Inside an al-Qaeda Bust

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The USS Cole is carried home. Al Qaeda planned a similar attack in Morocco

Zuher Al Tbaiti might have been another departing Saudi tourist as he walked through Mohammed V airport in Casablanca for a flight to Jidda. Thousands of Arabs from oil-rich Gulf states visit Morocco every year, delighting in the North African folklore, agreeable climate and spicy night life. Al Tbaiti, though, seems to have been seeking kicks of a different sort. As he prepared to board the aircraft, Moroccan agents swooped in and led him away. They believe that a second fake passport and thousands of dollars in undeclared currency they found in Al Tbaiti's bags help explain his true purpose in the country: organizing a terror spree aimed at killing American citizens as well as Moroccan Jews.

Last week's dramatic arrests of Al Tbaiti, 26, from Mecca, and two alleged Saudi accomplices, Hilal Alissiri, 31, from Najran, and Abdullah Al Ghamdi, 21, from Gueddana, was not simply a lucky break. The Moroccan agents ambushed the trio after tailing them for more than a month, the result of a tip from the CIA based on U.S. interrogations of al Qaeda members detained in Guantanamo Bay.

When officials in both countries hailed the arrests as a model for partnership in the war on terrorism, it was more than mutual back slapping. In breaking up an active al Qaeda sleeper cell, Moroccan authorities working with American counterparts staged one of the most successful counter-terrorism operations since Sept. 11. And besides preventing a possibly deadly al Qaeda attack, the police work revealed important — and disturbing — insights into how Osama bin Laden's operatives are regrouping for new terror operations despite their rout in Afghanistan. Moroccan sources describe the suspects as killers hardened by battles in Afghanistan, who were nonetheless capable of shaving off their beards and melting into the local scene. They came across as such decent young men that one recent Moroccan acquaintance protested their innocence to police saying, "It is impossible that they are terrorists. They are so kind." So strong were there convictions, sources say, that they didn't bother to deny their Al Qaeda connections when police questioned them. "They are very convinced of their cause," explains one source. "They don't consider themselves terrorists, but missionaries." Adds a U.S. official: "These are dangerous men."

Al Tbaiti's primary mission, Moroccan officials believe, was to prepare a sequel to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole Yemen, that killed 17 Americans. Tbaiti's controller, sources tell TIME, was the same operative — an Al Qaeda commander known as Mullah Blal — who directed the Cole bombing in October 2000. The sources say that within the past month, Al Tbaiti and at least one of the other Saudi suspects traveled to the northern Moroccan coast to launch preparations for attacking a U.S. or British warship passing through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Using the meticulous planning for the Cole operation as their blueprint, they scouted for housing that could serve as a surveillance post overlooking refueling stations in Mellilia and in Ceuta, Spanish-controlled coastal enclaves in Morocco. The pair, sources tell TIME, also looked into purchasing a Zodiac, a motorized skiff that could be transformed into a torpedo operated by a suicide terrorist.

Until early this year, according to an account given by the suspects during questioning, the three Saudis had been in Afghanistan, and they survived the heavy U.S. bombardment of Tora Bora. Like hundreds of other Bin Laden followers, they fled into Pakistan, where an Al Qaeda commander instructed them to disperse to countries where they could form sleeper cells without arousing suspicions. With their native Saudi Arabia on high alert for returning terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, Morocco was a natural choice for Al Tbaiti and Alissiri: Both had married Moroccan women. Al Tbaiti's young bride, as it turned out, had been killed in Tora Bora.

The Saudis, Moroccan sources tell TIME, were told to be ready for two missions, one to be carried out in Morocco, another in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis wasted little time in setting up their Moroccan cell. Al Tbaiti married another local girl, meaning that he and Alassiri could blend into Moroccan life by staying with in-laws in the teeming Rabat casbah rather than in hotels where they might have eventually attracted police attention. Frequenting mosques and masquerading as businessmen, the Saudis had Moroccan acquaintances provide phone cards and bank accounts for local communications and money transfers totaling thousands of dollars that could not be traced directly to them. All their communications with Al Qaeda commanders were done through e-mail exchanges from Internet cafes.

Moroccan officials believe that it was when the Saudis initially received no word from their superiors that they decided on their own to prepare for attacks on American and Jewish targets inside the country. Moroccan sources say that while no specific targets are known, the Saudis were observed conducting surveillance that hinted at their intentions. Sources say that Moroccan officials feared that the terrorists had their sights on various U.S. diplomatic facilities, luxury hotels catering to Western tourists and synagogues serving the 4,000 remaining members of Morocco's 2,000-year-old Jewish community. Moroccan sources say that any plans to strike inside Morocco were probably aborted when instructions finally arrived to begin preparations for the attack on a warship. Al Tbaiti bowed out of that project, meanwhile, when new orders arrived for the Saudis to proceed to Saudi Arabia for an operation there.

Moroccan officials trace the discovery of the Rabat cell directly to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Sources say that U.S. and British forces captured 17 Moroccan members of al Qaeda and sent them to Guantanamo. Under interrogation, sources tell TIME, some of the Moroccans fingered a Saudi they knew only as Zuher. They said that he had recruited many of them to join Al Qaeda and believed that he had headed back to Morocco. An even better clue came when at least one of the detainees recalled the family name of the Moroccan wife who had perished in Tora Bora.

Armed with this intelligence, Moroccan agents began combing identity rolls, immigration records and other sources in a manhunt for Zuher. The breakthrough came when they discovered the family of Zuher's late wife, who provided his real name and gave the description for a composite sketch that police circulated throughout the country. Within three days, sources say, an informant had positively sighted Al Tbaiti. Intensive surveillance of his movements eventually led police to his two accomplices. In addition, TIME has learned, authorities arrested three Moroccan women as possible accomplices: Tbaiti's wife Bahija Haidour, his sister-in-law Houria Haidour, and Alassiri's wife Naima Haroun.

Though pleased with the breakthrough, the affair is troubling for Moroccans. Terrorism and religious extremism is rare in the Kingdom, the only notable violence in recent years coming in an isolated attack on a Marrakech hotel by French Muslim militants of Algerian origin that killed two Spanish tourists in 1994. But given the ease with which the al Qaeda operatives slipped into the country, officials fear that other cells may be operating as well. Moreover, they are concerned that al Qaeda may be receiving assistance from local radicals who are sympathetic to but not part of Bin Laden's network. In addition to questioning the Moroccan wives and sister-in-law of two of the Saudi suspects, authorities are looking into whether the Moroccans who provided logistical help were Muslim extremists or just friendly neighbors.

Morocco's move against Al Qaeda poses political and economic questions, too. Western diplomats say that in acting so swiftly and publicly against the Saudi cell, Morocco risked upsetting sensitive relations with a Saudi government that has been desperately trying to clean up its image as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. The news of the extremist threat also could undermine Morocco's image as a peaceful holiday place, possibly damaging an economic sector that accounts for 5.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

All this is especially worrying for King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne just three years ago upon the death of his father, King Hassan II. Discovering the al Qaeda connection in Morocco was a shock, adding another problem after massive street protests in support of the Palestinians, fresh political tensions with Algeria over the future of the disputed Western Sahara and unemployment hitting 25 percent in some parts of the country. Nonetheless, Moroccan officials say, the King is determined to keep his promise to support the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. By standing up to al Qaeda, he wants to ensure that Morocco remains a favored destination for tourists — and not terrorists.