[osint] Al Qaeda's Travel Network

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Wed Aug 11 05:52:30 PDT 2004

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Subject: [osint] Al Qaeda's Travel Network
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Al Qaeda's Travel Network
August 10, 2004


With the recent arrests of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, the United
Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, small clues as to the structure,
organization, communication and travel of al Qaeda members are
emerging. The most recent detentions have revealed a transportation
link between Pakistan, England and the United States that allows for
the movement of militants and messages, and relies on several other
countries for waypoints and key supplies.


A series of detentions of suspected al Qaeda members in Pakistan,
England and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the arrests of
persons of interest in the southern United States, have shed light on
some of the ways that al Qaeda moves messages and militants around the
globe. In particular, the small piece of the al Qaeda network recently
rounded up illustrates transportation links between Pakistan -- where
the core leadership of the organization appears to reside -- the
United Kingdom and the United States.

Al Qaeda operatives rarely travel directly from Point A to Point B.
Instead, they jump from country to country, with each destination
having its own end use and with multiple stops between beginning and
end. This method of travel serves to obfuscate the origin and
destination of al Qaeda messengers and operatives, reducing the
likelihood that the militants will be captured or traced back to the
organization's core. Despite the arrests of several senior al Qaeda
members, including Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden remains a mystery.

The core of al Qaeda's planning leadership appears to be in Pakistan,
not far from its pre-9/11 Afghanistan base. Pakistan is both a resting
and planning location and, in some cases, a target for al Qaeda, which
used specific attacks against the regime of President Gen. Pervez
Musharraf to try to wrest some space and leeway for continued
residence inside the country. Al Qaeda is cautious to not escalate
actions against Islamabad for fear of losing what appears to be the
final sanctuary for the jihadist network's brain.

But al Qaeda is an international organization, both in scope of vision
and in distribution of operatives. Moving messages, equipment and
personnel requires a relatively secure transportation network, one
that can hide the true origin of travelers and thus slip in under the
radar screen of intelligence and law enforcement agencies who are
watching certain flight routes and looking for named and profiled
potential militants.

One key transit point is the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was one of
only three countries to recognize the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan,
and al Qaeda loyalists still reside in the country. Just a few days
before their July 25 arrest alongside wanted al Qaeda leader Ahmed
Khalfan Ghailani, two South Africans -- Dr. Feroz Ganchi and Zubair
Ismail -- flew from UAE to Lahore, Pakistan. Another African, a
Nigerian named Mohammed Salman Eisa, was captured at the Lahore
airport on Aug. 2 while trying to board a plane bound for UAE. Eisa
reportedly was carrying messages to operatives in other countries.

The UAE provides an excellent transit point because safe houses,
friendly sympathizers and money likely can be found. Though travel to
and from Pakistan might garner suspicion, the UAE is a country thought
to be without an active militant presence, and makes a good neutral
stop between Pakistan and other nations. Should al Qaeda operatives
obtain a UAE passport, they would receive significantly less scrutiny
by the U.S. government, avoiding the standard profiling of certain
passports, such as those from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Another node on the transit hub is Britain. As Stratfor has discussed,
Britain is a good staging ground for planning attacks. A large Muslim,
and especially Pakistani, community means those travelers can come and
go without arousing much suspicion with travel authorities. Britain
has a number of clerics and scholars willing to help "jihadic causes,"
both through their rhetoric and with operatives.

Britain offers a fairly neutral stop between red-flag destinations.
Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, the suspected al Qaeda communications
specialist at the center of the series of arrests, reportedly traveled
often between Britain and Pakistan, using free plane tickets procured
by his father, who worked for Pakistan's state-run airline. Abu Eisa
al-Hindi -- a key al Qaeda operations manager believed to be
responsible for much of the surveillance work done in the United
States that led to the recent heightened terror alerts in parts of the
country -- also traveled to the United States from Britain, allegedly
as part of a three-man team that surveyed targets including the New
York Stock Exchange in early 2001.

South Africa also is becoming more and more prominent as a travel.
Like the UAE, South Africa is not considered a hotbed of Islamist
militancy -- aside, perhaps, from Johannesburg -- and therefore is
less likely to raise suspicion as a possible al Qaeda source point.
South Africa also provides a good source of fraudulent passports,
papers and recruits for al Qaeda, and British citizens can travel
freely to South Africa and back without a visa. With Muslims
representing 2 percent of the population and large communities in
Johannesburg and Pretoria, both money and potential recruits can be
found there.

Porous borders and easy access to weapons also make South Africa a
dream come true for al Qaeda operatives. Crime syndicates operating
inside the Department of Home Affairs reportedly have sold or given
"boxes and boxes" of South African passports to al Qaeda members or
their associates operating in Europe. In recent weeks three people --
one woman, Farida Goolam Ahmed and two unnamed men -- have been
stopped in Mexico or the southern United States with suspicious South
African passports -- often with pages missing.

This reveals another key component to the al Qaeda travel network: the
use of Mexico -- and likely Canada -- as key entry points into the
United States. Mexico and Canada share large, and sometimes unguarded,
borders with the United States. Ahmed's success in sneaking across the
U.S.-Mexican border attests to the ease with which would-be terrorists
could enter the United States. Ahmed, who had a South African passport
with no U.S. entry stamp, was stopped at the airport in McAllen,
Texas, and had with her an itinerary that showed her flying from
Johannesburg to Dubai, then to London and finally to Mexico City, from
whence she smuggled herself into Texas by simply forging through the

Canada also poses a problem. Its 4,000-mile border with the United
States has one guard for every eight to 16 miles and has largely
forested areas that are extremely difficult to patrol. As early as
1999, an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was stopped in Washington state,
en route from Canada, with more than 130 pounds of explosives in the
trunk of his car. He had planned to blow up Los Angeles International

The complexities of the transportation networks reveal al Qaeda's
strengths and weaknesses. By moving through countries with a lower
profile, at least as far as al Qaeda is concerned, operatives can mask
their origins. Several of the foreign al Qaeda operatives in the past,
like Jose Padilla, would declare their passports missing and get new
ones issued while in more neutral countries, thus erasing all previous
travel records. With a South African network of passports available,
that becomes easier, and new passports can be used to register
journeys that appear to begin far from their true origin.

Although it is easier to move and hide using such a network, it also
can be somewhat limiting: The revelation of the waypoint countries
suddenly puts them higher on the suspicion list. Disruption of a key
waypoint, then, also serves to force al Qaeda to try alternative, and
perhaps less secure, routes.

Ultimately, however, what we are seeing is only a small sliver of a
larger transportation network -- one that spans the globe. But as
slices of al Qaeda are cut away, more nodes in the transport and
communication network will be revealed, forcing al Qaeda to react and
change its methods again. That puts al Qaeda on the defensive, rather
than the offensive.

Copyrights 2004 - Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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