Al-Zawahiri and Atef appear to have settled on the development of a chemical weapon as the most feasible option available to them. Their exchanges on the computer show that they hired Medhat Mursi al-Sayed, an expert to whom they refer as Abu Khabab, to assist them. They also drew up rudimentary architectural plans for their laboratory and devised a scheme to create a charitable foundation to serve as a front for the operation. According to other sources, Abu Khabab gassed some stray dogs at a testing field in eastern Afghanistan, but there is no indication that al-Qaeda ever developed a chemical weapon it could deploy.
THE BANALITY OF OFFICE LIFE
Although al-Qaeda has been mythologized as a disciplined and sophisticated foe, united by a deadly commonality of purpose and by the wealth of its leader, internal correspondence on the computer reveals a somewhat different picture. In the years leading up to 9/11 the group was a loose confluence of organizations whose goals did not meld easily, as was seen in both tactical discussions (for example, should they attack Arab governments, America, or Israel?) and day-to-day office operations. At the most basic—that is to say, human—level the work relationships of al-Qaeda's key players were characterized by the same sort of bickering and gossiping and griping about money that one finds in offices everywhere. The following exchange is similar in tone and substance to much of what was found on the computer.
To: Ezzat (real name unknown)
From: Ayman al-Zawahiri
Folder: Outgoing Mail—To Yemen
Date: February 11, 1999
Noble brother Ezzat …
Following are my comments on the summary accounting I received:
… With all due respect, this is not an accounting. It's a summary accounting. For example, you didn't write any dates, and many of the items are vague.
The analysis of the summary shows the following:
1- You received a total of $22,301. Of course, you didn't mention the period over which this sum was received. Our activities only benefited from a negligible portion of the money. This means that you received and distributed the money as you please …
2- Salaries amounted to $10,085—45 percent of the money. I had told you in my fax … that we've been receiving only half salaries for five months. What is your reaction or response to this?
3- Loans amounted to $2,190. Why did you give out loans? Didn't I give clear orders to Muhammad Saleh to … refer any loan requests to me? We have already had long discussions on this topic …
4- Why have guesthouse expenses amounted to $1,573 when only Yunis is there, and he can be accommodated without the need for a guesthouse?
5- Why did you buy a new fax for $470? Where are the two old faxes? Did you get permission before buying a new fax under such circumstances?
6- Please explain the cell-phone invoice amounting to $756 (2,800 riyals) when you have mentioned communication expenses of $300.
7- Why are you renovating the computer? Have I been informed of this?
8- General expenses you mentioned amounted to $235. Can you explain what you mean? …
To: Ayman al-Zawahiri
Folder: Incoming Mail—From Yemen
Date: February 17, 1999
Kind brother Nur al-Din [al-Zawahiri]:
… We don't have any guesthouses. We have bachelor houses, and the offices are there too. We called it a guesthouse hypothetically, and we don't have any bachelors except Basil and Youssef. And Abd al-Kareem lives at his work place.
If I buy a fax and we have two old ones, that would be wanton or mad.
Communication expenses were $300 before we started using the mobile phone—and all these calls were to discuss the crises of Ashraf and Dawoud and Kareem and Ali and Ali Misarra and Abu Basel and others, in compliance with the orders.
Renovating our computer doesn't mean buying a new one but making sure that adjustments are made to suit Abdullah's [bin Laden's] work. There were many technical problems with the computer. These matters do not need approval.
There are articles for purchase that are difficult to keep track of, so we have put them under the title of general expenses …
The first step for me to implement in taking your advice is to resign from … any relationship whatsoever between me and your Emirate. Consider me a political refugee …
Al-Qaeda's relationship with the Taliban, though strained at times, grew cozier as the attacks on New York and Washington approached. Mullah Omar was enraged at the U.S. missile strikes on Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998—strikes that were made in retaliation for bin Laden's African-embassy bombings that year. Bin Laden, meanwhile, kept after the Taliban leader with a campaign of flattery. He hailed Mullah Omar as Islam's new caliph (a lofty title not used since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire) and talked of Afghanistan as the kernel of what would become a sprawling and pure Islamic state that would embrace Central Asia and beyond. By 2001, some said, bin Laden had become a confidant of Mullah Omar, helping him to understand the outside world. He encouraged the Taliban leader to destroy the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas and sent him a congratulatory note afterward.
To: Mullah Omar
From: Osama bin Laden
Date: April 11, 2001
… I pray to God—after having granted you success in destroying the dead, deaf, and mute false gods—that He will grant you success in destroying the living false gods, the ones that talk and listen. God knows that those [gods] pose more danger to Islam and monotheism than the dead false gods. Among the most important such false gods in our time is the United Nations, which has become a new religion that is worshipped to the exclusion of God. The prophets of this religion are present in the UN General Assembly … The UN imposes all sorts of penalties on all those who contradict its religion. It issues documents and statements that openly contradict Islamic belief, such as the International Declaration for Human Rights, considering all religions are equal, and considering that the destruction of the statues constitutes a crime …
Meanwhile, Ayman al-Zawahiri rallied the support of other jihadis, especially in his militant group Islamic Jihad, which eventually became the largest component of al-Qaeda. Those jihadis from Egypt had been suspicious of him because of his close ties to bin Laden, whom they considered a publicity hound. In the summer of 1999 they ousted al-Zawahiri as the leader of Islamic Jihad and replaced him with a veteran, Tharwat Shehata, who wanted to limit the relationship with bin Laden and concentrate the group's fight against Egypt, not America. But with money scarce and morale low, Shehata soon resigned, and by the spring of 2001 al-Zawahiri had assumed control again. He sent a note to his colleagues in Islamic Jihad proposing a formal merger with bin Laden and al-Qaeda as "a way out of the bottleneck." Borrowing terms from global commerce, he warned of increased market share for "international monopolies"—the CIA and probably also Egyptian intelligence. The merger, he said, could "increase profits"—the publicity and support that terrorism could produce.
