al-Qaeda and the Zimbabwe connection

RW Johnson detects a Zimbabwe factor in the al-Qaeda terror equation.

Summary - Bolstered by a massive endorsement from the electorate, president Mbeki is about to intensify the campaign against poverty. He is in a very good position to do so because of the financial prudence of the past ten years, which has re-established macro-economic stability. This has enabled finance minister Trevor Manuel to set aside R40 billion for community welfare and poverty alleviation and to finance an ambitious public works programme. On the downside, however, Mbeki begins his second term with several albatrosses hanging round his neck. Deputy president Jacob Zuma, for example, is not an asset to the government while the taint of corruption lingers about him. It is still open to question whether the government exercised financial discipline when it signed the arms deal, and this assumes renewed relevance in light of the huge demands that poverty alleviation is likely to impose over the next five years. The affordability team that examined the financial implications of the arms deal reports that the sums involved are ‘extremely large’ and extend ‘over long periods with high breakage costs’, and that the off-sets in the form of local investment ‘cannot be guaranteed’. The government could well find itself over-extended financially and may come to regret the commitments it made when it signed the arms deal. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, noting that nearly two-thirds of government revenue comes from corporate taxes and personal income tax paid by four million citizens, asks whether the government will give in to the temptation to increase the tax burden on these revenue sources. This would almost certainly discourage foreign investment. Mbeki may face another problem, for which Sydney Mufamadi, minister of local government, is largely responsible. Local government is the most important site for the delivery of services on which the poor are heavily dependent. It is also the level where administrative competence is weakest. This does not bode well for the ANC, particularly as the new social movements such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum are strongest at local government level. The chances are thus high that local government could become a fiercely contested terrain between the ANC and the radical left.

On 7 August 1998 al-Qaeda suicide bombers driving trucks loaded with explosives crashed - simultaneously - into the United States Embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar-Es-Salaam (Tanzania). Between them they killed at least 258 people and injured over 5 000 others. These twin assaults indicated a new level of ambition in al-Qaeda's strategy. Clinton's response - lobbing a few Cruise missiles at suspected al-Qaeda installations in Afghanistan and Sudan - was clearly viewed by Osama Bin Laden as a mere slap on the wrist. What the attacks had shown was that a few suicide bombers using everyday means of transport as a delivery mechanism could achieve complete surprise and inflict thousands of casualties on two or more targets at once by carefully co-ordinated action. With this al-Qaeda had found the weapon for which it had been searching - and which it was to use again with even greater effect on 11 September 2001.

On 25 August 1998, just eighteen days after the bombs in Kenya and Tanzania had been detonated, a pipe bomb exploded in the Planet Hollywood restaurant on Cape Town's Waterfront, killing one and wounding 27. The police concluded from the fact that the target had sounded American and that a pipe bomb had been used that this was probably the work of Pagad. But no one was ever apprehended for the atrocity despite the fact that the ANC minister for safety and security, Sydney Mufamadi, had announced that the police were closing in and that an arrest was expected at any moment. Later Mufamadi changed tack, seeming almost to blame the US for the bomb and suggested that it was a predictable reprisal for the Cruise missile attack on Sudan.

The FBI was more successful, quickly arresting three suspects for the African bombings, Mohamed Saddeck Odeh, Rashed Daoud Al-'Ouhali and Wali al-Hage, the latter having earlier served as personal secretary to Bin Laden himself. All three were flown to the US where they confessed that the kingpin of the operation, Haroun Fazil (26), had rented a villa outside Nairobi where the bomb had been constructed. Fazil had driven a white pick-up truck and guided the lorry laden with explosives, driven by his operatives, to the US Embassy. Straight after the bombing he had taken a flight to his native Comoros Islands. The FBI, finding a record of a phone call made from a Nairobi hotel to the Comoros, asked the help of the Comoros government in tracing the call but clearly Fazil was tipped off for on 22 August he fled to Dubai just as the FBI arrived in the Comoros - where they found incriminating CDs in his family home.

