Bill raised the very valid point concerning al Qaeda’s chemical weapons capabilities below and with all the discussion now going on concerning them I can’t help but wonder whether or not it isn’t time to revisit the career of Midhat Mursi al-Sayyid Umar, a man far better known as Abu Khabab.
A former scientist in the Egyptian chemical weapons program, Khabab, like many members of the Egyptian military, turned against the Sadat government following his peace treaty with Israel and joined Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), where he served as an explosives expert and poison trainer for the group. After EIJ merged with al Qaeda (an event variously dated at 1989, 1996, 1998, and 2001), he became the head of Project al-Zabadi, the terror network’s WMD program.
While little personal information concerning Khabab exists, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer gives us a pretty good open-source overview of al-Zabadi on pages 124-125 and 186-193 of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes that, if nothing else, gives us some idea of their intentions.
According to the evidence assembled by Scheuer:
* Captured EIJ leaders Mohammed Mabruk and Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Najjar that bin Laden and his International Islamic Front were already in possession of chemical and biological weapons. Al-Najjar, who provided the most detailed testimony, stated that factories in Europe provided the group with E. coli, salmonella, and butolinum, while factories in Southeast Asia conducted work on anthrax and more sophisticated weapons.
* From 1991-1996 in Sudan, bin Laden is believed to have worked on chemical weapons alongside the government-owned Military Industrial Corporation. Abu Hajir al-Iraqi (Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim) served as al Qaeda’s chief procurement officer in these efforts, obtaining dual-use chemicals for bin Laden’s Sudanese tannery that could be used to produce weapons as well as leather. Sudanese military officer Colonel Abd al-Basit Hamza, who formerly worked with bin Laden’s al-Hijra construction company, was said to have managed a group of corporations devoted to the production of chemical weapons based in Khartoum and staffed by a team of 60 Iraqi scientists and technicians headed up by Dr. Khalil Ibrahim Muharuhah.
* Corriere della Sera reported that bin Laden had recruited 7 Saudis and 1 Egyptian educated in pharmacy, medicine, and microbiology to be trained in Afghanistan by a team of Ukrainian chemists and biologists on the subject of poisons and toxins.
* Corriere della Sera reported in May 1998 that bin Laden had purchased 3 chemical and biological agent production laboratories from the former Yugoslavia that were then moved to Kandahar, Khost, and Jalalabad.
* Esquire and al-Watan al-Arabi both reported that by late 1998 a team of 12 Iraqi experts arrived in Afghanistan to assist bin Laden in his chemical and biological weapons efforts.
* Another al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons facility was said to be located in Zenica, Bosnia, a town that had formerly served as a base for jihadis in the 1990s during their war against the Serbs. The facility was located on a farm that had been purchased by an al Qaeda front NGO and converted into a research and development lab.
All of these are extremely controversial statements, but we can evaluate them based on what we know of closed-source information from the 9/11 Commission, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on pre-war Iraq intelligence, the WMD commission, and the UK Butler Report to “check” the open-source information Scheuer has provided us with. It should be noted that the mere absence of mention in these closed-source reports should not be taken as a definitive rejection of these issues.
Here’s what we find:
* pages 57-58 note Abu Hajir al-Iraqi’s procurement missions as well as the existence of al Qaeda NGO front offices in Vienna, Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Budapest during the early 1990s for support to the Bosnian jihad, but no mention is made of any unconventional weapons research and development being conducted out of them. Page 151 also notes the existence of a working anthrax lab established by al Qaeda near Kandahar airport that was set up in early 2001 by US-educated JI member Yazid Sufaat.
* On the extremely controversial issue of Iraqi involvement in Project al-Zabadi, the SSIC report deals with the issue of Iraqi training on pages 329 to 332 and states that the sources of this reporting came from 3 sources: a detainee (captured al Qaeda leader Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, though he is not identified as such), 12 reports from varying sources, and unidentified reporting concerning Salman Pak. Leaving the issues of Salman Pak and Ibn Sheikh al-Libi aside, the remaining 12 reports are distinguished into three groups: 4 declarative accusations, 2 that were based on hearsay, and 6 other reports that involve discussions or offers of training but do not state whether or not such training had occurred. The SSIC’s final conclusion on the substance of the reporting is classified save for a note that the possible training of al Qaeda operatives in the area of chemical and biological weapons was the “most problematic” area of the intelligence reporting.
