Osama bin Laden's Inner Circle: War on Terror

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At first, Pakistan's security forces had no idea just how big a catch they'd made. U.S. intelligence officers didn't guess the whole truth either, although it had been their tip that led to Mohammed Neem Noor Khan's arrest. They knew only that he was doing communications work for Al Qaeda.

The 25-year-old computer specialist didn't put up a fight when he was picked up on July 13 in Lahore. Pakistani officials say he didn't even own aweapon. But as experts examined his home computer, they began to realize Khan was a key connection between Osama bin Laden's inner circle, holed up in some of the world's most impenetrable terrain, and Al Qaeda's operatives, still obeying the master terrorist's commands in cities around the world.

Khan and his computer have provided an unprecedented glimpse into Al Qaeda's inner workings. He has reluctantly helped to decrypt what one Pakistani official calls a "treasure trove" of data, including reconnaissance reports on potential terrorist targets in the United States... And Khan's address book was priceless. Keeping the arrest quiet, his captors got him to e-mail his contacts in Pakistan, England and elsewhere.

A senior Pakistani official says the messages have helped bring the arrests of dozens of suspects, including Britain's reputed top Qaeda operative, Esa al-Hindi, and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the Tanzanian fugitive who was wanted for the 1998 African embassy bombings. Under duress, says the same source, Khan sent e-mails to at least six contacts in the United States--with results that remain undisclosed. (A senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Khan had contacted people in the States, but the source couldn't say when and believed the U.S. contacts were fewer than six.) U.S. and Pakistani intelligence think Khan himself may have visited the United States at one point before or after 9/11.

Khan practically grew up in Al Qaeda. He was only a teenager when he caught the group's attention on a 1997 flight from his hometown of Karachi to Dubai, according to the senior official. Khan fell into conversation with a Qaeda member. The bright, soft-spoken youngster made a splendid prospect for recruitment. He had just entered Pakistan's top engineering school, and he identified with radical causes from the Palestinians to Bosnia and Chechnya, although his family background could scarcely be called Islamist. He had a valid passport and could fly almost anywhere for practically nothing, thanks to his father's job as a senior purser for Pakistan International Airlines. Soon the impressionable teen met other Qaeda members who welcomed him into their midst. In 1998 he attended a three-month commando-training course at bin Laden's Al-Farooq training camp near the Afghan city of Khost.

Returning to Pakistan, Khan set up a small Qaeda communications center. It began as little more than a hobby--until the Taliban's collapse sent bin Laden and his men fleeing for their lives. Suddenly Khan found himself running a network that kept the group's leaders in touch with their agents and each other. Bin Laden and his inner circle couldn't use radios or satphones for fear of revealing their hideouts. Instead, Khan became their nexus between the caves and the Internet cafes. Some communications arrived from the mountains in handwritten notes or on computer discs delivered by secretive relays of couriers who never saw each other, using dead drops to avoid being traced. Other messages came in electronically from far-flung "cutouts," intermediaries who forward e-mail with no clue what it means, where it goes or who sent it.

Khan's task was to encrypt and pass on orders from the caves. Some he posted on jihadist Web sites; others he would e-mail directly to Qaeda operatives--not only in Britain, America and terrorist crossroads like Indonesia and Malaysia, but even in such unlikely places as Nepal. Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain as active as possible, a senior Taliban source in Pakistan says. For security's sake the Qaeda chief meets with his senior officers only when absolutely necessary. Most of his messages are more inspirational than operational, urging militants "to remain vigilant and walk carefully because we have a long and hard struggle ahead of us," as the Taliban source puts it. Al-Zawahiri is said to be more directly engaged, touring the border areas to meet with Qaeda and Taliban agents and make fundraising appeals. But both men continue to approve and reject plans submitted from the field, the Taliban fighter says.

That was the other half of Khan's job. He handled operatives' reports and recommendations, collating them, adding related documents, maps and his own observations, and sending them via courier into the mountains. Sometimes he collected intelligence on his own. The senior Pakistani official says Khan made at least six trips to Britain over the past six years, including a brief stint at City University in London, until he reportedly got bored and quit. The search of his computer turned up photos and drawings of Heathrow airport he apparently made--which evidently helped inspire last week's warnings of a possible Qaeda attack there.

Security experts worry that Khan may typify a whole new generation of Al Qaeda field officers. Karachi alone has more than 20 small, Qaeda-linked cells led by educated young men, according to Pakistani intelligence. One such group, calling itself Jundullah (God's Brigade), sprang an ambush last June on a military motorcade in the heart of the city. The attack killed six soldiers and three police and nearly eliminated one of the Pakistani Army's top officers. Security forces later captured the alleged ringleaders, including a cardiologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a physicist with a master's degree from the University of Karachi and another individual with a master's in statistics. Senior Pakistani officials expect that Al Qaeda will replace Khan easily enough. "We have weakened, not eliminated, the network," says Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat. "But every arrest helps us to get closer to the others." The hope is only to hunt down Al Qaeda's senior members faster than the group can recruit new ones.