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Context of 'Late 2002: CIA Recruits New High-Level Al-Qaeda Informant'

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In 2008, Abdelkader Belliraj, a Belgian government informant heading an Islamist militant group in Morocco, will be arrested in Morocco (see February 18, 2008 and February 29, 2008). Moroccan Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa will claim that in 2001 Belliraj and several of his followers travel to Afghanistan to meet al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri gives Belliraj specific instructions to carry out. Belliraj’s followers then train in al-Qaeda camps alongside militants belonging to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, another al-Qaeda linked Moroccan militant group. That group will later carry out a series of attacks in Casablanca in 2003 (see May 16, 2003) and play a role in the Madrid train bombings in 2004 (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004). It is not known if Belliraj meets al-Zawahiri before or after the 9/11 attacks. [Los Angeles Times, 2/27/2008; Het Laatste News, 3/4/2008] Belliraj’s group maintains al-Qaeda links after this. For instance, in 2005 Belliraj visits training camps run by the Algerian militant group the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. One year later, that group will change its name to be Al-Qaeda in the Magreb. [Maghreb Arabe Presse, 3/2/2008]

Entity Tags: Chakib Benmoussa, Abdelkader Belliraj, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA Director George Tenet will claim in his 2007 book that “a group of assets from a Middle Eastern service” is unknowingly working for the CIA by this time. Out of the more than twenty people in this group, one third are working against al-Qaeda. By September 2001, two assets have successfully penetrated al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. [Tenet, 2007, pp. 145] The name of the Middle Eastern country is not known. It is also not known when this group first started working for the CIA nor when the assets first penetrated the camps. Nor has it been reported what information these assets may have shared with the CIA before 9/11. It is known that bin Laden was dropping hints about the upcoming 9/11 attacks to training camp trainees in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001). Further, US citizen John Walker Lindh was told details of the 9/11 attacks within weeks of joining a training camp that summer (see May-June 2001).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

It has been widely reported that the CIA never had any assets near bin Laden before 9/11. For instance, Lawrence Wright will write in his highly regarded 2006 book, The Looming Tower, “The fact is that the CIA had no one inside al-Qaeda or the Taliban security that surrounded bin Laden.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 265] But author Ronald Kessler will write in a 2004 book, “Often, the CIA used operatives from Arab intelligence services like those of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and other countries to infiltrate bin Laden’s organization.” A longtime CIA officer says, “Egyptians, Jordanians, [and] Palestinians penetrated the bin Laden organization for us. It’s B.S. that we didn’t.” Kessler further explains that such operations remain one of the CIA’s best-kept secrets and often occur even with intelligence agencies the CIA is sometimes otherwise at odds with. Kessler says, “In return for help, the CIA provided them with money, equipment, and intelligence on their adversaries. Over the years, the Jordanians, for example, relied on the CIA to alert them to plots against the king. Over time, the Jordanians became so good at the intelligence game that they were better at detecting plots than the CIA.” [Kessler, 2004, pp. 143] Jack Cloonan, an FBI expert on al-Qaeda, will later say, “There were agents run into the camps. But most of them were not very well placed,” and lacked access to the inner circles. [United Press International, 11/27/2006] One example of such an asset may be Khalil Deek, who worked closely with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see 1998-December 11, 1999) and was reportedly a mole for Jordanian intelligence (see Shortly After December 11, 1999). In the months before 9/11, Jordan will warn the US that al-Qaeda is planning a major attack inside the US using aircraft (see Late Summer 2001), and Egypt will warn the CIA that al-Qaeda has 20 operatives on a mission in the US, some of them training to fly (see Late July 2001).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Syria, Jack Cloonan, Jordan General Intelligence Department, Khalil Deek, Egypt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

US News and World Report reveals that US intelligence has a growing number of al-Qaeda informants. The magazine comments, “Once thought nearly impossible to penetrate, al-Qaeda is proving no tougher a target than the KGB or the Mafia—closed societies that took the US government years to get inside.” An unnamed US intelligence official says: “We’re getting names, the different camps they trained at, the hierarchy, the infighting. It’s very promising.” Many prisoners have begun to reveal what they know as knowledge of al-Qaeda increases and their interrogations are based on more information about them. One official says, “Now when you go to interrogate people, you know when they’re lying.” [US News and World Report, 9/22/2002]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, US intelligence

