Bin Laden's Iraq Plans

During the muslim holy month of Ramadan, three senior Qaeda representatives allegedly held a secret meeting in Afghanistan with two top Taliban commanders. The confab took place in mid-November in the remote, Taliban-controlled mountains of Khowst province near the Pakistan border, a region where Al Qaeda has found it easy to operate--frequently even using satellite phones despite U.S. surveillance. At that meeting, according to Taliban sources, Osama bin Laden's men officially broke some bad news to emissaries from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the elusive leader of Afghanistan's ousted fundamentalist regime. Their message: Al Qaeda would be diverting a large number of fighters from the anti-U.S. insurgency in Afghanistan to Iraq. Al Qaeda also planned to reduce by half its $3 million monthly contribution to Afghan jihadi outfits.

All this was on the orders of bin Laden himself, the sources said. Why? Because the terror chieftain and his top lieutenants see a great opportunity for killing Americans and their allies in Iraq and neighboring countries such as Turkey, according to Taliban sources who complain that their own movement will suffer. (Though certainly not as much as Washington would like: last week Taliban guerrillas killed a U.N. census worker in an ambush, and a rocket struck near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul only hours after a visit by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.) Bin Laden believes that Iraq is becoming the perfect battlefield to fight the "American crusaders" and that the Iraqi insurgency has been "100 percent successful so far," according to a Taliban participant at the mid-November meeting who goes by the nom de guerre Sharafullah.

Fluent in Arabic, Sharafullah tells NEWSWEEK he acted as the meeting's official translator. He has proved to be a reliable source in previous stories. Prior to 9/11, he was Mullah Omar's translator in face-to-face meetings with bin Laden. And Sharafullah has translated correspondence between the two leaders. Another Taliban source separately confirmed that the meeting occurred, and he corroborated other parts of Sharafullah's account.

If true, bin Laden's shift of focus could be unsettling news for George W. Bush. The president is eager to quell the Iraqi insurgency and establish a democratic, stable Iraq as he heads into the 2004 re-election campaign. Until now, the attacks on Americans and other Coalition members have come mainly from local Saddam loyalists rather than an influx of foreign jihadists. But if the Taliban sources are correct, bin Laden may be aiming to help turn Iraq into "the central front" in the war on terror. That is how Bush himself described Iraq in a September speech, when he said, "We are fighting that enemy [there] today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets." But the president may be getting more than he bargained for. With 79 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in November--far more than in any previous month--many Democrats now see Bush's troubles in Iraq as the central front in their campaign to unseat him.

Despite bin Laden's apparently fresh interest in Iraq, sources in the region say there remains scant evidence that he had links to Saddam before the war. And U.S. officials who have sought to establish those links suggest now that Al Qaeda doesn't have substantial resources to divert to Iraq. "There just doesn't seem to be evidence of that," says a U.S. intel official. Asked if Washington believes the Ramadan meeting took place, CIA spokesman William Harlow declined to comment.

Sharafullah described the Qaeda-Taliban meeting while sitting down openly with a NEWSWEEK reporter at a tea shop in Peshawar's Kissakhani bazaar. That's not unusual: Afghan Taliban officials often move freely in Pakistani cities despite President Pervez Musharraf's vows to crack down. Even Mullah Omar himself, who has been sought by U.S. forces for two years, may be operating inside Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told NEWSWEEK in an interview on Nov. 28. "Mullah Omar was spotted praying in a mosque in Quetta 10 days ago," Karzai said. "This is the first time I have said this publicly." Karzai alleged that Taliban rebels were getting support in Pakistan--Quetta has become their main base, he said--and he asked Musharraf to stop Pakistani Islamic groups from providing sanctuary. ("It is a lie that Mullah Omar is in Pakistan," retorted Pakistan Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed.)

Sharafullah, smartly dressed in a shalwar kameez, wool sweater and black boots, said bin Laden was represented at the Ramadan meeting by three Arabs in their mid-40s who were armed with new Kalashnikovs and bedecked in hand grenades. The Arabs informed Mullah Omar's two representatives--one a former cabinet minister and the other a senior Taliban military commander--that bin Laden believed Al Qaeda had to widen the scope of its anti-infidel efforts as new opportunities arose. According to Sharafullah, the Qaeda representatives quoted bin Laden as saying, "The spilling of American blood is easy in Iraq. The Americans are drowning in deep, rising water." Many Qaeda men are keen to go to Iraq, bin Laden's delegates at the meeting allegedly added, and they again quoted "the sheik" as saying: "I'm giving men who are thirsty a chance to drink deeply."

