Camps Are Rubble but Their Threat Remains

Times Staff Writers

Surrounded by mud walls and hidden in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the Khalden camp was the birthplace of deadly terrorist attacks and plots against the United States for nearly a decade.

With 50 to 100 recruits at a time, studying everything from small arms to heavy explosives, the hardscrabble boot camp provided basic terror and guerrilla training to a generation of Al Qaeda suicide bombers, hijackers and saboteurs from around the world.

Although Khalden now has been bombed to rubble, its grim legacy lives on. Indeed, U.S. officials fear that many of the Muslim militants who trained and were indoctrinated there remain at large outside Afghanistan and may be planning further terrorist strikes against the United States or its allies.

Khalden was publicly cited last week when a federal grand jury in Virginia indicted Zacarias Moussaoui for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 hijackings. The indictment charges that Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was a camp alumnus. But he is not the first to face charges of terrorism.

Other Khalden graduates were involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the suicide truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa five years later and an aborted millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other civilian targets.

Khalden--located in Paktia, a small, cave-filled province not far from Tora Bora--is one of at least two dozen guerrilla and terrorist training camps that the CIA and FBI had identified over the years in Afghanistan. Some had classrooms and communication systems for intelligence training, as well as firing and demolition ranges, tunnels and bunkers. A hospitality section welcomed new recruits. On visits, Osama bin Laden exhorted his acolytes with fiery sermons against America.

The camps’ role as proving ground and networking center for Al Qaeda has become evident in recent searches of their ruins, interrogations, court records and the Moussaoui indictment. The indictment alleges that training camps helped Bin Laden create a far-flung terrorist army.

“Since at least 1989, until the filing of this indictment, Osama bin Laden and the terrorist group Al Qaeda sponsored, managed and/or financially supported training camps in Afghanistan, which . . . were used to instruct members and associates of Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in the use of firearms, explosives, chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction,” the indictment charges.

“These camps were used to conduct operational planning against United States targets around the world and experiments in the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Zealots Scatter to Cells in Many Nations

All the known camps, including Khalden and four others named in the Moussaoui indictment, have been abandoned or destroyed by bombs, U.S. officials say. One camp, Darunta, named for the Darunta Dam over a river in the Tora Bora region, was an early target because it had been used by Al Qaeda to test crude chemical weapons.

But the camps survive in an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 zealots who spent anywhere from two weeks to six months training with arms, explosives, terrorism tactics and prayer. Although some undoubtedly have been killed in the current war, others have scattered to the 60 or so nations where Al Qaeda has built cells or helped support local terrorist affiliates.

The Afghan camps came into widespread public view on Aug. 20, 1998, when the United States fired more than 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a training complex near the eastern city of Khost. President Clinton authorized the attack after Bin Laden followers bombed two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The U.S. attack had minimal lasting effect, however. Although U.S. intelligence had indicated Bin Laden and his top aides were supposed to be attending a meeting at the camp, he was not there. Indeed, the camps were nearly deserted, and most of the two dozen or so casualties were Pakistanis training to fight Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Moreover, two of the camps identified in the indictment last week--Siddiq and Jihad Wal--were rebuilt on the site of two camps bombed in 1998, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Other parts of the Khost site also were reestablished after 1998.

Experts say some sites, like Siddiq and Farouk, mostly drew wealthy Middle Easterners who could pay their own way. Such camps were relatively posh, almost touristy in nature, used to glean much-needed funds from those less committed to suicide attacks.

“If you’re a rich Saudi, you go to a camp with bunks and showers and for bragging rights back home,” said an FBI counter-terrorism agent who has spent years investigating Al Qaeda. “You go back to a comfortable life. You don’t have the edge of these dispossessed people who have no life and no job to go back to.”

Khalden was for the dispossessed--and the hardest of the hard core. By most accounts it was a spartan mountain camp that drew the poorest and most aggressive of Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers. Many came on a kind of terrorist scholarship, “sponsored” by Al Qaeda or its allies, then returned to their home countries to participate in the jihad.

“They feel more responsible,” the FBI agent said. “They want to do bigger things.”

Many have done so.

Kuwaiti-born Palestinian Ramzi Yousef finished his studies at Khalden just months before he detonated a truck bomb under the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993. The blast killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and caused $550 million in damage.

A Jordanian co-conspirator, Ahmad Mohammad Ajaj, also attended Khalden. Details of their training came out at Yousef’s trial in New York in August 1997. Ajaj had flown into New York from Pakistan with Yousef but was detained after his suitcases were searched at the airport.

Inside the bags, prosecutors said, federal agents found a trove of bomb recipes from Afghan training camps: how to make nitroglycerin from urea and nitric acid, the explosive properties of glycerol trinitrate and a how-to guide to nitro-methane liquid explosives, according to testimony.

Ajaj also carried a letter of introduction addressed to “the valiant brother leader of Camp Khalden.”

“Peace be upon you and God’s mercy and blessings who carries this paper, without mentioning his name,” the letter stated, according to a translation read in court. “For you know him well from before, [Ajaj] is among those who was expelled from Palestine because of the intensity, passion, voraciousness and his resistance to the perfidious Zionist enemy.”

