Pakistan strikes deep into al-Qa'ida territory - Asia - World - The Independent

Pakistan strikes deep into al-Qa'ida territory

In the mountains of Waziristan, the army claims to have recovered passports of extremists with links to the September 11 and Madrid attackers. Does this mean they are finally closing in on Osama bin Laden himself?

After a sweep of a militant stronghold in the lawless tribal region of South Waziristan, the Pakistani army has recovered passports purportedly belonging to two leading al-Qa'ida figures, including a member of the notorious Hamburg cell that orchestrated September 11.

Among a pile of documents, photographs, weapons and computers seen by The Independent yesterday in Waziristan, is a German passport belonging to Said Bahaji, the logistical expert of the notorious German terror cell that orchestrated the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Bahaji, 34, who is of Moroccan descent, obtained the passport just days before September 11 and used it to travel to Pakistan according to the information stamped in the document.

It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the passports, nor to establish the fate of their apparent holders. If they are authentic, the documents would prove that South Waziristan, a bastion of the Pakistani Taliban, has also been a sanctuary for foreign Jihadists and key al-Qa'ida figures in Pakistan. Major General Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman said the documents were being made public to demonstrate the presence of foreign militants in South Waziristan which borders Afghanistan.

A Spanish passport, also recovered, purportedly belonged to Raquel Burgos Garcia. According to a student card, she is the wife of Amir Azizi, a Moroccan terrorist suspect who has been linked to both the September 11 attacks and the Madrid bombings.

The documents were apparently found after the capture of the village of Sherwangai on 20 October. The take- over came after three days of intense fighting in the dusty, barren and expansive Waziristan wilderness, at the start of an anti-Taliban offensive launched under intense political pressure from the United States. "We moved in as a battalion at night to take the terrorists by surprise," Lieutenant Colonel Inam Tarar said yesterday. As he spoke, mortar shells were being blasted into a village across a gorge nearby.

The Pakistan army would not say whether the apparent holders of the passports had been killed in the current offensive, had died earlier, or escaped. The German passport, number L 8642163, was issued in Hamburg on 2 August 2001. It matches that on an Interpol-United Nations Security Council Special notice with the exception of the first digit. The photograph in the passport matches that on the notice as well, but was not laminated.

The document indicates that Bahaji was issued with a tourist visa to Pakistan, by the Pakistani consulate in Hamburg, valid for 90 days. On 4 September 2001, he arrived in Karachi, the passport shows. There is no sign of further travel.

Burgos Garcia, also 34, has been described in the Spanish press as having joined al-Qa'ida after a conversion to Islam. The Spanish passport, number P099823, did not bear any Pakistani stamps. Her passport was also issued just weeks before the September 11 attacks, on 1 August 2001.

Stamps in the documents apparently show regular travel to Morocco, her husband's country. There is also an Iranian visa, where Azizi is reported to have fled after Spanish authorities issued an arrest warrant for him after the September 2001 attacks. There is an Indian visa, but it was apparently not used for travel.

Bahaji and Burgos Garcia have been linked to Mohammed Atta, the leader of the four hijack teams that crashed planes into New York's Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington. Bahaji, who may also have met Osama bin Laden, is said to have been a previous roommate of Atta's in Hamburg.

Members of the Hamburg cell which ultimately mounted the 9/11 atrocities are thought to have attended Bahaji's wedding at a Hamburg mosque in 1999. Among those present was the Lebanese hijacker, Ziad Jarrah.

Burgos Garcia's husband, Azizi, is widely suspected to have been crucial to Atta's July 2001 meeting with fellow Hamburg cell member, Ramzi Binalshibh in Spain to finalise plans for the attack. Binalshibh is a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, and has been described by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a "key facilitator for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001." He was captured in Karachi a year after the September 11 attacks after a shootout with Pakistani security services.

As the army revealed the passports yesterday, Hillary Clinton issued an unusual expression of dismay at Pakistan's failure to track down members of al-Qa'ida. "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to," she said.

From 9/11 to Waziristan: The evidence

* Said Bahaji, whose passport has apparently been found in South Waziristan, left, is well known to Western intelligence agencies. Half-German, half-Moroccan, he is believed to be an electronics and IT expert who was a key member of the so-called Hamburg Cell which laid the groundwork for the 9/11 attacks. A close associate of Mohammed Atta, the September 11 ringleader, Bahaji is also thought to have met Osama Bin Laden. Intelligence sources believe he travelled to Chechnya and Afghanistan and travelled to Pakistan on September 4 2001 via Turkey. Pakistani sources say there is no evidence he spent any time in Britain although intercepts show email and phone contact with individuals in the UK.

* Raquel Burgos Garcia is the wife of Amir Azizi, a Moroccan national who has been linked to the Madrid train bombings of 2004. She is not believed to have taken direct part in any terror activities but has been used as a courier. She is thought to be the holder of a number of other passports.

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