From Canada to Kandahar: The Making of a Terrorist

Times Staff Writer

The young Canadian immigrant from Kuwait seemed an outstanding prospect for membership in the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Not yet 20, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah spoke excellent English, held a Canadian passport that would allow him to travel with a minimum of suspicion and had received top marks at four Al Qaeda-run training camps in Afghanistan.

In July 2001, he met with Osama bin Laden, who accepted the eager novice and asked him to swear an oath of loyalty to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden told him he "must be ready to fight the enemies of Allah wherever they are, and specifically mentioned the United States and Jews," Jabarah said later.

Enlistment in Al Qaeda was the beginning of a saga of bomb plots, secret meetings and cash deliveries that took Jabarah from Afghanistan to Singapore and the Philippines and ended with his arrest in Oman last March. Taken to Canada and then the United States for interrogation, Jabarah admitted his role in a plot to attack Western targets in Singapore in December 2001 with as many as seven suicide truck bombs, according to a confidential intelligence document summarizing his confessions. A copy of the document was reviewed by The Times.

The story of Jabarah's eight months as an Al Qaeda operative provides a rare insight into the day-to-day running of a terror campaign. It shows the high level of attention that senior Al Qaeda leaders still at large pay to operational details, and their willingness to give important responsibility to an untested recruit.

Jabarah's account to authorities also provides solid evidence of the close working relationship between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, a group believed to be responsible for dozens of bombings throughout Southeast Asia, including blasts Oct. 12 in Bali that killed nearly 200 people.

Jabarah's job was to serve as the intermediary between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, which also contributed men, money and explosives to the Singapore conspiracy. If the plan had succeeded, it would have been Al Qaeda's biggest assault on American interests outside the United States, authorities say.

The plot was foiled by authorities in Singapore who learned of the existence of Jemaah Islamiah a few months before the strikes were to be carried out. Police arrested more than a dozen suspects and issued a worldwide alert that led to Jabarah's arrest.

Jabarah is the product of a childhood split between two worlds: the devout life of Islamic Kuwait and the middle-class life of a small city in Ontario. Born in Kuwait in 1982, he moved to St. Catharines, Canada, with his family when he was 12. He lived on a quiet street in the city of 130,000 people, which is close to Niagara Falls and the U.S. border.

He prayed regularly at the local mosque with his father, a leader of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines. His high school photograph shows a handsome young man with a mustache.

According to his account, Jabarah was attracted to radical Islam as a teenager, especially when he returned to Kuwait during summer vacations. He was particularly interested in the Chechen separatist movement in Russia and spent hours searching the Internet for information about the conflict. He also was influenced by a friend who had fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina to protect its Muslims.

After high school, he traveled to Pakistan and from there was recruited to attend Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where his courses included weapons handling, urban guerrilla warfare, mountain warfare and sniper training.

Between sessions, he received religious training in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and went to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. He also went on a sightseeing trip with friends to central Afghanistan to see the ruins of the ancient stone Bamian Buddhas after the Taliban regime destroyed them in March 2001.

As Jabarah was training to become an Al Qaeda member, the terrorist network was -- apparently unknown to him -- allegedly in the final stages of planning the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. In Kandahar, Jabarah told investigators, he met four of the future hijackers at a guesthouse. One, Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi, who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, could recite the entire Koran from memory.

Jabarah said he met Bin Laden four times. In June 2001, the Al Qaeda leader came to speak to graduates of the mountain warfare course and hinted that attacks were coming that would be "severe enough to make the United States forget Vietnam," according to Jabarah's account.

But Al Qaeda's chiefs were making other terrorist plans in other parts of the world too, and Jabarah fit right in. Bin Laden sent him to Karachi to report to "Mohammed the Pakistani," better known as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda lieutenant believed to have planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mohammed, who despite the nickname is a Kuwaiti like Jabarah, is believed to have conspired in the mid-1990s to blow up 11 U.S. airliners and kill the pope in the Philippines, and to be the man most responsible for Al Qaeda's continuing attacks around the world. He ordered his new recruit to head to the Philippines to start organizing suicide attacks, according to Jabarah's account. The suicide bombers would be Arabs sent from the Middle East.

Mohammed inducted Jabarah into the life of conspiracy and coached him on ways to avoid detection. He taught Jabarah a simple code for e-mail and phone numbers called the 0-to-5 method. Under this system, 9 becomes 1, 8 becomes 2, and so on. The numerals 0 and 5 remain the same. Mohammed also taught him to use code words such as "wedding" for any event, "market" for Malaysia, "terminal" for Indonesia and "hotel" for the Philippines. Jabarah took the alias "Sammy."

Before leaving for the Philippines, Jabarah met at a Karachi apartment with one of Southeast Asia's most notorious terror suspects, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali. An Indonesian cleric, Hambali is believed to be both an important Al Qaeda operative and a top leader of Jemaah Islamiah.

