Buffalo News June 8, 2006
Toronto cell's reach extended internationally
Arrests in Britain underline global web
By Maki Becker and Jerry Zremski
The arrest of 17 terrorist suspects in the Toronto area appears to be tied to radical Islamic activity on three continents, all inspired by al-Qaida and linked via the Internet.
Terrorism experts and worldwide media reports have increasingly focused on those likely international links since the weekend arrests. Underscoring that point, British authorities arrested a 21-year-old man late Tuesday and a 16-year-old boy Wednesday on terrorism charges that could be connected to the alleged terror conspiracy in Canada.
Those arrests follow FBI allegations that one of the two U.S. Muslims from Georgia, who traveled to Toronto to meet with some of the Canadian suspects, attended a terror training camp in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Canada's National Post reported that the Canadian suspects and the Georgia men were also in contact with a London-based jihadist recruiter.
The suspected global connections of the Canadian suspects - and the absence of any direct ties to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden - come as no surprise to terror experts. They said Islamic terrorism has evolved into something more amorphous and difficult to trace in the five years since the twin towers collapsed in flames.
"What we've generally been seeing is an added dimension to the radical militant Islamic threat," said Rep. John McHugh, a Watertown Republican who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. "There's less operational day-to-day control and more of a philosophical allegiance."
McHugh's comments echoed the State Department's latest annual report on terrorism. Released on April 28, the report emphasized "the proliferation of smaller, looser terrorist networks that are less capable but also less predictable."
The State Department also noted "an increased capacity for acts of terror by local terrorists with foreign ties."
The Toronto suspects appear to have plenty of foreign ties of their own.
Security sources told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the two suspects arrested in northern England this week are being questioned in connection with the Canadian case.
The 21-year-old, who was arrested at the Manchester Airport, is believed to have traveled recently to Pakistan, the BBC said. The man is from Bradford, which is northeast of Manchester, and the 16-year-old arrested Wednesday is from nearby Dewsbury.
The two U.S. Muslims from Georgia, who are believed to have met with the Canadian suspects, also appear to have international connections.
Syed Haris Ahmed, 21, is a native of Pakistan who traveled to his home country to attend a terror training camp, an FBI affidavit said.
And Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, who was born in Fairfax, Va., traveled to Bangladesh in August, five months after he and Ahmed took a Greyhound bus to Toronto.
Ahmed told the FBI that he and Sadequee traveled to Toronto "to meet with like-minded Islamic extremists." They met with "three subjects of an FBI international terrorism investigation," the FBI affidavit said.
The pair met with the Toronto "extremists" to discuss "strategic locations in the United States suitable for a terrorist strike, to include oil refineries and military bases," the FBI said.
Those revelations follow a report in Canada's National Post that the Toronto terror suspects and the Georgia men were in touch with Younis Tsouli, suspected to be a shadowy Internet-based terrorist recruiter dubbed "Ihrabi 007."
When police searched Tsouli's bedroom and arrested him last November, they found video slides showing "a number of places in Washington, D.C.," according to the British charges against him. The Post said authorities believe those images were filmed by the two Georgia men who visited the Toronto-area suspects.
Even before the Canadian arrests, Canadian authorities were increasingly stressing the complex international webs that terrorists appear to be weaving.
"The threat of this variant of terror is global, complex and sophisticated," Jack Hooper, deputy director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services, told a Canadian Senate committee on May 29. "The individuals and groups involved are often internationally interconnected and highly mobile."
Like the terrorists who struck commuter trains in Spain and subways in London in recent years, the Toronto suspects appear to have no direct ties to bin Laden, terrorism experts said.
Instead, while bin Laden is believed to be holed up in tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of those suspected terrorists merely appear to be inspired by his vision of violent Muslim resistance to Western ways and political policies.
"I think al-Qaida's objective was to serve as an example," said McHugh, who, as an Intelligence Committee member, attends classified briefings with top U.S. intelligence officials. Al-Qaida's quest for "jihad on a global scale" now "may be getting beyond their control in ways beyond how they imagined," he said.
At the same time, though, terrorists have always tended to favor loose command structures, said Mike German, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent who is now a senior fellow at Globalsecurity.org, a Washington think tank.
"It's a concept called leaderless resistance," German said. "It's a means to protect the leadership so they can continue to spread."
The splintered nature of these groups poses serious challenges to authorities trying to track them down before they strike.
"It is much more difficult to penetrate the various cells, even identify the cells," German said. "Frankly, until they strap the bombs on their back and walk into the subways, they're not seen as part of a group."
Such terrorist groups often come together and hone their trade via the Internet. McHugh noted there are now more than 5,000 radical Islamic Web sites, which "suggests a lot more activity" than prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hooper, meanwhile, portrayed the Internet as a one-stop shop for would-be terrorists.
"You can become radicalized and committed to the al-Qaida ideology without ever having been to an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan or Afghanistan," he said. "You can do all of that over the Internet. You can learn techniques, and you can acquire materials over the Internet. You can assemble an operational cell over the Internet."
In general, the current-day al-Qaida should be seen as a "franchise operation" that's operating worldwide, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Asked if those franchises appear to be growing in number, Pletka said, "I don't think we have any idea."
However, she stressed that while such terrorists killed more than 200 people in the London and Madrid bombings, no such attack has occurred in the United States since 9/11.
"It is remarkable and a very good thing; we shouldn't underestimate it," Pletka said. "We're fighting back. We've got people off balance."
© Copyright 2006,The Buffalo News