What this event drew attention to was the existence of a Muslim network running all the way down the East coast of Africa from the Persian Gulf to Cape Town. South Africa itself has many attractions for Muslim terrorists. Durban, after all, is home to Africa's richest Muslim community and its International Islamic Centre was built thanks to a personal donation by Bin Laden. Moreover, large sums of money can move easily through the Durban Indian community to Mauritius, Nairobi or Cape Town - and, indeed, to its overseas branches in London, Toronto and Sydney. One could be sure of finding, within southern Africa, enough al-Qaeda sympathizers, enough money and enough ways of making sure the two connected to make this region a major front in the terrorist war. Moreover, the region boasts not one but two failed states - the DRC and Zimbabwe - ideal breeding grounds for terrorism. An ironic advantage of this situation, I discovered as I started to delve into the question of terrorist links, was that some members of Mugabe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), were feeling sufficiently disaffected to talk frankly, though of course anonymously, about the subject.

Mugabe's relationship with radical Islam goes back to 1978 when Libya's president Muammar Qadaffi provided arms and training for his Zanla guerrillas in Mozambique and, after Zimbabwean independence, trained 700 policemen for the new government. Mugabe was, however, well aware that Libyan sponsorship of various terrorist groups made friendship with Qadaffi extremely unwise and he kept relations formal and distant. This remained the case even after the Reagan administration's air strike on Tripoli in 1986 in retaliation for several terrorist outrages traceable to Libya. Qadaffi, who had a son killed in the raid and narrowly escaped with his own life, was badly shaken and arrived at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Harare a few months later thirsting for revenge and tried to enlist Mugabe and the NAM in an anti-US crusade. Mugabe, hosting the summit, was carefully unreceptive and Qadaffi stormed out in a huff.

Relations between the two men remained cool until 1999. One CIO officer, a man I shall call John, who had followed the relationship from his desk in Harare, told me that what had really changed things was Mugabe's resounding defeat by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the February 2000 constitutional referendum. Mugabe quickly approached Qadaffi: with his regime now under threat and isolated on the world stage Mugabe had far less to lose diplomatically than before. Qadaffi responded positively and the relationship between the two leaders became extremely close. Mugabe became increasingly sensitive to the currents and wishes of the Muslim world, particularly since the Mahathir regime in Malaysia was one of his few other friends.

Through John I managed to make contact with 'Walter', a high-ranking CIO officer who had served much of his career in Islamic countries, including Libya. My own presence in Harare was a somewhat delicate matter - I had watched the minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, denounce me on TV and say that I was not welcome in the country - so Walter could hardly be seen talking to me. Accordingly one night I was guided through the Harare suburbs by a car whose driver I never saw to a place where a second car was parked and which in turn led me to the house where I found Walter.

Walter told me that he had not been long in the Middle East before he had realized that Qadaffi's links with terrorism had not ceased after 1986 but had, perforce, merely become more discreet. Qadaffi, still animated by a desire for revenge against America, maintained contact with and sometimes funded a variety of Islamic terrorist groups but tried simultaneously to ensure that the US would have no excuse to repeat the 1986 raid. "I was surprised," Walter said. "Libya was still far more active in training and assistance to terrorist groups than was commonly realized. They sometimes trained such organizations in third countries such as Egypt and Yemen in order not to attract further US attention towards Libya itself. Most of the core Taliban fighters were Libyan-trained, you know. Libya also gave a lot of support and training to the fundamentalist FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria, and Algeria was sometimes used as an external training ground by Libyan instructors, for example in the training of Hamas, most of whose operatives are Libyan-trained. Hamas has very close links to Libya." Lebanese and Iraqi groups had also benefited from Libyan training, as had the PLO, he said. "From what I've seen the Libyans are the best in the world at terrorist techniques".

