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Released! Al Qaeda mastermind not a criminal in the Kingdom

Released! Al Qaeda mastermind not a criminal in the Kingdom

Author: Evan Kohlmann
Publication: National Review
Date: December 5, 2002
URL: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-kohlman120502.asp

If knowledgeable al Qaeda sources are to be believed, the Saudi  government seized an al Qaeda terrorist mastermind and placed him in their custody, only to abruptly and illogically release him in mid-1999. Now, that individual, Abu Asim Al-Makki (a.k.a. Muhammad Hamdi Al-Ahdal, Muhammad al-Hamati), is figuring prominently in the investigations of multiple terrorist attacks attributed to al Qaeda, including both the suicide-bombing of the USS Cole and the recent copycat terror attack on the French supertanker Limburg.

Abu Asim Al-Makki has been named by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) for his involvement with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Abu Asim, similar to bin Laden himself, is a former resident of Saudi Arabia, originally from Yemen. During the late 1980s, he joined the Arab guerillas in Afghanistan and helped train the growing corps of mujahadeen gathering there. When that war collapsed into anarchy in mid-1992, Abu Asim left and aided in the formation of a new al Qaeda battalion in central Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the fall of 1992, he helped lead a group of 43 primarily Saudi mujahadeen in initial combat operations against Bosnian Serb troops. This particular jihad combat unit was under the tactical command of Abu Ishaq al-Makki, a Saudi "famous for heroic feats in Afghanistan," and now imprisoned by his own government for allegedly participating in terrorist activities.

Another senior commander of this unit was Abu Zubair al-Haili (a.k.a. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, "the Bear"). At the time in his early 30s, Zammar was a German citizen of Saudi and Syrian origin. Formerly employed as a locksmith in Hamburg, he has recently admitted under interrogation by Syrian authorities that he was the chief handler of the Hamburg al Qaeda cell responsible for September 11 suicide hijackings. According to one informed Arab source interviewed by the Washington Post, "[h]e was the pivot of the Hamburg cell. His role was crucial as a recruiter, and his relations with Osama bin Laden were close. We are also certain that he was trying to install sleeper cells [in North Africa]." An added footnote to this drama: Under interrogation by U.S. authorities, failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam stated that, in al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, he had met several members of a North African terror cell (consisting mainly of Bosnian war veterans) based in Europe, headed by, among others, "Abu Zubair" and a mysterious unnamed militant living in Yemen.

Despite the impressive networking connections he made in Bosnia, Abu Asim paid a terrible price for his involvement in the jihad there: During one famous mujahadeen battle in 1992, he had a near encounter with a hand grenade, losing one leg entirely and remaining paralyzed in one arm ever since. He soon left the Balkans and returned to the Arabian peninsula. But the personal sacrifice Abu Asim made in Bosnia only encouraged him further along the path of violence in the name of radical Islam. In Yemen, he became one of the owners of Hamati Bakeries and the Al-Nur Honey Co., both accused by U.S. federal authorities of being prominent Middle Eastern financial conduits of al Qaeda.

In 1998, Abu Asim was allegedly arrested by Saudi authorities on suspicion of being involved in international terrorism, and was taken to the Ar-Ruwais Intelligence Center. Material provided by Azzam Publications has provided interesting insight into the case of Abu Asim Al-Makki. The U.K.-based mujahadeen propaganda outlet (formerly located at azzam.com) is widely considered to be the premiere English-language mouthpiece of al Qaeda; Said Bahaji, a suspected accomplice of the September 11 hijackers, was on its German mailing list. In one letter published by Azzam Publications on the Internet, an Islamic militant claiming to be a former fellow prisoner at Ar- Ruwais described how he witnessed Abu Asim being subjected to relentless interrogation by Saudi prison officials. According to the anonymous author, Abu Asim's grim face reflected "severe physical and mental torture."

But, despite this rough treatment, inexplicably, after a year of detention, Saudi authorities abruptly released and deported Abu Asim. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared in the remote tribal regions of Yemen. Prior to this past October, he was already wanted by the U.S. government for his involvement in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors. It is, thus, unsurprising that his name would now surface in the investigation of the parallel attack on the Limburg.

An article published late last month by the New York Times indicates that Kuwait has recently arrested Mohsen al-Fadhli, a 21-year-old al Qaeda member who has confessed to planning the suicide-bomb attack on the French supertanker and an additional failed car bombing in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. According to Kuwaiti security officials quoted in the Times article, early in 2001, Fadhli made contact with Abu Asim Al-Makki, offering to help organize and finance a terrorist attack if Abu Asim could identify potential targets. Ultimately, Abu Asim selected the French vessel and a hotel used by U.S. military officials for destruction.

In the past, the Saudi government has adamantly defended its commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. It has disavowed any links to Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, and it insists that Saudi Arabia is not a haven for terrorists. Yet, the wisdom of its decision to release Abu Asim must be certainly questioned in this case. In February 1998, Osama bin Laden and his compatriots unequivocally declared war on the "Jews and Crusaders." In August 1998, they further proved their resolve with a stunning double- bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Nevertheless, mindful of the serious security threat posed by al Qaeda, the Saudis still released and exported a known terrorist mastermind a year later in 1999. Incidentally or not, they have unleashed a wave of anti-Western terror in the neighboring state of Yemen, where Abu Asim has played a critical role in al Qaeda operations. Yet again, America confronts with unease the disturbing links between a supposed ally, Saudi Arabia, and the global terrorist threat posed by Arab-Afghan zealots loyal to Osama bin Laden.

(Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington D.C.-based counterterrorism think tank established in 1995. He is currently writing a book, The Martyrs of Bosnia: Al-Qaida's War of Terror in the Balkans.)

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