Authorities say Hambali, who remains at large, has been involved in every major Islamist terrorist attack in Southeast Asia since the early 1990s, including the Bali bombing. He was allegedly closely associated with Mohammed in the plot to kill the pope and assisted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers when they traveled through Southeast Asia.

Jabarah said Hambali, who was using the alias Azman, told him the details of the plan: They would attack the U.S. and Israeli embassies in the Philippines. Jabarah would work with Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana, the leader of Jemaah Islamiah in Malaysia and Singapore, and with Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, also known as "Mike the Bomb-Maker."

Jabarah was handed $10,000 and told to leave for Southeast Asia before the following Tuesday -- Sept. 11. Jabarah left Sept. 10 for Hong Kong. As the world's attention was absorbed by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he began having doubts.

"When Jabarah was in the hotel in Hong Kong, he began to question whether or not he could really handle the task at hand," said the summary of his confession. "He felt, however, that as [Bin Laden] had personally chosen him out of all the men in Afghanistan, he simply couldn't refuse the operation."

Jabarah moved on to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, where he made contact with Bafana, who said the local group had already acquired more than $10,000, four tons of ammonium nitrate and 660 pounds of TNT. Jabarah flew to Manila in early October and met Al-Ghozi, an Indonesian who authorities say was well respected in terrorist circles for his bomb-making skill and was responsible for attacks that killed more than 20 people. The two went by taxi to check out the targets, but Al-Ghozi concluded that neither embassy was a good choice. The U.S. Embassy was too far from the street, and the Israeli Embassy had only a few Israeli employees.

Bafana suggested an attack in Singapore, where he had two younger brothers in a Jemaah Islamiah cell, Jabarah said. The plotters settled on seven targets if they could obtain enough explosives, including the U.S. and Israeli embassies, the Bank of America, the U.S. naval shipyard and the American Club.

Al-Ghozi calculated that they would need 17 more tons of explosives and went back to the Philippines to buy them. He planned to ship them to an Indonesian island close to Singapore and then smuggle them into the prosperous island nation.

The Sept. 11 attack complicated their effort. Jabarah called Mohammed in Karachi to request an additional $50,000, but the senior Al Qaeda operative had left for Afghanistan. One of Mohammed's assistants sent Jabarah an e-mail with the phone number of a man in Kuala Lumpur known as Youssef. He met Jabarah at a mall on three occasions and gave him $10,000 in $100 bills each time. Jabarah passed on the money to a Jemaah Islamiah operative.

In the end, things unraveled quickly. Singapore authorities picked up the plotters' scent after Sept. 11 when one suspected Jemaah Islamiah member bragged that he had met Bin Laden. Authorities began following several suspected members and observed one, Mohamed Ellias, with two foreigners. They were later identified as Jabarah and Al-Ghozi, according to a Singapore government report released this month. Ellias also was observed converting $3,500 into local currency and attempting to buy ammonium nitrate, officials said.

Singapore authorities began arresting suspected Jemaah Islamiah members. Faced with the fraying of a network that had taken years to build, Hambali allegedly urged the plotters to attack. He told Jabarah to revert to the original plan to hit embassies in the Philippines, where Al-Ghozi had already acquired a ton of TNT.

But the authorities were ahead of them. A week later, Jabarah received an e-mail telling him that Bafana had been arrested and that other Jemaah Islamiah members were being rounded up. Jabarah fled to Bangkok, Thailand, tried and failed to enter Myanmar without a visa, then made his way back to the Persian Gulf region.

Soon after, authorities arrested Al-Ghozi and seized his ton of TNT. He was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for possession of explosives and may face murder charges for a series of bombings in Manila.

Despite the breakup of the Singapore group, Hambali apparently pressed ahead in Asia. In January 2002, just weeks after the Singapore arrests, he called Jemaah Islamiah leaders to a meeting in Thailand and directed them to attack "soft" targets such as nightclubs, hotels and tourist centers, intelligence officials say. A month later, they met again in Thailand and chose Bali, and Hambali handed over $35,500 to finance the attack, authorities say.

In the Persian Gulf state of Oman, Al Qaeda had a different job for Jabarah. He was to obtain an apartment for 15 to 19 Yemeni militants being smuggled from Afghanistan into Yemen, where Al Qaeda hoped to set up a new base of operations.

It is unclear what led Omani authorities to Jabarah, but before he and the Yemenis could leave the country, they were all arrested. Oman handed Jabarah over to Canada, where he began cooperating with investigators. He was later turned over to the United States, and he reportedly is being kept at a military base in New York.

In Singapore, authorities have detained 31 Muslim men accused of belonging to Jemaah Islamiah, but officials say the country still faces a threat from members who escaped, including the new leader of the Singapore network, Mas Selamat Kastari. He has threatened to retaliate for the breakup of the Singapore cells by hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the Singapore airport.

"There is still a serious security threat posed by the JI operatives who are on the run," said Singapore's Internal Security Act Advisory Board, which ordered the suspects locked up for at least two years. "These people have been trained militarily and have the capability and capacity to plan and execute acts of violence."

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