Ajaj later was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. Yousef, who had fled New York after the bombing, resurfaced in the Philippines a year later. There, a U.S. court later found, he plotted with at least two other Afghanistan-trained terrorists to plant bombs on a dozen U.S. jumbo jets over the Pacific in January 1995.

After he was captured in Pakistan later that year, Yousef told Secret Service agent Brian Parr that he had received extensive training in explosives at a camp in Afghanistan. He refused to give its name or location but acknowledged that he’d met Ajaj there. Authorities determined that it was Khalden.

Embassy Bombers Trained at Khalden

The Saudi and Egyptian suicide truck bombers who killed 224 people in synchronized attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998, also attended Khalden.

One of them was Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali, who jumped from the truck before the blast and survived. His trial in New York with other embassy bombers earlier this year provided further details of Khalden camp life.

When Al-'Owhali arrived at Khalden in 1996, he was “met by the person who was in charge of the hospitality section,” a federal agent would later testify.

Al-'Owhali told the FBI that his first order from the Khalden commander, Abu Sayyid al Kirdi, was that he and his fellow recruits “could never use their true names again.”

“Al-'Owhali described the courses that followed as basic types of military training to include light weapons, some demolition, some artillery, some communication, things of that nature, but he has also received a period of instruction in religious ideology,” FBI agent Stephen Gaudin testified.

Gaudin said Al-'Owhali and other recruits met Bin Laden at the Khalden camp, where Bin Laden “impressed upon them the need to fight the Americans and to cast them out of the Arabian Peninsula.” Bin Laden’s pitch “further solidified [Al-'Owhali’s] religious feelings and his religious thoughts,” Gaudin said.

Bin Laden also urged the recruits to seek further training, Gaudin stated. Many apparently did so.

Gaudin said Al-'Owhali went on to advanced terrorism studies at two other camps. His courses included “security and intelligence, how to gather information, how to protect information from being divulged, how to conduct hijackings of buses or planes, how to do kidnappings, how to seize and hold buildings, things of that sort,” Gaudin said.

“Mr. Al-'Owhali explained to me that during and at the end of this training he had met with Mr. Bin Laden several times and had expressed to him interest in missions he would like to do,” Gaudin added. “And Mr. Bin Laden told him that, ‘Take your time. Your mission will come in time.’ ”

Within two years, he and two other Khalden graduates would drive truck bombs into the U.S. embassies in Africa.

‘Graduate’ Training for LAX Bomb Conspirator

Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of conspiring to smuggle a bomb into the United States to damage or destroy LAX, had been a petty thief in Montreal, working on the fringes of an Al Qaeda cell there. Members told him the Afghan camps were a way to prove himself and his credibility. He arrived at Khalden in April 1998 for a six-month course followed by “graduate” camp in explosives.

When he returned home the next year, Ressam became leader of the Montreal cell, with authority to direct a high-profile bombing operation. He also made contacts with other North African Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and England.

Now cooperating with federal authorities, Ressam testified in New York earlier this year that Khalden had 50 to 100 recruits on any given day, “people from all nationalities.” Specifically, he then named Jordanians, Algerians, Yemenis, Saudis, Swedes, Germans, French, Turks and Chechens. “I belonged to the Algerian group.”

Ressam said he was taught to use a broad range of explosives, including dynamite and C-4 plastic explosives. He said he and other recruits were trained to destroy such targets as “electric plants, airports, railroads, large corporations, gas installations, military installations . . . hotels where conferences are held.”

“I also got training in urban warfare,” he added. “How to carry out operations in cities, how to block roads, how to assault buildings . . . how to assassinate someone in an operation.”

As for Ressam’s eventual target: “The discussion was about an airport, a consulate.”

Then Ressam graduated to Darunta camp and a course in manufacturing explosives and electronic detonators. Ressam said he witnessed chemical weapon experiments at Darunta: Dogs were placed in boxes and poisoned with cyanide to measure its effects. Recruits, he said, were taught to place chemical weapons near intake vents of buildings to poison entire corporations.

And it was at Darunta, Ressam told the jury, that he was given his instructions to bomb an airport--or several airports--in and around Los Angeles.

Ressam named Abu Zubeida, a Palestinian, as the Khalden camp’s chief. When he was leaving Afghanistan, Ressam said, Zubeida told him to send back stolen Canadian passports “to give to other people . . . to carry out operations in the U.S.”

Ressam said Zubeida also gave him vials of hexamine and glycol, accelerants for explosives detonators, and $12,000 in cash to complete his mission in America.

Ressam flew to Los Angeles with those gifts, then to Montreal, where he set about building his bomb. He was caught two weeks before New Year’s 2000, but only because U.S. customs agents at the border post in Port Angeles, Wash., suspected he might be smuggling drugs.

When they began questioning Ressam in his car, he appeared extremely nervous and then tried to flee on foot. Agents found detonators and explosives in his trunk.

In custody ever since, Ressam is likely to testify at the trial of Moussaoui, the Frenchman indicted last week in Alexandria, Va. The reason: Ressam has told authorities that Moussaoui was a classmate at Khalden in April 1998.