Tue, Nov 25, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Global terror attacks point to Afghan training camps

DIASPORA Al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan have mostly been reduced to rubble, but thousands of men who trained in them are still pursuing their legacy of death


Abdul Fatah, 48, stands near a destroyed Soviet helicopter at Rishkhor, a former Taliban base 15km south of Kabul, on Friday. Fatah cooked at the base when al-Qaida was in control and cooks today for the Afghan troops.


From Bali to Istanbul, New York to Casablanca, the ferocious chain of terror that has choked the world since Sept. 11, 2001, has stemmed from a single source -- camps like this one just south of Kabul, where thousands of young men were indoctrinated in Osama bin Laden's brutal vision.

An Afghan link can be traced to nearly every major terrorist attack since the 2001 strikes in New York and at the Pentagon, although not all have been carried out directly by bin Laden's al-Qaeda, US, European and Asian officials have said.

Attacks like the ones in Turkey this past week, and others in Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia and the Philippines, appear to have involved homegrown groups, sometimes working hand-in-hand with al-Qaeda. Officials say some of the attacks carry the "hallmarks" of al-Qaeda, a way of spreading its franchise throughout the world.

"Extremists were trained and either pledged their allegiance to bin Laden and al-Qaeda or carried his message and inspiration back to their home countries to initiate more localized jihad efforts," said a US intelligence report obtained by AP.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have trained at Afghan camps since 1996, when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan, said a US counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since the US-led war in Afghanistan, Rishkhor and other al-Qaeda camps have mostly been reduced to rubble, but the men who trained in them -- including, allegedly, the two Turkish suicide bombers who detonated last week's synagogue explosions -- are still pursuing their legacy of death.

"The Afghan experience was important for traditional training, indoctrination and networking," said Paul Pillar, a US intelligence analyst, speaking at Columbia University last week. "Those who were trained are now training the next generation."

How many of these attacks are being directed by al-Qaeda's senior leadership -- bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri -- is unclear. Certainly, al-Qaeda is considered to have had a direct hand in two attacks this year in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's homeland and his avowed enemy.

US counterterrorism officials suspect al-Qaeda's former No. 3 man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was directly involved in last year's bombing of an ancient Tunisian synagogue. Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in march. In other instances, al-Qaeda seems to have acted as inspiration for attacks.

The Afghan war deprived al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups of their main operating base, making it far more difficult to plan and organize large-scale attacks like Sept. 11. But as followers poured out of Afghanistan under heavy US bombardment, they created a diaspora of destruction the world is today struggling to contain.

Militants who trained in Afghanistan have returned to Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, Malaysia, Morocco, Chechnya and countries throughout Europe and the Middle East, possibly including Iraq, authorities say.

The US and Canada have also arrested men allegedly trained in the Afghan camps.

If anything, the decentralization has made it harder for intelligence services to track down the extremists, Pillar said. "It's harder to follow a bunch of different groups coming at you from different directions."

Some 3,500 men passed through Rishkhor, a sprawling complex of shattered barracks and dusty training fields about 16km south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, according to Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, the Taliban's former deputy Interior Minister. The camp was run by a Pakistani -- Qari Saifullah Akhtar -- and taught traditional combat skills in order to feed foreign troops into the Taliban army, but terrorist training also went on here.

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