From Sunrise, Orlando and Hollywood Florida to Detroit, Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Michigan; from Phoenix, Arizona to Roanoke, Virginia; from Buffalo, New York to San Diego, California; and from Chicago, Peoria, and Justice, Illinois to Seattle and Portland, Oregon – the existence of foreign terrorist sleeper cells in the United States represents the most deadly fifth column threat to America since World War II.
Even with the experience of 9/11 behind us, those who hold the reins of power in this country continue to demonstrate a certain fatalism even as they describe their common belief that the United States will eventually prevail. Success continues to be measured not by the absence of mass-casualty attacks against the American homeland, but by the number of attacks.
The disclosure of a large al Qaeda sleeper cell in Buffalo, New York has led U.S. authorities to conclude that cells such as these probably exist all over the country embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities.
Traditionally, sleepers are established in foreign countries for extended periods of time, in some cases up to several years prior to a given operation being executed as the 1993 first attack on the World Trade Center demonstrated. Preceding the operation, they live as regular ordinary citizens, leading unremarkable lives, and avoiding attention from local authorities. In December 2002, for example, Mohamed Harkat, an associate of Abu Zubaydah (a high ranking al Qaeda operative now in U.S. custody) was arrested in Ottawa, Canada. He had been working as a pizza deliveryman and a gas station attendant. Most sleepers are thought to have entered the country some time ago, singly or in pairs, living in run-down sections of urban areas or towns. Their cells are made up of U.S.-born Muslims as well as young male Muslims from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf nations, Yemen, Somalia and Indonesia, among others. they are deeply entrenched in their communities, working or running small businesses that act as covers for their activities – raising funds, disseminating propaganda, and in some cases, recruiting terrorists, providing military training and even directing terrorist operations back in the Middle East.
Although there is no established hierarchy that centrally coordinates the activities of these sleepers or their militant networks, the intelligence and law enforcement communities agree that the entire spectrum of radical groups from the Middle East has been replicated in the U.S. – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hizba-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria), Armed Islamic Group (Algeria), En-Nahda (Tunisian), Muslim Brotherhood, Ga’mat Islamiya (Egypt), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria), Abu Sayyaf Group, Jamat Muslimeen (Pakistan and Bangledesh), and support groups of mujahideen (Holy Warriors) in Bosnia, Philippines and Chechnya – all have ongoing operations in America – and not just for fund raising purposes.
The specter of terrorism, particularly in the age of instant telecommunications carries a major psychological dimension – the ability to inject fear and fright into the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Americans. That is because America is not only fighting countries but ghosts – violent, well funded, ideologically committed and anti-Western kamikazes who see themselves as martyrs in their war against the infidels of the world.
And little has changed since 9/11.
The most detailed account of al Qaeda’s thinking immediately after Sept.11th was a rambling 52-page essay reconstituted from the hard drive of a computer found in the caves of Afghanistan. In it, bin Laden crows about the success of “Glorious Tuesday (9/11)” and calls for a “thousand more operations like these.” Stored in draft form on the Afghan computer and later revised slightly and distributed abroad to rally recruits, the text includes a notation that the White House, not the Capitol Building, was among the targets of 9/11.
Over the past year, Washington has measured its success against al Qaeda largely by counting the scalps of terrorist chiefs. “We’re making good progress. Slowly but surely, we’re dismantling the al Qaeda network,” the President said in early December, 2002.
But how difficult is the task?
One of classical instances of sleepers in the U.S. was the case of Abu Moussa Marzook. According to terrorism expert Steven Emerson, in 1989, Marzook became the founding president of the United Association of Studies and Research (UASR) that served as a covert branch for planning Hamas operations and disseminating propaganda. He eventually rose to become chief operating officer of Hamas, responsible for orchestrating and designing the group’s terrorist apparatus and activities. His use of the United States as a safehaven ended on July 25, 1995, when he was detained at Kennedy Airport upon his return to the States. On a routine primary inspection by an INS agent, it was revealed that Marzook’s name and date of birth matched a computer entry in the INS database that had been recently entered into a “terrorist watch” lookout. In his possession, at the time of his arrest, was paperwork showing his business companies to be worth more than $10 million, which law enforcement officials believe to have been part of a massive money laundering operation for Hamas in the U.S. Equally significant was the discovery of Marzook’s personal telephone directory that contained the telephone numbers of nearly every top terrorist in the world today. Interestingly, more than 20 percent of the phone numbers were those of Marzook’s contacts and senior terrorist collaborators in the United States. At least ten of these close contacts still live in the Northern Virginia area.
And the Marzook case is not an isolated one.
Tampa, Florida served as the effective command and control center of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization in the United States until federal agents descended in November 1995 upon the homes of suspected Islamic Jihad leaders who also served as professors at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A treasure trove of intelligence materials was seized from the home of an engineering professor and from the office of Professor Ramadan Abdullah Shallah – who subsequently surfaced in Damascus as the official head of Islamic Jihad.
