September 25, 2004


Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror: How a Secret, Failed Trip to Chechnya Turned Key Plotter's Focus to America and bin Laden (ANDREW HIGGINS and ALAN CULLISON, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

On a winter night five years ago, Ayman al-Zawahri slipped into Russia across a narrow wedge of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. Dr. Zawahri, now America's most wanted man after Osama bin Laden, was on a risky clandestine mission as head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group that was scattered, battered and nearly bankrupt after years on the run. His purpose: to scope out Chechnya as a possible sanctuary for his wounded cause. Traveling in a minivan with two confederates, he came equipped with $6,400 in cash, a fake identity as a businessman, a laptop computer, a satellite phone, a fax machine and a small library of medical textbooks.

His plans quickly unraveled. After a night of furtive travel, the Egyptian trio ran into a Russian roadblock on the outskirts of this ancient walled city. Police, seeing they had no visas, handed them over to the Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet version of the KGB. Dr. Zawahri spent the next six months in a crumbling jail, fretting that the Russians would discover his true identity and lock him up for years or send him back to Egypt to face likely execution.

In the end, his cover held, and he was freed. Still, Dr. Zawahri's brush with disaster, previously known to only a few Islamist chieftains, forced a critical change in his lethal planning. It also set the stage, ultimately, for Sept. 11 and the global war now under way between America and terrorists under the banner of al Qaeda. Instead of Chechnya, Afghanistan began the locus of his terrorist plotting. And America, not Egypt, became the target.

The Wall Street Journal has pieced together the story of how this happened from interviews with Islamist activists and investigators, court files and documents contained on an al Qaeda computer found in the Afghan capital of Kabul. It illuminates the evolution, motives and also weaknesses of what is today America's principal enemy.

Through apocalyptic violence and a cult of secrecy, Islamic militants torment the West with the specter of a highly disciplined and unshakably united foe. In reality, they have regularly been torn by venomous policy disputes, personal feuds and repeated failures. The Sept. 11 cataclysm both masked and flowed from militant Islam's truest feature: disarray and an inability to take and hold power in almost any Islamic country since Iran in 1979. Islamists preaching revolution in Egypt and elsewhere were in retreat, not ascendancy. Attacking America, Dr. Zawahri hoped, would reinvigorate and unite their cause. His story shows from the inside how the down-on-his-luck Egyptian Jihad leader came to link up with Osama bin Laden and contribute a critical arsenal of terrorist skills and manpower to the cause.

They can't ever take power anywhere, because, as Afghanistan and Iraq showed, we can remove an unfriendly government in days or weeks. Indeed, we'd welcome them gathering in one place where they'd be easier to kill, instead of hiding out in caves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2004 8:28 AM
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