How terror groups vied for a player
WASHINGTON — All the terrorists wanted Shadi Abdallah on their team.
Like many disenchanted Muslim youths in the late 1990s, the Jordanian-born Mr. Abdallah had embarked on a wandering journey that ended in the terror training camps of Afghanistan. But Abdallah was apparently a better student than most. As his time in the camps neared its end in 2001, at least two major Islamist factions began vying for his services.
In a face-to-face meeting, Osama bin Laden invited him to join Al Qaeda - and even asked him to serve as a personal bodyguard. Meanwhile, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the now-infamous Jordanian deemed responsible for recent attacks in Iraq, wanted Abdallah to join Al Tawhid, Mr. Zarqawi's rival organization.
Abdallah opted for Al Tawhid, in part due to Jordanian ties. He went to Germany to carry out attacks, but his plans were interrupted when German authorities arrested him in April 2002.
Is that the end of his story? Not entirely. Since then, information provided by Shadi Abdallah - still in German custody - has painted a vivid, and in some ways surprising, picture of Islamic terrorism. His interrogations - a summary of which was given to the Monitor by a European intelligence source and deemed credible by an intelligence official from a separate European country - depict a world riven by internal rivalries, with different groups fighting over men and money.
There is unity, but there is also bickering over status in their own terror league.
"This is a very important document," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at RAND Corp. in Washington. "It confirms that Zarqawi was running a parallel organization - not completely divorced from Al Qaeda, but separate. And that [Zarqawi] competes with Osama bin Laden and sees himself as somewhat of an emulator, or even a successor in the Muslim world."
To the US public, Islamic terrorism is symbolized by the thin, haunting face of Mr. bin Laden. They see him - and the US government portrays him - as a dominant figure among terror factions.
But that may be only one part of the story. In the transcript summarizing his interrogations, Abdallah provides insights into Al Qaeda and its relationship with the group led by Zarqawi, who US officials say was also behind the October 2002 assassination of US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan, as well as a recent string of foiled ricin attacks across Europe.
He also provides insight into how disaffected Muslims adopt the terrorist way of life.
Like many young Muslim men living in the politically and economically troubled Middle East in the early 1990s, Abdallah left his family in Jordan to pursue a more prosperous, rewarding life in Europe.
He lived in Germany the longest, but - disenchanted with the secular life there - left in late 1999 to become more pious. He joined a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Abdallah's recruitment into the world of terrorism is typical, Hoffman and intelligence officials say. While performing his religious pilgrimage, Abdallah says in the interrogation documents that he met a man who claimed to be bin Laden's son-in-law. This man, whom he referred to as both Abdallah al-Halabi and Abdallah al-Makki, convinced Abdallah he would receive a better religious education in Afghanistan and facilitated his travel there, according to the interrogation transcript.
Abdallah arrived in Afghanistan early in 2001 and entered one of Al Qaeda's military training camps for a 45-day session. It was here, according to the interrogation transcripts, where Abdallah had his first brush with Al Tawhid, the terror group founded by Mr. Zarqawi. It was Zarqawi who, according to US officials, wrote the well-publicized 14-page letter earlier this year, exhorting bin Laden to help foment a religious war in Iraq.
His organization, Al Tawhid, is based on the same religious tenets as Al Qaeda, but has a different agenda. Zarqawi's raison d'être is to overthrow the royal family of Jordan. To join his organization, Abdallah says, one must agree with its mission and be of Jordanian or Palestinian origin.
At the military camp, Abdallah says in the documents that a man referred to as Abu Abed befriended Abdallah, and told him he had trained under Zarqawi at another military camp in the western Afghanistan city of Herat. Mr. Abed, according to the transcripts, suggested to Abdallah that he join Zarqawi's group and perhaps infiltrate Jordan's secret service, as he had done.
But on the 20th day of his military training, Abdallah says, he was injured. After a short hospital stay, he moved to bin Laden's compound near the Kandahar airport. While there, he says he met bin Laden himself and was invited to join Al Qaeda. However, he opted first to pursue his religious education and entered an Islamic institute in Kandahar. There, he befriended two other young men and eventually traveled with them to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, to meet with Zarqawi.
Abdallah says Zarqawi asked him to return to his home in Jordan to help execute terrorist attacks there. Abdallah declined, but said he would return to Germany and help Zarqawi carry out attacks on Jews who lived in Germany. "An attack in Germany would have made Al Tawhid very famous," Abdallah says in the documents. "It would have sent the same [message] as the attacks of Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, namely that our organization is as active in other parts of the world."
In August 2001, Abdallah returned to Germany, where he says he contacted Zarqawi's man in charge of running German cells, referred to in the interrogation documents as Abu Ali. Ali provided Abdallah with money to live on and later found him a job at a service station in Germany.
At this point, Abdallah says in the transcript that three people made up the support cell: Ali, Abdallah, and another recruit. Their tasks were to obtain illegal passports, which in telephone conversations they referred to in code as "Moroccan cars" or "Spanish women"; create illegal cellphone contracts; raise funds; and work out details for any attacks they were ordered to execute.
Ali, as the man alleged in the transcript to be in charge of German cells, was in direct contact with Zarqawi, and he was also in touch with the leaders of other cells living in Germany.
Abdallah names the cell leaders in Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Nuremberg, and Wiesbaden. He also names the heads of cells for Britain, Denmark, and the Czech Republic.
Ali, according to Abdallah, traveled monthly to these other German cities to collect payments from the local support cell leaders. The money allegedly came from private donors as well as collections in mosques. Abdallah says Ali returned from these trips with sums ranging from $3,500 to $40,000. Ali transferred this money to Zarqawi, who was by then living in Iran.
According to the transcripts, Ali told Abdallah the money was going to either Al Qaeda or Al Tawhid. But Abdallah also recalls a tiff over the money. One of the most important cell leaders, or money collectors, according to Abdallah, was a man named "Thaer" who lived in Munich. He asked that the money be split: 50 percent to Al Qaeda, 25 percent to Al Tawhid, and 25 percent to the Taliban. Abdallah says that Zarqawi, however, would not agree with this split.
Abdallah says that because Ali suspected German authorities were watching him, Zarqawi replaced him at the beginning of 2002. The new man, referred to in the papers as "Aschraf," was from then on in charge of the cell that included Abdallah. Aschraf's assignment was to carry out "two or three" attacks against "Jewish institutions" in Germany. Zarqawi, Abdallah says, gave the orders for the kinds of attacks, in this case, suicide bomb attacks.
But the details had to be worked out locally. Aschraf directed Abdallah to phone members of other cells to inquire about explosives, which they referred to as "black pills" and "Lebanese or Russian apples," the transcript says. Abdallah claims he purchased explosives from "Albanians in Hamburg."
But the plans were thwarted with his arrest. According to intelligence officials, though, Zarqawi and his various cells have carried out several additional attacks, including the April 2002 bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, in which 19 people, including 14 German tourists, were killed.
Abdallah is currently serving a four-year prison term in Germany. He was given a relatively mild sentence at his trial, German authorities say, because he had provided evidence of the inner workings of Al Qaeda. He has been a witness in the two trials in Hamburg linked to the Sept. 11 attacks in the US and is expected to testify in other upcoming cases.
According to published accounts, the presiding judge at Abdallah's trial, Ottmar Briedling, said he was convinced of the "credibility of the bulk of the information" the Islamic militant provided. German authorities have acknowledged that Abdallah will require witness protection for the rest of his life.