* As a brief addendum, the Butler report notes that Ansar al-Islam (who will come up later) was working with al Qaeda to produce chemical and biological agents in northern Iraq and leaves open the possibility both that Iraq trained al Qaeda operatives post-1998 as well as that Iraqi chemical experts traveled to Afghanistan to assist al Qaeda.
* The WMD commission notes that US intelligence seriously under-estimated al Qaeda WMD capabilities, in particular the fact that its biological weapons program was far more extensive, better-organized, and in operation 2 years before 9/11 (circa 1999) involving several sites in Afghanistan, 2 of which obtained dual-use commercial equipment and were operated by individuals with special training. According to the commission, al Qaeda had acquired several biological agents as early as 1999 and had the necessary equipment to handle the limited, basic production of what the report terms Agent X (anthrax?) in addition to more basic poisons and toxins such as those obtained from venomous animals.
* The WMD commission further states that pre-9/11 al Qaeda already had toxic chemicals, pesticides, and World War 1-era chemical agents, a fact attested to given that many of the group’s training manuals contain instructions on how to produce such agents. At the time of the US intervention, al Qaeda was working to produce a blister agent that could be made from common chemicals and used to attack Americans.
Most of al-Zabadi’s infrastructure, including its primary base was destroyed during the US invasion of Afghanistan, but what was unearthed in its aftermath was frightening enough. In addition the now-famous CNN video of dogs being gassed and the al Qaeda computer used by the leadership that was obtained by the Wall Street Journal that enable us to reconstruct a crude chronology for the beginnings of the program at its formal beginning in April 1999 (prior to this, Khabab had been conducting his work independently either on his own or on behalf of EIJ).
Al-Zawahiri initiates the project in a memo that laments that the organization was so sluggish in recognizing the effectiveness and terror factor of chemical and biological (as opposed to nuclear) weapons and lays out a comprehensive history of the US chemical and biological warfare programs with a list of agents to research.
May 7, 1999:
The al Qaeda shura majlis (ruling council) approves al-Zawahiri’s request for the creation of Project al-Zabadi, and earmarks $2-4,000 in start-up costs for the program. Abu Khabab is chosen to head up the new program.
May 23, 1999:
Al-Zawahiri meets with Abu Khabab to discuss conceptual planning for al-Zabadi, including a nerve agent produced from insecticides and a chemical additive that would help to speed up skin penetration.
May 26, 1999:
Al-Zawahiri writes a letter to the rest of the al Qaeda leadership praising Abu Khabab’s progress in such a short time.
Al-Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef (killed in Afghanistan in November 2001) orders the construction of a chemical and biological weapons lab and mandates the location of the lab be changed once every 3 months to avoid detection. A decision is made to begin a robust recruiting of university scientists.
The principle nerve center for al Qaeda’s WMD efforts seems to have been Darunta camp, 8 miles south of Jalalabad, though as the entry notes, Darunta hosted a number of al Qaeda training facilities in addition to the chemical and biological weapons labs.
But what about the state of Project al-Zabadi post-Afghanistan?
Following their defeat in Afghanistan, a number of al Qaeda leaders including shura majlis member Saif al-Islam el-Masry fled to the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia to seek refuge with Chechen jihadis led by Shamil Basayev as well as the Arab mujahideen there commanded by bin Laden’s protege Amir ibn al-Khattab. While el-Masry was captured and turned over to the United States, a number of other al Qaeda leaders remained elusive, Khabab among them.
Together with fellow Caucasus-based al Qaeda leaders identified by Collin Powell as Abu Hafs al-Urduni (now the commander of the Chechen Arabs) and Zarqawi lieutenant Abu Atiya, Khabab began planning a series of attacks in coordination with Zarqawi using largely North African jihadis. No reports have surfaced as to Khabab’s whereabouts since the onset of the Iraq war, but there is no doubt that wherever he is, he’s almost certainly continuing his work together with the other members of Project al-Zabadi who have thus far managed to elude the international dragnet to apprehend them.
In tomorrow’s post, I will discuss the Ansar al-Islam facilities in northern Iraq, possible JI facilities in the southern Philippines, and other alarming developments in Project al-Zabadi since the onset of the Iraq War. The bottom line, however, is that it appears that as time progresses, chemical knowledge is being further and further disseminated throughout the terror network, thereby increasingly the likelihood of a successful chemical attack in the future.