Qaeda propaganda videos hurling bloodcurdling threats against the United States. Another well-known U.S. convert was John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, who was picked up in Afghanistan after American-led forces rousted the Taliban government there in the wake of 9/11. Lindh, who pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban and is now serving a U.S. prison sentence, never made it into Al Qaeda's inner circles.
Gen. Hayden is not the only U.S. official to comment in recent months on the growing threat posed by terrorist recruits with European backgrounds. These suspects may carry European passports, which make them eligible for instant U.S. tourist visas simply by showing up at an American entry port. Earlier this year Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the BBC, "I have to say the biggest threat comes from overseas, and one of the places we are increasingly worried about is Europe."
U.S. officials have been trying to come up with new ways to gather additional information on European travelers that won't cause headaches or delays for those coming to the United States. One idea under consideration: requiring foreigners to apply online for tourist visas several days in advance of their flights to the United States. This would give authorities more information about visitors and more time to check them out before they arrived. But the idea is controversial. In addition to gathering intel on possible terrorists, it would also give U.S. agencies a means of building vast new databases of personal information on all foreign travelers.