Naturally Qadaffi maintained links with al-Qaeda as well, Walter averred, but he had never come close to exercising the quasi-control over it that he did over some terrorist groups simply through the weight of his patronage. But any Middle East terrorist group which needed help would be likely to beat a path to Qadaffi's door. This was how it came about in September 2000 that Qadaffi asked Mugabe to receive an al-Qaeda contact, Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's Egyptian deputy. "In a way there'd been a dry run," Walter said. "Mugabe already had close relations with Yasser Arafat and when Arafat visited Mugabe in 1998 he brought with him six Lebanese members of Islamic Djihad, one of the most fanatical anti-Zionist groups. These guys were all men wanted by the Israelis but they stayed on in Harare for two weeks after Arafat left before exiting via Zambia to Libya (a fact later confirmed to me by another ex-CIO operative). Qadaffi learnt all about this from Arafat - the two men are close - and clearly realized that Mugabe might be willing to host wanted Arab terrorists."

Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri is one of the world's most wanted men. A former paediatrician, he is regarded as the brains of al-Qaeda - besides his nine aliases the FBI also records that he is known as The Doctor and The Teacher, as befits a man who has been a fundamentalist militant since 1966. Fully one third of al-Qaeda's fighters come from his Al-Djihad movement, including Mohammed Atta, the man who flew the first airliner into the twin towers. But why should Qadaffi want to introduce Zawahiri to Mugabe? "We surmised that what had happened was that Osama had sent Zawahiri to Qadaffi to ask for his help," said Walter. "At the time, of course, we were in the dark but after the September 11 attack everything suddenly made sense. You see, this was exactly a year before 9/11 and al-Qaeda must have been planning that event well over a year ahead. They must have known that one of the things they needed most were safe bases far from the action. Qadaffi could hardly provide anyone with that - he would be an immediate suspect and anyway was eager to keep the Americans off his back. But Zimbabwe would have occurred to him right away - by then he was very close to Mugabe - and because we're not a Muslim country no one would suspect us."

The logic was indeed obvious. From al-Qaeda's point of view Zimbabwe would have had many advantages. Once an atrocity on the scale of September 11 took place the US would clearly scan the Muslim world for possible al-Qaeda hideouts. Sudan and Afghanistan were clearly already potential targets, as were African countries with large Muslim populations. But Zimbabwe was not in that category - and it also had, as most African countries don't, the modern communications and banking facilities al-Qaeda needed. It was also conveniently close to Nairobi, Durban and Cape Town - the three centres where Bin Laden already had links. In addition, Walter said, there were small Afghan communities in both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth - they had come there originally as seamen - and there was a lively trade between them and a small number of Bolivians in both places: hashish from the Khyber Pass was brought through Cape Town and traded for cocaine from the Bolivians. These networks were also useful for smuggling personnel or equipment, or laundering money.

According to Walter, Zawahiri spent 4 to 5 days in Zimbabwe and met with Mugabe and a number of ministers and top officials. His instructions from Bin Laden were to acquire an al-Qaeda base in Zimbabwe where, far from the scene of action, it could train its militants and plan its military strikes: there are many large, remote farms in Zimbabwe where they could be invisible. He offered large sums of money for Mugabe personally, with more to follow. Zawahiri doubtless already had the September 11 action in mind but would hardly have disclosed any details of that. The al-Qaeda strikes against the US embassies in East Africa could not have left Mugabe in any doubt as to what he was dealing with, nor that he was risking extreme US displeasure - particularly since it must have been obvious that al-Qaeda was planning further large-scale strikes against US targets. Later, Walter said, Zawahiri returned a second time to Zimbabwe, this time staying for two weeks. This return visit and Zawahiri's quick fade into invisibility are perfectly consistent with what one would expect if, as Walter was inclined to believe, al-Qaeda had then proceeded to construct some sort of safe-house base in Zimbabwe. Walter, clearly nervous at every minute he spent in my presence, slipped away into the night as soon as he'd finished.

Mention of remote farms tied in with the fact that the growing Libyan team in Zimbabwe had acquired a number of farms in the Zanu-PF heartland of Mashonaland Central. As more Libyans arrived they moved straight to these farms - so any Arab moving onto these farms would simply be assumed to be a Libyan by any Zimbabwean. So could these farms be used for al-Qaeda purposes too? My CIO contacts had also wondered if these farms were being used for al-Qaeda purposes and had told me that when Qadaffi had passed through Harare en route to the African Union meeting in Durban he had exhorted local Muslim Asians to greater militancy and had even threatened to have Pagad strong-arm men sent up from Cape Town - with whom, it seems, he was already in touch - to knock them into line if necessary. They also reminded me that almost on the eve of 9/11 Mugabe had been Qadaffi's guest in Tripoli for the 32nd anniversary of Libya's "national revolution". In the end I managed to track down the relevant issue of Mugabe's mouthpiece, The Herald.