According to Philadelphia-based terrorist scholar Daniel Pipes writing in the New York Post fifteen warrants were executed in March 2002. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rabih Haddad has been accused of funneling money to terrorists via the Global Relief Foundation (December 2001); in Justice, Illinois, Enaam Arnaout, Executive Director of the Benevolence International Foundation has been accused of funneling money to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations (April 2002); in New York, Mohammed Yousry, Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Yassir Al-Sirri have been accused of passing messages between Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (serving a life sentence for his part in an attempt to blow up New York City landmarks) and his followers (April 2002); in Chicago, Jose Padilla has been accused of being an al Qaeda member who was plotting to release a dirty bomb in a U.S. city (May 2002); and in Sunrise, Florida, Adham Hassoun is suspected of organizing al Qaeda operatives in the United States (June 2002)………and the list goes on.
As 2002 came to a close, information surfaced that an additional five al Qaeda members had slipped into America through the porous Canadian border. Other al Qaeda members are known to have slipped into the country in uninspected, non-radiated cargo containers arriving at our Western seaports.
According to federal officials, secret federal intelligence reports put the numbers of terrorist operatives at between 2,000 and 5,000 in the United States ? only a few of whom had left written or videotaped testimonials in former al Qaeda camps, caves and safe houses in Afghanistan.
These are very dangerous people.
Government officials acknowledge that there are many more that haven’t been identified, and might never be – until they strike. Finding them depends to a large extent on getting help from foreign governments and the domestic Islamic community, something that is often difficult.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official explained, “The members of cells don’t think of themselves as raiding parties, but as the front end of an invasion. What makes these groups so troublesome is that they hide under a religion, do not have a traditional linear hierarchy, speak a foreign language and generally go about as far as they can in pushing the limits of the law without our being able to track them when and if they go over the line,” says a former FBI official. “Their agenda in the United States is not only to build their infrastructure and raise funds but also to be in position to ultimately move against the United States.”
As Steve Emerson prophetically noted on February 24, 1998, before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Terrorism, ” The absence of bombs going off more regularly should not lull us into a false sense of security. The presence of foreign terrorist groups in America means that they have the capabilities of launching attacks here and the ability, which they exploit to their maximum advantage, of using the United States as a springboard to launch attacks against our allies and friends.”
Truth be told, U.S. exposure to catastrophic attack, more than 16 months into the war with al Qaeda, remains unbounded. As Barton Gellman noted recently in the Washington Post, “the global campaign launched by President Bush has destroyed Osama bin Laden’s Afghan sanctuary, drained his financial resources, scattered his foot soldiers and killed or captured some of his most dangerous lieutenants. But there is nothing in al Qaeda’s former arsenal – nothing it was capable of doing on Sept. 11, 2001 – that the President’s advisers are prepared to say is now beyond the enemy’s reach.”
Thirteen of 20 men on the government’s classified roster of “high value targets” remain unaccounted for since the government lost many and perhaps most of its best chances to kill the top targets in the critical first month of the war in Afghanistan. Struggles within and between the CIA and U.S. Central Command prevented operators of the armed Predator drones from opening fire on terrorist targets with Hellfire missiles on at least 15 occasions, according to sources directly involved. Now scattered, al Qaeda’s network remains capable of global command and control. As it did with box cutters and jetliners on Sept. 11th, al Qaeda makes innovative use of ordinary technology to frustrate U.S. efforts to predict its next move.
The concern over al Qaeda ?sleepers? in America results from a common belief that there may have been in-country conspirators involved in the Sept. 11th plot who may not as yet have been identified by the FBI. There remains strong skepticism of the FBI’s public stance that 19 hijackers pulled off their complex feat without the kind of local help that al Qaeda has always tended to use. FBI investigators acknowledge that important questions remain unanswered. They do not know, for example, why on the eve of his final flight, Mohamed Atta traveled to Portland, Maine. One theory now is that he met on the evening of Sept.10th with his al Qaeda “handler” – to return unused funds or documents that he would no longer require, to make a report, or to take final instructions. From the docks in Portland’s Casco Bay, the Quoddy Loop line offers frequent ferries to Canada. No identification is required to buy a ticket. If a handler did meet Atta there, he could and probably did disappear without a trace.
The 1993 attempt to destroy the World Trade Center only lends credibility to the “sleeper theory.” In that case, five different groups collaborated in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy and related terrorist plots: Gamat Islamiya (Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman of Egypt); Sudan’s National Islamic Front (members of the Sudanese Mission in New York and five Sudanese were arrested for the second series of bomb plots in Manhattan); Hamas (Mohammed Saleh, owner of a Yonkers gas station who was to supply the fuel for the second WTC-connected bombing plot and who was also a pivotal Hamas figure in arranging for Hamas military training in the Sudan and for acquiring military equipment for Hamas forces in Jordan); Islamic Jihad (Islamic Jihad head Abdul Azziz Odeh was an unindicted co-conspirator but is believed by law enforcement officials to have known about the bomb plots); and A1-Fuqra (a militant black Pakistani organization with adherents in Colorado, New York, Canada and Pakistan).?which is why the number one priority in the FBI today is to detect and uncover ?terrorist sleeper cells” in the United States.
With the advent of chemical and biological weapons, we now face the distinct possibility of mass civilian murder the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. The reconstituted al Qaeda organization has already established an affinity to attack large symbolic targets by returning to proven ?soft? targets (including New York, Yemen and Kenya) and it has announced its desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons and radiological dispersion devices. The ability of our law enforcement authorities to infiltrate these cells, to penetrate their financial fronts, and to undermine their operational infrastructure will determine whether 9/11 represents the beginning of the end of terrorism or merely the end of the beginning of a global catastrophe.