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Bin Laden’s Mystery Man

British authorities provide details of a terror plot narrowly averted—and the Al Qaeda operative at its center

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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Newsweek
Updated: 8:46 p.m. ET Aug. 20, 2004

Aug. 17 - The suspect at the center of new terror charges filed today in Great Britain once traveled with Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard to Malaysia at the time of a crucial Al Qaeda summit where U.S. intelligence officials believe the September 11 attacks were planned, NEWSWEEK has learned.

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The suspect charged was identified publicly today as Dhiren Barot, a 32-year-old resident of London who once fought with mujahedin forces in Kashmir and served as an instructor at an Afghan training camp. Barot and seven other suspects were charged by British authorities with “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance” by launching a terror attack in the United Kingdom using radioactive materials, toxic gases and chemicals. Barot’s lawyer did not return calls seeking comment.

Barot, who was arrested on Aug. 3, was also accused of possessing reconnaissance plans of the New York Stock Exchange, the Citigroup building and other offices in New York, Washington and Newark, N.J. These were the same plans as those discovered on a computer in Pakistan in July, prompting U.S. officials to issue a public terror warning on Sunday, Aug. 1.

But if Barot’s name was not public until today, his existence and his connections to the highest level of Al Qaeda have been known to U.S. authorities for some time, according to documents and officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK.

In the recently published report by the September 11 commission, Barot is identified under another name—Issa al-Britani, a veteran Al Qaeda operative who was dispatched by September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to case economic and “Jewish” targets in New York City in early 2001.

Even more intriguing, Barot, as al-Britani, is mentioned in an obscure footnote elsewhere in the report as having been dispatched by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in late 1999 or early 2000 to meet with Hambali, the notorious Asian terrorist who heads Jemaah Islamiah, an Al Qaeda affiliate dedicated to overthrowing the governments of Southeast Asia and replacing them with a pan-Islamic state.

The footnote in the report states that al-Britani provided Hambali with two addresses—one in the United States, “possibly in California,” and another in South Africa—and told the Asian terrorist that he could “contact people in those locations” if he “needed help.”

The report does not elaborate on this pass-along and notes that Hambali, who is now in U.S. custody, denies to interrogators that he ever gave these addresses to any of his confederates. But U.S. officials are dubious about Hambali’s denials and suspect that the unspecified U.S. address in California may well have been passed along to two of the future September 11 hijackers—Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

According to a U.S. intelligence official who has studied debriefing reports on these matters, Barot or al-Britani appears to have traveled to Kuala Lumpur around January 2000 with notorious Al Qaeda operative Tawfiq bin Attash, otherwise known as “Khallad,” a fierce one-legged former Afghan fighter who served as bin Laden’s bodyguard. Khallad, a Yemeni native, is also believed by U.S. officials to be a prime architect of the bombing of the naval warship USS Cole, off the coast of Yemen in October 2000. Khalad was arrested last year in Pakistan.

Although it goes unmentioned in the report, Barot’s trip to Malaysia comes at a critical time: just days before the January 2000 Kuala Lumpur summit where early plans for the September 11 attacks were discussed under the watchful eye of Malaysian Special Branch officials working closely with the CIA. Although CIA and Malaysian authorities were clueless at the time about the purpose of the meeting, they were later aghast to discover that two of the future hijackers, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, were present. After the summit, the two then traveled, with a short stop in Bangkok, to the United States and established a base in Southern California.

U.S. officials do not believe that Barot was actually present at the summit. But his presence in Kuala Lumpur just days before and his associations with Hambali and Khallad, as well as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed make it clear that he has been in the inner circle of the Al Qaeda planning structure for years.

That apparent role injects added significance to the charges filed in London today, suggesting that Al Qaeda was planning a mass terror attack using chemical and even radioactive weapons as recently as the past few weeks.

According to U.S. and British officials, Barot and other suspects arrested in Britain were in active touch with Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan who in turn appear to have been communicating with bin Laden and his closest associates hiding on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

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A source close to the investigation said that evidence gathered by investigators in Britain and Pakistan indicates that participants in the plot were exchanging messages that authorities believe related to the plot’s execution and that such messages continued to be exchanged right up until a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, a police statement about the case released today refers to a conspiracy by the suspects that began on Jan. 1, 2000 and continued until Aug. 4, 2004— just two weeks ago.

The source said at least some of the men charged in London are believed to be British contacts of Mohammed Naeem Khan, a suspected al-Qaeda communications officer whose capture in Pakistan in July helped trigger the Aug. 1 security alert and today’s charges in Britain.

Contrary to the impression left by some U.S. authorities, the plot against unspecified targets in Britain appears to have been far more active than any that were being contemplated in the United States. One source said that intelligence information indicates that while London and Pakistan suspects “very much were interested” in attacking inside the United States, they apparently found this impractical or too risky and, the evidence suggests, limited their range of targets to Britain.

For all his high level Al Qaeda connections, little is still publicly known about Barot, the man at the center of the U.K. plot. He is believed to be a British citizen who either was born in Britain or moved there with his parents at a very early age. Barot is said by police to live in North London; his parents reportedly live nearby.

Under another name, Esa al-Hindi, Barot is said by investigators to have authored a jihad recruitment book published by an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham, England. A representative of the publisher, who asked not to be named, told NEWSWEEK he met al-Hindi once, about five years ago at a coffee shop in London. The publisher said he wanted to commission al Hindi to write another jihad book but leave out the religion next time; al-Hindi said he wasn’t interested. The publisher described al-Hindi as short and with a London accent. The publisher said that al-Hindi went by many other aliases, including Abdullah, Yousef, Bilal and Musa and owned several passports.

A biographical sketch on the back cover of Barot/al-Hindi’s published work describes him as a convert from Hinduism to Islam who fought with mujahedin in Kashmir, returned home to Britain for a while before spending  a year as an instructor in an Afghan mujahedin training camp.

British and American investigators have only dribbled out information about how all the pieces of the terrorist plot fit together. It is known that as a result of the arrest in Pakistan of Khan in mid July authorities seized a laptop computer and related on which they found some of the detailed surveillance reports which Barot now apparently is accused of having in his possession.

Sources close to the investigation say that there is evidence that Khan was in contact fairly recently with Barot, who British authorities are said to have had under surveillance since earlier this year.

Sources told NEWSWEEK that Khan and a cousin in London who operated pro-bin Laden Web sites, Babar Ahmad, exchanged messages very recently indicating they were aware of an active plot involving possible use of conventional, radiological or chemical weapons against unspecified targets in Britain. Ahmad, whose activities as a Jihad Webmaster and fund-raiser had been under investigation by Scotland Yard and U.S. Customs since October 2001, was arrested by British authorities on a U.S. extradition warrant after the story of the discovery of Khan’s computer was leaked to the American media. Ahmad’s lawyer has been unavailable for comment.

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