Lessons in US terror cases
Two separate federal prosecutions now unfolding in Detroit and upstate New York may be shedding brighter light on the methods and structures of the Al Qaeda terror network, even as officials warn the group may be trying to stage its next US attack.
If prosecutors are right, these and other cases show that Al Qaeda is a multilayered organization with several distinct kinds of cells - everything from self-financed advance teams that do basic spadework to "connectors" who quietly recruit foot soldiers. In fact, in some ways, the group appears to be structured much like any modern military - heavy on logistics and supply units and light on combat troops.
In the Detroit case, the alleged sleeper-cell ringleader was arrested in November 2001 at a bus station carrying $83,000 in cash and a stack of fake IDs - two key elements of a logistics operation. He and others allegedly spoke in a Moroccan-based code as they surveilled targets.
In Lackawanna, N.Y., six Muslim men have now pleaded guilty to charges of supporting terrorism. Their recruitment hints at the ideal Al Qaeda grunt - a 20-something US citizen with potential sympathies to the Al Qaeda cause.
"Each of these cases is descriptive of a particular trend" within Al Qaeda, says Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Detroit case, which was still being weighed by the jury at press time, involves four men from Morocco and Algeria - all of whom were in the country legally. The alleged leader, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, was arrested after an ID checker at the bus station apparently noticed that the Zip code listed for him had seven numbers - and knew that the hometown printed on his card, North Branswick, N.J., doesn't exist.
Much of the government's case rests on the testimony of one man, Youssef Hmimssa, a convicted scam artist who's cooperating with prosecutors. Defense attorneys say he's lying to try to lighten his own sentence.
Even he doesn't say the group's plans ever progressed to the point of an actual attack.
But carrying out an attack may not have been the group's mission. One key goal, rather, could have been to raise money. Prosecutors say the group engaged in insurance fraud and the theft of telephone credit-card numbers. Authorities also found videotape with footage from Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Defense attorneys say they were simply tourist videos.
But signs that the group had to finance its own operations suggests it was a second- or third-tier unit, says Mr. Levitt. By contrast, the cells that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks apparently received substantial funding from other Al Qaeda sources - as did the units that attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and two African embassies in 1988.
"They didn't have to worry," Levitt says, "about trying to pull off credit-card fraud."
This and other cases hint that one Al Qaeda strategy is to provide venture capital to some groups - and then require them to survive on their own. Thus Al Qaeda may sometimes follow the pattern of other terror groups, such as Lebanon-based Hizbullah, says Stanley Bedlington, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst.
A standard procedure for terror groups, he says, is to have an advance team do surveillance and groundwork. As the attack nears, a more senior team arrives to ramp up preparations. And only just before the operation do the actual attackers arrive.
The Lackawanna case, meanwhile, may provide a window into Al Qaeda's recruitment. The men, most of whom grew up in the gritty former steel town, attended training camps in Afghanistan in 2001. Many met Osama bin Laden. Only two finished the training.
In a plea agreement, one man reportedly referred to four unidentified people who helped speed them toward the camps. These are "the connectors," says Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project, a terror-tracking group in Washington. "They're on the lookout for recruits."
Still, many observers caution about jumping to conclusions. They contend the two cases put on display the government's excessive efforts to convict hapless Muslims who've made poor choices - and who aren't necessarily terrorists.
"The government is quick to present a big case," says Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard University terror expert. "But when the facts come out," it's not so impressive.
Yet in a sign of the relatively small world of apparent Al Qaeda agents, there's some evidence that the Detroit and New York groups may have had a connection. Two "unindicted coconspirators" - one from each case - reportedly trained at an Al Qaeda camp in 1992 and later worked as cabdrivers for the same Boston company.
Now one of them, Nabil al-Marabh - who has not been charged with terrorism - reportedly sits in a jail cell awaiting deportation to his native Syria. The other, Kamal Derwish, was apparently killed in a CIA Hellfire missile strike last November in Yemen.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.