Afghan Camps Prime Source of Post-Sept. 11 Attacks
By PAUL HAVEN, AP
RISHKHOR, Afghanistan (Nov. 23) - From Bali to Istanbul, New York to Casablanca, the ferocious chain of terror that has choked the world since Sept. 11 has stemmed from a single source - camps like this one just south of Kabul, where thousands of young men were indoctrinated in Osama bin Laden's brutal vision.
An Afghan link can be traced to nearly every major terrorist attack since the 2001 strikes in New York and at the Pentagon, although not all have been carried out directly by bin Laden's al-Qaida, U.S., European and Asian officials told The Associated Press.
Attacks like the ones in Turkey this past week, and others in Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia and the Philippines, appear to have involved homegrown groups, sometimes working hand-in-hand with al-Qaida. Officials say some of the attacks carry the ''hallmarks'' of al-Qaida, a way of spreading the group's franchise throughout the world.
''Extremists were trained and either pledged their allegiance to bin Laden and al-Qaida or carried his message and inspiration back to their home countries to initiate more localized jihad efforts,'' said a U.S. intelligence report obtained by AP.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have trained at Afghan camps since 1996, when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan, said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Rishkhor and other al-Qaida camps have mostly been reduced to rubble, but the men who trained in them - including, allegedly, the two Turkish suicide bombers who detonated last week's synagogue explosions - are still pursuing their legacy of death.
''The Afghan experience was important for traditional training, indoctrination and networking,'' said Paul Pillar, a U.S. intelligence analyst, speaking at Columbia University last week. ''Those who were trained are now training the next generation.''
How many of these attacks are being directed by al-Qaida's senior leadership - bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri - is unclear. Certainly, al-Qaida is considered to have had a direct hand in two attacks this year in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's homeland and his avowed enemy.
U.S. counterterrorism officials suspect al-Qaida's former No. 3 man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was directly involved in last year's bombing of an ancient Tunisian synagogue. Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in march. In other instances, al-Qaida seems to have acted as inspiration for attacks.
The Afghan war deprived al-Qaida and other Islamic militant groups of their main operating base, making it far more difficult to plan and organize large-scale attacks like Sept. 11. But as followers poured out of Afghanistan under heavy U.S. bombardment, they created a diaspora of destruction the world is today struggling to contain.
Militants who trained in Afghanistan have returned to Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, Malaysia, Morocco, Chechnya and countries throughout Europe and the Middle East, possibly including Iraq, authorities say. The United States and Canada have also arrested men allegedly trained in the Afghan camps.
If anything, the decentralization has made it harder for intelligence services to track down the extremists, said Pillar, the U.S. analyst: ''It's harder to follow a bunch of different groups coming at you from different directions.''
Some 3,500 men passed through Rishkhor, a sprawling complex of shattered barracks and dusty training fields about 10 miles south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, the Taliban's former deputy Interior Minister, told AP.
The camp was run by a Pakistani - Qari Saifullah Akhtar - and taught traditional combat skills in order to feed foreign troops into the Taliban army, but terrorist training also went on here.
Khaksar said that, as a senior Taliban official, he attended an al-Qaida demonstration at the camp in early 2001 in which terrorist trainees - including Middle Easterners, Pakistanis, Chechens and others - showed off kidnapping and assassination techniques. U.S. warplanes bombed the camp into ruin on the first night of the Afghan war.
''It was one of the biggest camps and they were extremely well trained,'' said Khaksar, who secretly contacted the United States in 1999 to seek American help in stopping the Taliban, and renounced the religious movement after their collapse. ''Now these men have all returned to their homes. It is a grave risk for the security of the world.''
At Rishkhor, a field and workout course once used for al-Qaida drilling has been cleaned up and retooled for training by Afghan soldiers, many of whom have taken up residence in the bombed out buildings that once housed thousands of militants.
Abdul Fatah, 48, who cooked at the camp when al-Qaida was in control and cooks today for the Afghan troops, describes the day in early October 2001 when the terrorists made a quick exodus from the camp, ahead of the U.S. warplanes.
''They got a call from someone who said there was going to be bombing and just like that they all left. By the time the bombs fell I was the only one here,'' he said. ''I guess they are all still out there somewhere.''
(Associated Press reporters in New York, Washington, Islamabad, Jakarta, Manila, Paris, Rabat and Moscow contributed to this report.)
11-23-03 17:27 EST
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