Wed, Nov 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

From a barbershop to the heart of al-Qaeda

The capture of Dhiren Barot was a valuable victory in the `war on terror,' but one unfortunate leak may have lost intelligence services the chance to infiltrate the terrorist network

By Jamie Doward  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

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On Jan. 3, 2000, as the world was still feeling its way into the new millennium, senior al-Qaeda figures held a clandestine three-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Their aim was simple -- to ensure that the start of the next thousand years would be dominated by a wave of violence so grotesque, so far-reaching, that it would determine the course of history for centuries to come.

It was in an anonymous hotel room in the Malaysian capital that US intelligence officials believe al-Qaeda agreed on the final plan to turn airliners into guided missiles and fly them into several of the US' most famous buildings.

And it was also in Kuala Lumpur that a British man named Esa al-Britani in documents filed in the Southern District Court of New York, also known as Dhiren Barot, made an appearance -- one that would eventually result in his arrest for plotting an unprecedented terror campaign on both sides of the Atlantic.

Last week Barot was imprisoned for 40 years by Woolwich Crown Court. His sentence was handed down two days before the head of MI5 (British counter-intelligence), Eliza Manningham-Buller, warned there were now more than 1,600 individuals in Britain who share Barot's murderous obsession and are active in at least 30 plots.

These plots, Manningham-Buller said, "often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and through those links al-Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale."

As the Barot case has shown, the plots can span the world -- forged in one place, approved in another, executed in the UK. That we know something of the links between the al-Qaeda high command and Barot can be attributed in part to an early intelligence success. That the trail goes so far back reveals the planning sophistication of al-Qaeda and the length of time it works on possible "spectaculars," terror attacks that will grab the world by the throat.

Understanding the Malaysian connection is essential to understanding al-Qaeda. Malaysian intelligence monitored the Kuala Lumpur conference at the request of the CIA, which had learned that it was happening after intercepting communications from an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen. But none of the covert observers appreciated the significance of the gathering until it was too late.

Only after the twin towers had fallen did it emerge that two of the Sept. 11 terrorists -- Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi -- had been at the meeting, which took place in the hotel room of Yazid Sufaat, a businessman who would spend the best part of 2001 in a laboratory near Kandahar airport attempting to cultivate anthrax for al-Qaeda.

Also attending, according to the US government's official narrative of the Sept. 11 terror plot, was Riduan Isamuddin, better known as "Hambali," the leader of the Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, which is loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda. Ramzi Binalshibh, a close acquaintance of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11 atrocities and the man often described as the 20th member of the plot, was also present.

Barot, who appears in the Sept. 11 narrative under one of his aliases, al-Britani, is not believed to have been present at the main meeting. But he traveled to Kuala Lumpur with Tawfiq bin Attash, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, who was present. Barot also reportedly held meetings with Hambali shortly afterwards.

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