From: Ayman al-Zawahiri
Date: May 3, 2001
The following is a summary of our situation: We are trying to return to our previous main activity [probably the merger]. The most important step was starting the school [training camps], the programs of which have been started. We also provided the teachers with means of conducting profitable trade as much as we could. Matters are all promising, except for the unfriendliness of two teachers, despite what we have provided for them. We are patient.
As you know, the situation below in the village [probably Egypt] has become bad for traders [jihadis]. Our Upper Egyptian relatives have left the market, and we are suffering from international monopolies. Conflicts take place between us for trivial reasons, due to the scarcity of resources. We are also dispersed over various cities. However, God had mercy on us when the Omar Brothers Company [the Taliban] here opened the market for traders and provided them with an opportunity to reorganize, may God reward them. Among the benefits of residence here is that traders from all over gather in one place under one company, which increases familiarity and cooperation among them, particularly between us and the Abdullah Contracting Company [bin Laden and his associates]. The latest result of this cooperation is … the offer they gave. Following is a summary of the offer:
Encourage commercial activities [jihad] in the village to face foreign investors; stimulate publicity; then agree on joint work to unify trade in our area. Close relations allowed for an open dialogue to solve our problems. Colleagues here believe that this is an excellent opportunity to encourage sales in general, and in the village in particular. They are keen on the success of the project. They are also hopeful that this may be a way out of the bottleneck to transfer our activities to the stage of multinationals and joint profit. We are negotiating the details with both sides …
Al-Zawahiri's proposal set off a storm of protest from some members of Islamic Jihad, who—again—favored focusing on the struggle against the Egyptian government. They accused al-Zawahiri of leading their group in dangerous directions.
To: Ayman al-Zawahiri
Date: Summer, 2001
Dear brother Abdullah al-Dayem:
[another name for al-Zawahiri]
… I disagree completely with the issue of sales and profits. These are not profits. They are rather a farce of compound losses. I believe that going on in this is a dead end, as if we were fighting ghosts or windmills. Enough of pouring musk on barren land.
I don't believe that we need to give indications of how this unplanned path will fail. All we need to do is to estimate the company's assets since the beginning of this last phase, then take inventory of what remains. Count the number of laborers in your farms [probably cells] at the mother's area [probably Egypt], then see if anyone has stayed. Consider any of the many projects where you enthusiastically participated. Did any of them succeed, other than the Badr external greenhouses, which enjoyed limited success?
All indicators point out that the place and time are not suitable for this type of agriculture. Cotton may not be planted in Siberia, just as apples cannot be planted in hot areas. I'm sure you are aware that wheat is planted in winter and cotton in summer. After all our efforts we haven't seen any crops in winter or summer.
This type of agriculture is ridiculous. It's as if we were throwing good seeds onto barren land.
In previous experiments where the circumstances and seeds were better we made major losses. Now everything has deteriorated. Ask those with experience in agriculture and history.
Despite the protests of certain Islamic Jihad members, a merger with al-Qaeda had been cemented in the spring of 2001, and in June the new group issued "Statement No. 1"—a press release of sorts, found on the computer, that warned the "Zionist and Christian coalition" that "they will soon roast in the same flame they now play with." The following month someone sat down at the computer and composed a short message, titled "The Solution," which trumpeted "martyrdom operations" as the key to the battle against the West. On August 23 another operative tapped out a report on a target-spotting mission in Egypt and Israel that had been carried out by Richard Reid—the British national who would later try to blow up a Paris-to-Miami airline flight with a bomb packed in one of his high-top sneakers. And on that same day in August the following plan for sending an agent on a target-spotting mission to the U.S.-Canadian border region was typed into the computer.
To: Real name unknown
Date: August 23, 2001
Special file for our brother Abu Bakr al-Albani ["the Albanian"] on the nature of his mission.
First, the mission: Gather information on:
1. Information on American soldiers who frequent nightclubs in the America-Canada border areas
2. The Israeli embassy, consulate, and cultural center in Canada
3. If it is possible to enter America and gather information on American soldier checkpoints, or on the American army in the border areas inside America
4. Information on the possibility of obtaining explosive devices inside Canada …
I have given to our brother $1,500 for travel expenses in Canada and America, and also the cost of the ticket for the trip back to us after four months, God willing.
The first evidence of work on the computer following 9/11 comes just days after the attacks, in the form of a promotional video called "The Big Job"—a montage of television footage of the attacks and their chaotic aftermath, all set to rousing victory music. The office was surely busier than it had ever been before, and soon many members of al-Qaeda's inner circle were competing for time on the computer. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the senior Yemeni operative who coordinated with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in masterminding the attacks, used the computer to work on a hasty and unfinished ideological justification for the operation, which he titled "The Truth About the New Crusade: A Ruling on the Killing of Women and Children of the Non-Believers," excerpts of which follow: