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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Is al Qaeda Stealing the Identities of Captured Operatives?

By J.M. Berger

al Qaeda may be stealing the identities of its own operatives in order to further confuse investigators tracking its financing operations.

In at least two cases documented over the past year, a government agency has moved to freeze assets belonging to terrorists who are either dead or long imprisoned. The freeze was based on specific intelligence that al Qaeda was using the names of the terrorists in question, even after their imprisonment or death.

In September 2003, Abdul Hakim Murad and Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi were added to the Treasury Department's list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) — a master list of individuals whose assets have been officially frozen by the U.S. government's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

Murad has been in prison since 1995, while al-Ghozi had been dead for months at the time the list was released. The SDGT list does not routinely freeze the assets of arrested or even convicted terrorists.

Murad was an accomplice to Ramzi Yousef in an al Qaeda plot to bomb U.S. airliners, a predecessor to the September 11 attack. Most of Murad's known co-conspirators are missing from the list (including Yousef), which means that investigators were almost certainly attempting to freeze some specific asset.

al-Ghozi was a master bomb-builder for al Qaeda's Southeast Asia affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah.

Strategy Traced To Ramzi Yousef

The Treasury Department refused to comment to Intelwire on the factors leading to the addition, citing OFAC policy, but a chain of seemingly unconnected events falls together when viewed in this context, with an intriguing link back to the foiled 1995 Bojinka plot.

Murad and Yousef, mastermind of the the 1993 WTC bombing, were childhood friends. Both were arrested after being exposed in Manila, the Philippines, in January 1995, where they were planning Project (or OpPlan) Bojinka, a massive attack on U.S. interests. Significant elements of the Bojinka plan were eventually used in Qaeda's 9/11 attack.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, another conspirator in the plot, was added to the SDGT list prior to his arrest in 2003. But none of the other accused Bojinka conspirators are listed as SDGTs. Other figures tied to the plot include Mohammed Jamal Khalifa (a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden) and Wali Khan Amin Shah, according to U.S. investigators.

The chain of events leading to Murad's addition to the SDGT list shows that elements of Ramzi Yousef's terror network are still active, nearly a decade after his arrest.

It's possible Yousef himself devised the strategy for identity theft. Yousef was a master of identity fraud -- his real name isn't even Ramzi Yousef, but Abdul Basit. He and Murad kept dozens of passports hidden in his apartment in Manila. Yousef used at least half a dozen aliases from 1992 to 1995, and those are simply the ones known to investigators. Murad was similarly equipped with passports and alternate identities.

There is precedent for Murad's assets being used after his arrest. Murad's cell phone account in the Philippines remained active and in use for weeks after his arrest, according to investigative author Peter Lance, writing in 1000 Years for Revenge.

Yousef was at large during much of this time, until his arrest in Pakistan about a month later. Wali Khan and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed were also at large in the Philippines during the period that the phone was in use.

The specific events leading to Murad's addition to the SDGT list also point to Yousef. In July 2003, a Quetta Shi'ite mosque was bombed by an al Qaeda cell that included Daud Badini, a brother-in-law of WTC 1993 bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef, according to Pakistani investigators quoted by the Associated Press. Badini's sister is believed to be Yousef's wife.

In August 2003, the U.S. took custody of al Qaeda's Southeast Asian kingpin Hambali. The head of al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah, Hambali was also tied to Bojinka, which he helped fund using a Malaysian front company called Konsonjaya.

The addition of Murad and al-Ghozi to the SDGT list came less than a month after Hambali's arrest. The list included the names of several Jemaah Islamiah operatives.

Identities Actively Used After Arrests, Deaths

All the additions to the list were based in Southeast Asia, strongly suggesting that they were added as the result of information collected during Hambali's arrest or his interrogation.

An official in New Zealand, which appended the names to its own asset control list, told the media in January 2004 that al-Ghozi's assets were still at risk of being used, after a minor political fracas broke out in that country over the listing of a dead man.

As of March 17, 2004, Daud Badini, Ramzi Yousef and Mohammed Jamal Khalifa are still not named on the SDGT list. This strongly suggests Murad and al-Ghozi were added on the basis of extremely specific intelligence, some indication that assets in their name were still actively in use.

From al Qaeda's perspective, there is a compelling pragmatism to stealing the identities of captured operatives.

Murad (and operatives like him) stashed dozens of forged identity papers and passports in safehouses around the globe. Generally, it's much easier to alter existing documents than to forge brand new ones. Since many al Qaeda operatives are also close relatives (particularly within Yousef's terror network), sometimes a passport can simply be handed off without any alterations at all.

In the arcane and alias-filled world of international terrorism, there is the additional possibility that captured operatives will be misidentified at the time their arrest. This is an especially significant risk with low-profile operational workers like Murad, who was not well-known to authorities prior to his arrest in 1995.

In the case of Murad, the intense investigation of his movements dropped off significantly after his conviction on charges related to Bojinka (but may have resumed after September 11). His finances do not appear to have been of great interest to investigators at the time, according to court records and other documents.

Any assets, holdings and bank accounts which escaped investigators notice at the time of his arrest could be therefore be considered relatively safe. Further activity in Murad's name would only add to the confusing trail of transactions that is a hallmark of al Qaeda operations.

A few compelling questions remain unanswered, in light of OFAC's policy against commenting on SDGT designations.

  • Why isn't it standard operating procedure to freeze the assets of those who have been convicted of terrorist offenses?

  • Why are so many prominent figures still missing from the list?

    The list of unaccounted suspects includes Badini, Yousef's brother-in-law, and Khalifa, whom the U.S. has repeatedly accused of being not only a member of al Qaeda, but a key terrorist financier -- exactly the type of suspect the OFAC list is intended to target. (See INTELWIRE Exclusives: INS Deported bin Laden Kin Just Days After OKC Bombing and 1995 Deportee Tied To Al-Zawahiri, Uranium Plot, Terror Finance Network and Even 9/11). Khalifa denies all wrongdoing and is living freely in Saudi Arabia.

    Wali Khan Amin Shah, a Bojinka conspirator, was also tied to Hambali's financial network. His absence from the list is also particularly notable. With Hambali, Wali Khan was a member of the Konsonjaya board of directors.

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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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