The FBI believes that al-Qaeda recruiters are aggressively enrolling youths like the Jabarahs, with U.S., Canadian or Western European passports and good command of the English language and the North American interior. While the network had always tried to recruit people with U.S. and other Western passports, FBI counter-terrorism chief Larry Mefford recently revealed that al-Qaeda was "refocusing its efforts" to sign on disaffected Americans, green-card holders and Muslims who had spent time in the U.S. as students or visitors who had a good command of English and a working knowledge of American society and culture. This effort comes in response to the Bush administration's tightening up the supply of visas available to would-be visitors from nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Pakistan, Egypt and Southeast Asian countries where al-Qaeda has a strong presence. Recruits with greater access to and knowledge of the U.S. have a better chance of navigating some of the traps set by U.S. and Canadian authorities to catch terrorists coming from abroad.
But some of the other Qaeda operatives killed or captured by the Saudis last week were bigger fish than the Jabarahs, and their demise could hobble some current terror plots. U.S. officials believe some may have even been plotting attacks on the American mainland.
Turki Nasser al-Dandani, the commander of the terror cell that mounted the May 12 suicide truck bombings, was cornered by Saudi police July 3 in the town of Sowair, near the border with Jordan. He blew himself up with a hand grenade rather than being taken alive. U.S. intelligence reports describe him as head of Persian Gulf operations for al-Qaeda, responsible for land and maritime attacks on U.S. and Western interests throughout the region. His knowledge of al-Qaeda plans could extend to schemes in Asia, Europe and the U.S., officials say.
Al-Dandani had fought against U.S. forces inside Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban. He was close to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the organizer of the 9/11 attacks currently in U.S. custody. After his return to Saudi Arabia, officials say, al-Dandani had worked under senior Qaeda commanders Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Walid Ba 'Attash, both Saudis, who had planned the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Al-Dandani took over the Persian Gulf command after al-Nashiri and Ba 'Attash were captured in separate incidents, say U.S. officials.
But the highest ranking Al Qaeda figure taken down in the Saudi offensive is Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, aka "Abu Bakr," al-Qaeda field commander for Saudi Arabia and al-Dandani's boss. Al-Ghamdi surrendered June 26 in exchange for his wife's freedom.
U.S. officials are hoping for an intelligence windfall if al-Ghamdi talks. He had trained at Bin Laden's al-Farouq camp and fought with the al-Qaeda leader at Tora Bora. Escaping the U.S. bombardment, he returned to his native Saudi Arabia and reported to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, plotting "second wave" attacks on Americans and their allies until Mohammed's arrest in Pakistan last March. As more and more al-Qaeda field leaders were rounded up, al-Ghamdi rose in the ranks, safely hiding in Saudi Arabia until the May 12 attacks galvanized the kingdom's rulers into cracking down. U.S. officials believe al- Ghamdi has knowledge of conspiracies now being hatched all over the world, and that he could reveal previously unidentified sleeper cells in the U.S. and Canada. There's even a chance he could know something about the whereabouts of the elusive Bin Laden.