Along with opium and terrorism, honey is one of Afghanistan's few exports. Throughout the 1990's one of Osama bin Laden's closest aides, Abu Zubaida, traveled under the guise of a honey merchant to Peshawar, Pakistan. His true mission was to recruit would-be jihadists. Assigning them to the same ilk of terrorist cells that would ultimately stage the horrendous atrocities against the USA, here and abroad.
As insane as their acts might seem, Zubaida was not seeking out madmen. Some would be recruited to launder money or forge documents. Others would best serve with their munition expertise. Only a handful would be trained to carry out the suicide attacks on America.
Zubaida, a Palestinian who lost his sight in one eye while fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, spent little time hunting for volunteers. From Algeria, Germany, Yemen, France, the Emirates, and Sweden they swarmed like bees to the honey merchant. Every time a new attack was launched, raw recruits arrived. These true believers imagined themselves at the vanguard of a movement.
Exclusive Newsweek interviews with former bin Laden associates, and court documents from the U.S. and Europe, paint a picture of how these young men are transformed into terrorists, as well as their general training procedures.
For many young zealots, the path to the Afghan camps begins in front of their television sets. They are bombarded by images of Muslims being humiliated and besieged around the globe. On the Internet and at local mosques young men vow to defend the faith. Some raise money for organizations that support their cause. While others take up contributions for a ticket to Peshawar.
Ahmed Ressam, a 34 year old Algerian, was caught at the U.S. - Canadian border a few days before the millennium. He was carrying powerful explosives. His intended target was Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam, like many Afghan-trained terrorists, is motivated by ego as much as by Islam. They convince themselves that they are personified agents of God. The Koran promises a quick trip to paradise. But these modern terrorists are hoping for media impact too. Ressam's family told Newsweek that he had trouble holding a job. He tried to join Algerian military security before opting for holy war.
Ressam arrived in Peshawar in 1998. He was given Afghan clothes and sent across the border to the Khalden camp in Afghanistan. Over the next 6 months, the camp population varied in size from 50 - 100 people. The men were grouped together depending upon their country of origin. They trained with weapons bought from the Taliban. In July at the trial of a co-conspirator, Ressam testified: They learned "how to blow up the infrastructure of a country." "Electric plants, gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations...Hotels where conferences are held." They learned how homemade cyanide gas could be placed near the air intakes of office and apartment buildings.
Ressam is now serving a 130-year prison term. But is cooperating with U.S. officials in hopes of reducing the sentence. He said he was taught how to disguise himself as a tourist taking photographs and other surveillance techniques. He was told, once he was back in the field, to avoid mosques and obviously Islamic dress. In the camps many fatwas (religious decrees) were distributed to justify attacks on "Americans and their interests everywhere."
The Algerian trainees at Khalden were broken down into cells of 5 or 6 men. Ressam was sent to another camp near Deronta for further explosives training. But "We were all to meet in Canada and we were all to carry out bank robberies and then get the money to carry out an operation in America." he testified.
By the end of 1998, Ressam's cell had formed in Montreal. There it was linked to a support network run by Fateh Kamel. An Algerian-Canadian businessman, Kamel was convicted of terrorist activities in France this year. Activities designed to help terrorists escape after completing their missions. Evidence indicated ties to cells in Canada, France, Bosnia, Italy and Istanbul.
Ressam and Kamel failed in their Y2K plans of apocalyptic fireworks. Since Ressam's arrest at the border, American and European agents have broken up several of the Afghan-trained Algerian cells. In early 1999, The Federal Investigation Agency, a branch of the Pakistani security forces, came down on Abu Zubaida and forced him into hiding. "No one knows where he is." "They say he changes his name every month," says an Arab source.
Yet other cells are able to keep operating. Initially, they may have been given seed money by the Saudi billionaire bin Laden. But they are trained to survive for themselves. Using techniques of credit card fraud and petty theft they learned in the camps. Or they get a paying job. "These people can fight without support." explains bin Laden associate Khalid al-Fewwaz.
Living like good neighbors, behaving like tourists, they laid low and waited for the moment they could pull off the most heinous attack in American history. How many others there are, with each cell unaware of the other, is unknown. The honey merchant Zubaida, and his boss bin Laden, no longer have to give orders. Their plans can go on without them.