Saturday, 1 September 2001 had found Mugabe in Tripoli where Qadaffi called on his assembled African allies "to support the hero, president Mugabe, since Zimbabwe is a strategic country". But Qadaffi seems to have remained close enough to al-Qaeda to have a pretty good idea that a major blow was about to be struck against the Americans - this was just ten days before 9/11 - for he openly boasted of Bin Laden's prowess and mocked the US for failing to catch him after the bombing of the US embassies in East Africa:

"We no longer wage war with the old weapons. Now they can fight you with electrons and viruses. The crazy world powers that have invested huge amounts of money in weapons of mass destruction have found themselves unable to fight the new strain of rebellion. As a simple example, the USA is unable to fight someone called Osama Bin Laden. He is a tiny man, weighing no more than 50 kg. He has only a Kalashnikov rifle in his hands. He doesn't even wear a military uniform. He wears a jalabiyah (Arab robe) and turban and lives in a cavern, eating stale bread. He has driven the USA crazy, more than the former Soviet Union did. Can you imagine that?"

This passage - quoted approvingly in The Herald - suggests that Qadaffi had been in recent contact with Bin Laden, was aware of his living conditions in the caves of Afghanistan and also knew that some fiendish new strike, employing unconventional weapons, was about to hit the USA. It seems quite possible that Qadaffi imparted what he knew to Mugabe for he must have realized that any such strike would have major implications for anyone who had been lending assistance to the likes of Zawahiri.

When the September 11 strike took place Qadaffi quickly distanced himself from it as publicly as he could, clearly fearing US reprisals. Mugabe himself said nothing - but within the CIO in Harare there was panic. "Those of us who knew about the contacts with Zawahiri were scared stiff," Walter had told me. "We thought this might be the end of everything. We had visions of B-52s over Harare."

The printing of Qadaffi's 1 September 2001 speech in The Herald had caught the eye of several MDC members. "When September 11 occurred I went back and looked at it again," one of them told me. "Then we noticed an Afghan we call Mr Moosa." Moosa, who was in the motor trade, had got into a trifling dispute with a florist near his premises over parking spaces. Amazingly, the CIO immediately materialized and warned off the florist: Mr Moosa was, they said, a very important person and under the government's protection. The same happened when some of Moosa's workers threatened a strike. Again the CIO arrived in force to warn the workers that they had better not dream of upsetting a person enjoying president Mugabe's protection. "We managed to get through to a person in the ministry of foreign affairs," my MDC contact told me. "He confirmed that Moosa was a special case and that 'we're looking after him'. For us that was virtual confirmation that he was effectively the Afghan - and thus, at that time, the Taliban -ambassador, perhaps even the al-Qaeda ambassador. He clearly has a hot-line to Mugabe which in turn means they have an on-going deal." They then discovered that Moosa's office did no actual business."It was just a front company, providing a phone, fax, e-mail, a bank account and it took delivery of containers. There couldn't be an open Taliban embassy here, so they had this disguised one instead."

One of the MDC activists deputed to watch Moosa was 'Richard', who works out every morning in a Harare gym. In early September 2001 Richard noticed that Moosa and two Afghan companions had begun to frequent the same gym. On 12 September 2001, the day after the attack on the twin towers, he walked across the gym to where Moosa's party were exercising and asked them what they thought of the previous day's events. "They were vehemently anti-American and clearly pro-Taliban," Richard told me. "They said the Americans had got exactly what they deserved. They seemed to be bursting with a mixture of elation and bitterness. To be frank I think they blurted out more than they meant to because they disappeared from the gym for a few days after that.

"Then in the week following they reappeared, this time with eight other Afghans. These guys looked tired, as if they'd been travelling, which I guess they had," Richard reported. "One of them was wearing a Tamil Tiger T-shirt. My immediate guess was that these were escaping Taliban or al-Qaeda. I've had military training myself and these men were fighters. If you're a fighter you've got to stay fit, even if you're stressed and travelling. That's why I think they were at the gym. They only came that once and then disappeared."