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 2006, journalist Ron Suskind will report that by late 2002, the CIA had developed “a source from within Pakistan who was tied tightly into al-Qaeda management.” He gives him the alias “Ali.” He claims that many within al-Qaeda like Ali thought the 9/11 attacks were a mistake, and that as a result US intelligence began “working a few potential informants.” He claims that by early 2003, Ali’s reports over the previous six months “had been almost always correct, including information that led to several captures.” Ali also warned of a new chemical bomb al-Qaeda has developed and revealed the name of the top al-Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia (see February-Late March 2003). But Suskind will give no further details about Ali or what becomes of him, and no details about the other “potential informants” that he hints at. However, he will comment, “It has been generally acknowledged that the United States does not have any significant human sources… inside al-Qaeda. That is not true.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 216-218]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Ron Suskind, Al-Qaeda, Ali

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In February 2003, some radical militants are arrested in Bahrain. A joint US-Saudi raid of an apartment in Saudi Arabia owned by one of them reveals the designs for a bomb called a mubtakkar. This bomb is made of two widely available chemicals, sodium cyanide and hydrogen, which combine to create hydrogen cyanide. When turned to gas, it is lethal, and counterterrorism experts are highly alarmed at this technical breakthrough. CIA Director Tenet briefs President Bush about the mubtakkar bomb in early March. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 193-197; Time, 6/17/2006] Journalist Ron Suskind calls it a “nightmare delivery system—portable, easy to construct, deadly.” The CIA has a highly placed al-Qaeda informant codenamed Ali, and in late March they contact him to learn more about the bomb. He tells his CIA handlers that Yusef al-Ayeri, a Saudi in charge of al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula, visited al-Qaeda number two leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in January 2003. He told al-Zawahiri of an already advanced plot in the US. Operatives loosely linked to al-Qaeda had traveled to the US in the fall of 2002 and thoroughly cased locations in New York City. They would place the mubtakkar bomb in subway cars and remotely activate them. The group was ready to implement an attack in about 45 days. According to Suskind, several thousand people could be killed. But Ali learned that al-Zawahiri called off the attacks, though Ali does not know the reason why. The group did cancel the attack, and US intelligence never learns who exactly they were. President Bush and others puzzle why the attack was canceled and speculate that al-Qaeda put it aside in favor of an even bigger attack. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 216-220; Time, 6/17/2006] Suskind’s account will cause alarm when revealed in 2006. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) will say that authorities took the plot seriously but were never able to confirm its existence. Other officials will debate the effectiveness of the bomb and how many deaths it could have caused. [CNN, 6/18/2006] University of Maryland professor Milton Leitenberg later says of the bomb, “What you would get, in all probability, is a big bang, a big splash, but very little gas.” He also says that concentrations of key chemicals present in household materials are so low “you would get next to nothing” by using them, and one would have to get them from a chemical supplier or steal them from a laboratory. One counterterrorism official points out, “If this is such an amazing weapon, and the design for it is out there, why has no one ever used it?” [United Press International, 6/27/2006] An article by the private intelligence service Stratfor is also skeptical and suggests that al-Zawahiri called off the attack because it wouldn’t have been as deadly as if conventional bombs were used instead. [Stratfor, 6/21/2006] CIA Deputy Counter Terrorism Center Director Hank Crumpton will also later suggest that a team was recruited to stage the attack but apparently never was sent to the US. [Newsweek, 8/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Ron Suskind, Milton Leitenberg, Yusef al-Ayeri, Charles Schumer, George J. Tenet, Ali, Ayman al-Zawahiri, George W. Bush, Hank Crumpton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Yusef al-Ayeri, believed to be in charge of al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula, is shot and killed while attempting to flee a security checkpoint in Saudi Arabia. His body was strapped with explosives and a 6-month-old letter from Osama bin Laden was reportedly in his pocket. Al-Ayeri was publicly named earlier in the month and his photograph was distributed nationwide. [Knight Ridder, 6/4/2003] US intelligence had known of al-Ayeri by his alias “Swift Sword” for a year and had eventually learned his real name. They had told Saudi intelligence that he may be behind an aborted al-Qaeda plot to attack the US with a chemical bomb (see February-Late March 2003) and said they were highly interested in questioning him. However, not only is he killed, but the Saudis apparently never collect his personal effects, such as his cell phone, his address book, or his car registry, and never trace such clues back to any residence that can be searched. One CIA operative involved in the search to find him will later recall, “We wondered, was it an accident that they killed him, or not? The Saudis just shrugged.… The bottom line: the missing link [that could reveal who took part in the planned US attack] was dead and his personal effects, which can be pretty important, were gone. Like so much else when you’re dealing with these countries, you’re never sure—was it an issue of will or capability?” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 146, 237-239] The Internet communications run by al-Ayeri will be taken over by a previously unknown figure named Lewis Atiyallah. In 2005, it will be reported that some counterterrorism experts believe Atiyallah “is a pseudonym for Yusef al-Ayeri… Al-Ayeri was reported killed in 2003, however there are lingering doubts about whether he is in fact dead.” [AKI, 6/8/2005]

