Hate Club: Al-Qaeda's Web of Terror

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AFP / Getty Images

Osama Bin Laden (C), Ayman Al-Zawahiri (L), a physician and the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Muhammad Atef (R), who has been indicted in the US for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya are seen in this file photo obtained October 2, 2001 by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

"You know that al-Qaeda exists from Algeria to the Philippines ... it's everywhere."
— from a conversation secretly taped by the Italian police on March 22; the speaker was Essid Sami ben Khemais, a Tunisian arrested the next month for alleged terrorist offenses

It was the worst crime in American history, and it has triggered the greatest dragnet ever known. The investigation into the atrocities of Sept. 11 has involved police forces across the U.S. and around the world. From Michigan to Malaysia, from San Diego to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, law-enforcement agencies have been trying to figure out how the terrorists carried out their attacks, who helped them — and what they might do next. Along the way, the American public has been introduced to a confusing mass of names and faces and has learned of more links between them than any but the most nimble fingered could ever untangle. After nearly two months, there is much that we know about the global terrorist network that goes by the name of al-Qaeda — but an awful lot that is still hunch. Still, an international investigation by TIME into al-Qaeda's structure reveals that it is more global in its range, and more ruthless in its ideology, than all but its most dedicated students could have ever imagined.

The essential story of Sept. 11 is straightforward. A group of 19 men spent months in the U.S. preparing for the hijackings. The cell had earlier been headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, where its alleged ringleader, an Egyptian named Mohamed Atta, 33, had lived off and on for eight years. Atta is thought to have piloted Flight 11, the first to make impact; two of the other suspected pilots, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, were also residents of the Hamburg region. The Hamburg cell, in turn, is thought to have been an operating unit of a worldwide network of terrorists called al-Qaeda, the name of whose reclusive leader is now known all over the world: Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda had its origins in the long war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After Soviet troops invaded the country in 1979, Muslims flocked to join the local mujahedin in fighting them. In Peshawar, Pakistan, which acted as the effective headquarters of the resistance, a group whose spiritual leader was a Palestinian academic called Abdallah Azzam established a service organization to provide logistics and religious instruction to the fighters. The operation came to be known as al-Qaeda al-Sulbah — the "solid base." Much of its financing came from bin Laden, an acolyte of Azzam's who was one of the many heirs to a huge Saudi fortune derived from a family construction business. Also in Peshawar was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who had been a constant figure in the bewildering mosaic of radical Islamic groups since the late 1970s. Al-Zawahiri, who acted primarily as a physician in Peshawar, led a group usually called Al Jihad; by 1998, his organization was effectively merged into al-Qaeda.

In 1989, while on his way with his two sons to Friday prayers in Peshawar, Azzam was killed by a massive explosion. His killers have never been identified; Azzam had many enemies. But by the time of his death, the group around al-Qaeda were debating what to do with the skills and resources that they had acquired. The decision was taken to keep the organization intact and use it to fight for a purer form of Islam. The initial target was not the U.S. but the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which al-Qaeda claimed were corrupt and too beholden to the U.S. It was only after the Gulf War, by which time bin Laden had moved his operations to Sudan (he would later be forced to shift back to Afghanistan), that he started to target Americans. To all but insiders, he first became notorious in 1998, when al-Qaeda operatives exploded truck bombs at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 12 Americans and hundreds of locals. Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of attacks linked to al-Qaeda — some successful, some not — on American targets and those of U.S. allies around the world.

Al-Qaeda has its headquarters in training camps in Afghanistan. In addition to directing its own attacks, it acts as an umbrella group, financing and subcontracting operations to local networks like Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (gia), a terrorist organization active throughout Europe. The camps in Afghanistan play a vital role. Whatever network they may originally have been aligned with, visitors to the camps meet men from other groups, forge relationships and acquire the stature of soldiers in a holy war. The high command of the group includes bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian who was identified in an American court case in July as the organizer of the camps and who investigators believe may be al-Qaeda's director of international operations.

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