At this I went back to another CIO source who put out feelers among his former colleagues in the CIO. One of them, he confirmed to me a few days later, had told him that in mid-September he had been asked to produce ten false passports for the same number of Libyans. These were delivered on 20 September. When I queried whether the recipients were genuinely Libyans it became clear that all that was really known was that they had previously been travelling on Libyan passports. The tie-up between these ten passports and the eleven men seen by Richard at the gym hardly needs emphasis, particularly since Richard must have seen them in the week of 12 to 19 September - as they waited for their new passports, with which they could then leave Zimbabwe with fresh identities.

One also has to remember that Zimbabwean military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo had given Mugabe and the top Zanu-PF elite control over several diamond mines there, including a joint venture with Al Shanfari's Oryx Group in the Senga Senga mine. According to a confidential study prepared by Kroll Associates in 2002, "Al Shanfari and Oryx launder diamonds for several Lebanese traders linked to al-Qaeda". Thus here too there was a direct - and profitable - relationship between Mugabe and al-Qaeda, providing, incidentally, a route through which payment for other services could also be made. In fact al-Qaeda involvement with blood diamonds goes back some way before 9/11. Two al-Qaeda operatives named by the Washington Post (3 November 2001) as having been involved in the DRC since the mid-1990s are Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was also the man who bought the truck used in the truck-bombing of the US embassy in Dar-Es-Salaam in 1998 while Fazul turns out to be one of the many aliases used by Haroun Fazil, the mastermind behind the Nairobi embassy bombing.

Thus both the key architects of the East African embassy bombings emerged from an al-Qaeda network active in southern Africa for some years before that, one which will have had many points of contact with the ruling Zimbabwean elite. This throws a new light on Zawahiri's alleged visits to Zimbabwe prior to 9/11 - he was clearly travelling to an area in which he already had operatives and at least a rudimentary infrastructure. This would certainly have increased the likelihood that al-Qaeda would have wanted to use Zimbabwe for the transit-and-laundering role we have seen.

Another straw in the wind was the revelation that closed circuit TV cameras within the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Cape Town had recorded the image of a known al-Qaeda suspect lolling against the restaurant's bar a month before the bomb-blast there. The police, who identified the man as a Moroccan based in Zimbabwe, strangely refused to act on this information. It is tempting to link this attitude with Pretoria's rapid volte face on the issue of 9/11. By January 2002 ANC pressure on ex-president Mandela had forced him publicly to recant his previous condemnation of Bin Laden, while deputy president Zuma announced that the ANC no longer saw 9/11 as a terrorist act but as a blow in a wider struggle against imperialism. He simultaneously denounced Britain and America for their war on the Taliban which, he said, was aimed "against innocent Afghan civilians". Given president Mbeki's support for president Mugabe it is possible that Pretoria was not keen to see a line of enquiry opened up in the Planet Hollywood affair which led back to the presence of al-Qaeda activists in Zimbabwe.

In Harare again in late 2003 I was struck by the US embassy posters offering a $2 million reward for Haroun Fazil. Quite clearly, the FBI believe either that he may be in Zimbabwe or that there may be people there who know him. I decided that this merited a visit to Zimbabwean CID headquarters in the vast police camp adjacent to Mugabe's presidential palace. I eventually found the office I was looking for, with a Wanted poster of Fazil from Interpol - and a CID poster showing a copy of Fazil's passport. For, it emerges, Fazil travelled to Nairobi to carry out the bombings which were to kill and maim thousands from Harare, on a Zimbabwean passport.

The possibility that Zimbabwe may have provided some sort of support base for both the East African and 9/11 atrocities - perhaps even for the Planet Hollywood bombing too - is perhaps not surprising. Mugabe has, after all, not scrupled to use terror against his own people. The real question is whether South Africa's NIA has taken note of what is happening and whether president Mbeki, in the strong support he has lent Mugabe, has realized the full implications of what he is doing.