Entity Tags: Yusef al-Ayeri, Lewis Atiyallah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On January 16, 2007, a young man known as Asim arrives in Barcelona. He had recently been living in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan as an informant for French intelligence. He comes to Barcelona to inform on a group of Pakistanis living in that town who spent time in Pakistani training camps and allegedly are planning a series of suicide attacks in Spain and possibly other European countries. He is posing as one of the suicide bombers. Fearing that an attack is imminent, Spanish authorities arrest most of the suspects three days later (see January 19, 2008). But the Spanish decide that they don’t have enough physical evidence to successfully prosecute the arrested suspects, and they turn Asim into a protected witness for the prosecution. The New York Times will comment, “the case has caused diplomatic friction among investigators. Spain’s handling of the French informant has enraged officials at France’s intelligence agencies and eroded trust between the countries, French and other European officials said. The informant’s value as a source was destroyed when he was made a prosecution witness and the contents of his statements were leaked to the news media.” Asim’s case contradicts the commonly held notion that intelligence agencies have been unable to penetrate al-Qaeda’s central command (see March 20, 2008). But many questions remain. It is unclear when he first penetrated Waziristan as an informant, how much time he spent there, and how high level his al-Qaeda contacts there were. [New York Times, 2/10/2008]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, Asim

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Moroccan police arrest 35 people for involvement in a radical militant group led by an informant for the Belgian government. Over the next several weeks, it will gradually be leaked to the media that the arrested leader of the group, Abdelkader Belliraj, has worked for Belgian intelligence and possibly the CIA since at least 2000 (see February 29, 2008). Belliraj holds both Belgian and Moroccan citizenship and is a Shiite. His unnamed group has both Shiite and Sunni Muslim links, and is linked to Islamist militant groups like al-Qaeda as well as to traditional organized crime. Others arrested in Morocco with Belliraj include local politicians, businessmen, a police commander and Hezbollah television station correspondent. A large stockpile of weapons is found in police raids, including assault rifles, machine guns, and detonators. Two days after the raids, the small Islamist party al-Badil al-Hadari is officially dissolved after several of those arrested are found to have links to the party, including the party’s secretary general. The Moroccan government claims Belliraj’s group was planning a series of political assassinations in Morocco. [Los Angeles Times, 2/27/2008; Terrorism Focus, 3/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Abdelkader Belliraj

