Terror Watch: Al Qaeda's New Strategy

The investigation into last month's devastating suicide bombings in Istanbul has uncovered compelling new evidence pointing to a highly sophisticated operation carried out by homegrown militants--but planned by Al Qaeda operatives who may have included Osama bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, NEWSWEEK has learned.

The probe has led to charges against 21 Turkish suspects--some of whom, officials say, are now believed to have traveled to Afghanistan during the Taliban era and spent time in terrorist training camps there.

Even more disturbing, one of the key ringleaders of the operation, a previously obscure Islamic fighter named Azad Ekinci, left Turkey for Dubai 19 days before the attacks. Ekinci, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who uses the code name of "Abu Nidal"--the notorious Palestinian terrorist who died in Iraq last year--is now on the loose and may be planning future attacks, according to a Turkish official who provided new details of the investigation into the bombings. "There are a number of very important clues that would lead any rational person to think there is an Al Qaeda link," Altay Cenzigar, Turkey's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said in an interview.

The most significant under arrest so far, Yusaf Polat, has told police during interrogations that the ringleaders of the attacks, Ekinci and another Turkish accomplice named Habib Aktas, had several meetings with Al-Zawahiri, the fanatical Egyptian physician who merged his Islamic Jihad organization with Al Qaeda in the early 1990s and become bin Laden's second in command.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials said they have not confirmed a direct Zawahiri role in the bombings and suggested that some skepticism may be in order. And even Cenzigar acknowledges that the link, while intriguing, is so far indirect: the key suspect, Polat, has insisted that that his superiors, Ekinci and Aktas, had repeated meetings with Zawahiri--not that he personally encountered the bin Laden deputy.

Still, Turkish officials now believe there is little doubt that the November attacks were better coordinated and financed with more extensive international connections than previously thought--a clear sign that the broader terror network overseen by bin Laden remains alive and viable despite more than two years of relentless pressure by western counter-terrorism agencies.

In a sense, some U.S. officials say, the Turkish bombing, represents the new face of international terror. With the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the apprehension of many of its top leaders, Al Qaeda no longer has a secure base and structure that it can use to plan and direct spectacular attacks such as September 11. Instead, peripatetic Al Qaeda operatives, perhaps inspired if not directed by leaders such as Al-Zawahiri, essentially "piggyback" on the activities of local militants, providing training, skills and financing that allow the indigenous groups to commit attacks that are more deadly and sophisticated than would otherwise be possible.

That model appears to have been used in Turkey--a secular Muslim country where until now there has been scant evidence of an Islamic fundamentalist presence. The operation began Nov. 15 when suicide bombers attacked two synagogues in Istanbul on the Jewish Sabbath, in one case murdering the attendees at a Bar Mitzvah. Five days later, two truck bombs exploded outside the British Consulate and the headquarters of the London-based HSBC bank. Overall, 61 people died in the two attacks.

Even though the coordinated nature of the two attacks seemed to have all the fingerprints of Al Qaeda, Turkish officials at first focused on the adherents of Turkish Hizbollah, a Sunni Muslim militant group (with no connections to the Iranian backed Shiite Hizbollah active in Lebanon) that was believed to have been dismantled several years ago.

But the first clues of possible Al Qaeda links came early when Turkish police found the pieces of two Pakistani passports in the rubble of one of the synagogue bombings--a sign that the bombers had traveled abroad and may have received outside training. When the police raided homes of some of the suspects, they found video tapes that showed Islamic fighters killing Russian soldiers and shooting down helicopters in Chechnya. The police also found other tapes that helped them track down 22 suspects who had fled to Syria. In a key break for investigators, the Syrian government cooperated and returned the suspects to Turkey. All told, more than 150 suspects were rounded up--most of them from the mountainous and impoverished Kurdish region of the country where Turkish Hizbollah was once active.

But Turkish officials quickly discovered that many of the key suspects had traveled in recent years to Qaetta in Pakistan and Kandahar in Afghanistan--two key stops on the terror trail that often served as the gateways to Al Qaeda's training camps. Overall, the authorities were able to identify about 800 Turks who have traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the Taliban era. When those with legitimate business reasons for doing so were eliminated, this left a group of about 150 Muslim men--prime suspects who officials believe may be "sleeper agents" who have returned to Turkey and are positioned to launch further attacks.

From interrogations, and other detective work, the Turks discovered other important details: that prior to the attacks, the perpetrators purchased and insured eight trucks as well as large quantities of fertilizer to be used to manufacture explosives. Overall, the bombings are estimated to have cost about $100,000--not an unusually large amount but far more than Turkish Hizbollah would ever have had the resources to muster.

Polat was captured on Nov. 25 as he was attempting to cross into Iran at a remote border point. Under interrogation, Polat confessed and told how the suicide bombers had made a "martyrdom" videotape that confirms their commitment to jihad. The tape was smuggled by a courier to Al Qaeda operatives outside Turkey and may soon be shown to the world, Polat said. Polat also fingered the two suspected ringleaders of the attacks: Ekinci and Aktas. The latter is the brother-in-law of one of the suicide bombers that blew up the British HSBC and is thought to have been the financial and logistical planner of the attacks. Ekinci, 26, appears to have been the overall architect and theoretician. A former organizer for Turkish Hizbollah in the city of Bingol, he flew off to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and later showed up fighting with Chechen rebels against Russian troops. On Oct. 29, 19 days before the attacks, after telling family members he was leaving for Mecca, he and another accomplice hopped a plane for Dubai. Officials now believe he has long since left the Persian Gulf--and headed east, perhaps to Pakistan or Afghanistan where he remains free to activate further attacks from the "sleeper cell" agents he left behind.