Bin Laden, they said, had also decided to "reorganize the distribution of funding" by reducing Al Qaeda's monthly payment to the Afghan resistance from $3 million to $1.5 million, according to Sharafullah. Bin Laden's men pointed out that raising and distributing funds has been complicated by the U.S. crackdown on jihadi charitable foundations, bank accounts of terror-related organizations and money transfers. Nonetheless, bin Laden wanted to "assure" the Afghan resistance that it would receive the promised amount. "We will never leave you alone," the terror chief allegedly said through his representatives.

Judging from bin Laden's taped messages over the years, his strategy has always been to sap America's will and drive U.S. troops out of Arab lands altogether. While it remains unclear how well bin Laden is still able to direct or coordinate his far-flung cells and franchises, the most recent audiotaped message attributed to him, in October, calls on young Muslims to fight a holy war in Iraq. The New York Times reported Saturday that Qaeda operatives are also heading to Iraq from Europe. Some key Taliban sources claim there are more than 1,000 Qaeda fighters, military trainers and advisers who work closely with the Afghan resistance. These sources say at least one third of these Qaeda militants are now being sent to the Mideast. Mohammad Amir, a 32-year-old Taliban intelligence agent in Pakistan, says that of some 350 Qaeda fighters who operated out of Waziristan, an unregulated tribal area of Pakistan, nearly one half have already pulled out and headed for Iraq and neighboring countries.

The Taliban sources paint a portrait of a Qaeda network that has found new ways to operate, despite a U.S. dragnet in Central and South Asia. U.S. officials adamantly deny they have skimped on resources--intelligence or military--in that region. But there is evidence that the diversion of U.S. attention to Iraq has given Al Qaeda some breathing room, and that U.S. dependence on Pakistani troops and Afghan warlords is proving inadequate, perhaps even counter-productive, against the terror network. Over the past year, NEWSWEEK has learned, the CIA and British intelligence have been at odds over how badly the Taliban and Al Qaeda were damaged in the region. "The British were more prone to say the Taliban and Al Qaeda were coming back," says a U.S. official who is privy to intel discussions, and who believes the Bush administration downplayed the threat in order to switch its focus to Iraq.

Many Qaeda operatives appear to be traveling to the Mideast via the long, overland route through Iran. But the Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, has been reluctant to take a harder line toward Iran over its role as a terrorist haven. "The Iranians and some Arab countries like Syria are breathing easier because the United States is bogged down in Iraq," says one Arab ambassador to Washington. Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, an Iranian government spokesman, says Tehran is arresting Qaeda suspects, but he notes that "before we consider America's best interests, we have to consider our own people's interests."

Iran is an ideal transit station for Al Qaeda because it borders Afghanistan and Pakistan to its west and Iraq and Turkey to its east. Abdul Alkozai, a portly, black-turbaned Taliban intelligence and logistical officer along the Pakistani-Afghan border, says that two months ago bin Laden ordered 24 Qaeda-affiliated Turkish fighters to withdraw from Waziristan and head home to Turkey, also through Iran. Bin Laden has also dispatched some of his key senior aides to the Iraqi front over the past months. Three months ago he ordered Abdel Hadi al Iraqi, an Iraqi Baathist who fell out with Saddam in the 1980s and later became a Qaeda training-camp commander in Khowst, to leave bin Laden's hideout in northeastern Afghanistan and head to Iraq, Taliban sources say.

Mullah Omar has been dismayed by the apparent redirection of Qaeda forces, these same sources say. According to Sharafullah, bin Laden's representatives at the November meeting counseled the Taliban to unite the Afghan resistance. The Qaeda leader urged the Taliban to coordinate with the other main anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai guerrilla outfits, which are run by Afghan warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Saed Akbar Agha.

Mullah Omar's official spokesman, Hamid Agha, denied to NEWSWEEK in a satellite-telephone interview that the Taliban had financial or military problems. "We have enough money to fund our resistance," he said from an undisclosed location. The resurgent Taliban say they have been buoyed by an influx of hundreds of former Taliban fighters into their ranks over the past year. Many have rejoined because local warlords allied with U.S. forces and Karzai have persecuted them in their villages, both Taliban and U.S. intel sources say. "These repressive, pro-American warlords have been our best recruiting tool," says Rahman Hotaki, a former Transport Ministry official and now a Taliban operative in Waziristan. "Warlords are pushing people to leave the warmth of their blankets at home and join us in our caves." Hotaki admits that the departure of Qaeda trainers will hurt the Taliban. "We need more, not fewer, Qaeda experts, especially in explosives and other military technologies," he says. "We can't fight without foreign financial support." But if bin Laden's Taliban allies are to be believed, the Qaeda leader may no longer be sympathetic to their entreaties. It appears that he, like his mortal enemy George W. Bush, may be seeking to make Iraq center stage in the war on terror.