- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

From the dusty Sahara to the jungles of Indonesia and in U.S.-occupied Iraq, a new generation of terrorists is emerging to take the place of elders who have been killed, captured or forced deep underground.

Deeply angry at the United States and governments that endorse its actions, they have been writing a new history of terrorism in blood, from Istanbul to Madrid to Yanbu, Saudi Arabia.

“These are the men that are the new 21st-century terrorists,” said Evan Kohlmann, a U.S.-based terror analyst. He said it is “very literally, a group of second-generation Osama bin Ladens.”

At the fore of the next generation is Abu Musab Zarqawi, 38, a former commander for bin Laden who has links to terrorist groups from North Africa to the Caucasuses. He is said to have maintained ties to al Qaeda and is thought to be leading the resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The CIA says Zarqawi was the black-clad militant who pulled a long knife from his tunic and decapitated American civilian Nicholas Berg in a gruesome video released by his killers last month.

He also is thought to have had a hand in the March 11 bombings in Madrid, countless strikes in Iraq and a failed chemical attack in his native Jordan. U.S. authorities are offering a $10 million reward for his capture.

“Zarqawi’s background in jihadi activities is as extensive, in many ways, as that of Osama bin Laden,” said Richard Evans, the editor at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London. “He is a jihadi fixer, with access both to funds from Gulf Arab backers and a loose network of jihadi groups around the globe.”

Zarqawi might be the villain of the day, but he is by no means alone among the new faces taking up senior positions in the world’s most feared terrorist groups.

In Indonesia, Zulkarnaen, a former biology student who is one of the few militants from the region to have trained in Afghanistan, stepped in late last year as operations chief for the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, replacing Hambali after his August arrest. Zulkarnaen, born Aris Sumarson, is thought to be about 40.

Another new top Jemaah Islamiyah figure is Dulmatin, 33, a Malaysian electronics specialist nicknamed “Genius” who is thought to have designed the bomb used in the 2002 Bali attack that killed 202 persons. He is said to have been a used-car salesman before turning to terrorism.

In Spain, Amir Azizi, 36, a Moroccan, is thought to have supervised the bombings in Madrid, acting as a link between Zarqawi and a cell of mostly Moroccan al Qaeda members. Azizi is thought to be the leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.

Azizi has been indicted in Spain on charges of helping plan the September 11 attacks in the United States.

“It is Azizi, obviously. He is the one that makes the connections, not only with all the arrested people and other suspects, but with the external groups that could have helped mastermind these bombings,” said Charles Brisard, a French private investigator who works for attorneys of September 11 victims.

In Turkey, authorities say they are looking for a man in his 30s named Habib Akdas who was little known before reportedly orchestrating bombings in Istanbul in November that killed more than 60 people.

Akdas is thought to have met bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001 and received military and explosives training there. Little else is known about him.

Some of the most virulent new guard aren’t waiting for the capture or killing of their predecessors to move to the fore.

Last year, Nabil Sahraoui, an Algerian in his 30s with a reputation for ruthlessness, ousted the leader of the North African Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and pledged allegiance to bin Laden. The Salafist Group, which wants to create an Islamic state in Algeria, had dwindled to a few hundred men hiding in the Sahara, but has had a resurgence since Sahraoui took over, analysts say.

Analysts also expect to hear more about Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, a 30-year-old dropout trained in Afghanistan and thought to have been involved in attacks in May and November 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 51 persons. He has not been linked to the May 1 attack in Yanbu that killed five Westerners and a Saudi, but he issued a statement praising the attack.

“The Yanbu cell that implemented the heroic successful operation this month is one of the best examples of what is required,” al-Moqrin said. A Saudi, he took command of al Qaeda’s Saudi cell when his predecessor was killed in a May 2003 shootout.

Men like bin Laden and his right-hand man, Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri, all met in the CIA-funded Afghan guerrilla war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Their focus on international terrorism moved into high gear after the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the U.S. decision to keep permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia.

Today’s terrorists have a new incubator: Iraq.

The top U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf region, Gen. John Abizaid, said in March that foreign terrorists have “gotten themselves established” in Iraq. Officials think Zarqawi is leading them, though some analysts say other figures might be in the background.

Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian journalist who has examined al Qaeda and similar groups, said Zarqawi and other notorious terrorists are not the end of the story — and probably are not behind every attack for which they are blamed.

“It is important to note that it could be in al Qaeda’s interest to propagate certain names while others work in the shadows,” he said. “Also, governments sometimes have the tendency to blame any attacks on the known fugitives because they need to blame someone.”

Hundreds of foreign fighters are thought to have flocked to Iraq.

The presence of more than 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq means terrorists can’t settle in for extensive training, but there are signs they might be using the country as a testing ground.

On May 17, attackers rigged an artillery shell packed with the deadly nerve agent sarin for detonation. U.S. officials said they are not sure whether the assailants knew the 155 mm shell contained chemicals, but the incident has raised fears that insurgents might have more and will learn how to use them.

Washington has long warned that al Qaeda might be trying to undertake chemical or biological attacks in the United States or elsewhere.

U.S. officials say Zarqawi might have been involved in three major terrorist bombings in Iraq since the war began last year: the Aug. 19 truck bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 persons, the Aug. 29 car bombing outside a mosque in Najaf that killed more than 85, and the Nov. 12 suicide truck bombing outside Italy’s paramilitary police headquarters in Nasiriyah in which more than 30 died.

Analysts and intelligence officials point to Africa as another area of concern. Across that continent, terrorists have taken advantage of weak, ill-equipped governments and vast, ungoverned spaces.

Although most African Muslims are moderates, poverty and discontent have combined to inspire a significant number of young men to join terrorist ranks.

Sahraoui’s Algerian Salafist group was blamed for the kidnapping of 32 European tourists last year. Algerian commandos freed 14 of them, and Germany paid a ransom for the remaining 17 who had been taken to neighboring Mali. One hostage died of heatstroke.

The Algerian group has connections with similar groups in Libya and Morocco, and many of the leaders trace their beginnings to Afghanistan.

Azizi, the leader of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group who has connections to Zarqawi and the Madrid bombing, trained in Bosnia and Afghanistan and also spent time in Iran.

In a rare interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, the director of Moroccan National Security explained the connection between the North African groups and al Qaeda.

“In 2002, the Moroccan jihadists asked bin Laden to give them financial help,” said Gen. Hamidou Laanigiri. “Zarqawi, who believed in them, pulled a few strings.”

Two other men appear to be leading Moroccan operations: Abdelkrim Mejjati and Saad Houssaini. Both are wanted for last year’s attacks in Casablanca and in the Madrid train bombings.

Mejjati, 36, attended the French school in Casablanca and comes from a privileged background — a contrast to most Islamist militants but consistent with some of the most hard-core. U.S. authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest.

Gen. Laanigiri said Houssaini is an explosives specialist and one of “only a dozen dangerous elements” of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group still at large.

In 1996, Houssaini visited suspected al Qaeda member Salaheddin Benyaich in Valencia, Spain, Spanish authorities said. Spain has indicted Benyaich and his brother on charges of involvement in al Qaeda.

Many of these groups have taken advantage of Europe’s geographic proximity and political openness to plan, hide and recruit. Sahraoui’s group has cells in Italy, Spain and France, where they tend to focus on recruitment, officials in those countries said.

Erminio Amelio, a top counterterrorism prosecutor in Italy, said most of the cells in his country are connected to the Algerian group.

In East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, 30, of Comoros, has been identified as the leader of that region’s terrorist cell.

Mohammed was on the list of seven persons who the U.S. Justice Department said last month are wanted for questioning about a fresh terrorist scare. Authorities said they had received a stream of credible intelligence reports pointing to an attack of September 11 proportions in the United States this summer.

Today’s new guard doesn’t have that luxury, for observers say they are far more exposed. Men like Zarqawi are on the front lines, and they are important only while they are successful.

The increased risk means the life expectancy of today’s generation of terrorists likely will be short, and turnover at the top of terror networks will be great.

“But these guys don’t care,” said Mr. Evans, of Jane’s. “They consider themselves to be the first members of the new Islamic vanguard. There will be plenty more Zarqawis bubbling up to the surface over the coming months or years.”

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