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Abdelkader Belliraj.Abdelkader Belliraj. [Source: Agence France-Presse]The Belgian media reports that Abdelkader Belliraj, a dual Belgian-Moroccan citizen arrested in Morocco earlier in the month, is actually a long-time informant for Belgium’s internal security service, State Security. [Agence France-Presse, 2/29/2008; Los Angeles Times, 8/24/2008] The Belgian government initially denies the charges but soon tacitly admits them when the head of State Security, Alain Winants, complains about the leak of the “highly classified” status of Belliraj several days later. Agence France-Presse reports that although the “accusations were at first met with scepticism in Belgium, authorities now consider them credible.” Belliraj has been personally involved in armed robberies and murders dating back to the 1980s, and has links to al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other Islamist militant groups. It remains unclear if Belliraj was committing all his crimes with the approval of Belgian officials or if he may have been duping them to some degree. One anonymous Belgian police official speculates: “How could he travel freely since the 1980s from Belgium to various terrorist hot-beds around the world? There are two possibilities: either he worked for a secret service or else the State Security is full of idiots.” [Agence France-Presse, 3/11/2008] On Belgian newspaper claims that at the same time he was a paid Belgian informant since 2000, “It’s almost certain that at the same time he worked for another foreign secret service, possibly the French DGSE or American CIA.” [Het Laatste News, 3/4/2008] Another major Belgian newspaper, De Morgen, claims that Belliraj had both French and US intelligence links while working with Belgium too. [Maghreb Arabe Presse, 3/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, Abdelkader Belliraj, Alain Winants, State Security (of Belgium)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Washington Post publishes a front page story promoting the myth that al-Qaeda has never been effectively penetrated by intelligence agencies. The article by Craig Whitlock is titled After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still Impervious to Spies. It states that “al-Qaeda’s core organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan has so far proved impervious to damaging leaks.” It quotes Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who says that from 1992 until November 2004 (when he left the CIA), “[the CIA] worked side by side with the Egyptians, the Jordanians—the very best Arab intelligence services—and they didn’t recruit a single person who could report on al-Qaeda.” The article seems to be a reaction to the case of Abdelkader Belliraj, which was publicly exposed several weeks earlier, when Belliraj was arrested in Morocco (see February 18, 2008 and February 29, 2008). The article notes that Belliraj was a Belgian government informant and important Islamist militant leader who had al-Qaeda links for years and met with al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan (see 2001). Belliraj’s case seemingly undercuts the thrust of the article, but the rest of the article mostly quotes a series of anonymous intelligence officials who say penetrating al-Qaeda would be next to impossible. [Washington Post, 3/20/2008] Whitlock’s article ignores numerous reports that al-Qaeda has repeatedly been penetrated by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. For instance:
bullet In 2002, US News and World Report reported, “Once thought nearly impossible to penetrate, al-Qaeda is proving no tougher a target than the KGB or the Mafia—closed societies that took the US government years to get inside.” An unnamed US intelligence official said: “We’re getting names, the different camps they trained at, the hierarchy, the infighting. It’s very promising” (see September 22, 2002).
bullet In 2004, author Ronald Kessler wrote, “Often, the CIA used operatives from Arab intelligence services like those of Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and other countries to infiltrate bin Laden’s organization.” He quoted a longtime CIA officer who said, “Egyptians, Jordanians, [and] Palestinians penetrated the bin Laden organization for us. It’s B.S. that we didn’t” (see Before September 11, 2001).
bullet In 2006, journalist Ron Suskind reported that by late 2002, the CIA had developed “a source from within Pakistan who was tied tightly into al-Qaeda management.” He also noted that other informants had been recruited since 9/11, and commented, “It has been generally acknowledged that the United States does not have any significant human sources… inside al-Qaeda. That is not true” (see Late 2002).
bullet In a 2007 book, former CIA Director George Tenet claimed that the CIA had over 100 assets in Afghanistan by 9/11 (see Before September 11, 2001). He also claimed that “a group of assets from a Middle Eastern service” sharing information with the CIA penetrated al-Qaeda, and some of them penetrated al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan before 9/11 (see Early September 2001).
bullet In February 2008, the New York Times reported that French intelligence had an informant that penetrated al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal region (see Late January 2008).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Craig Whitlock, Michael Scheuer, Abdelkader Belliraj

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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