Sunday, January 25, 2009


January 20, 2009
Peter Goodspeed
National Post, Canada

Seven years after they transformed George W. Bush's presidency, al-Qaeda terrorists are pushing to the top of his successor's priority list.

The very day Barack Obama was sworn in as President, warning Americans "our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," there were reports an al-Qaeda affiliate recently abandoned a training camp in Algeria after 40 terrorists died from being exposed to the plague during a biological weapons test.

The report, which first surfaced in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, claims members of al-Qaeda in the Land of the Maghreb (AQLIM) hurriedly abandoned their cave hideouts in Tizi Ouzou province, 150 kilometres east of the Algerian capital Algiers, after being exposed to plague bacteria.

The newspaper said they apparently became infected while experimenting with biological weapons.

Algerian security forces discovered the body of a dead terrorist alongside a road near the abandoned hideout.

U.S. intelligence officials, speaking anonymously to the Washington Times newspaper on Tuesday, could only confirm the sudden base closure after an unconventional weapons test went wrong.

The officials said they intercepted an urgent communication in early January between the AQLIM leadership and al-Qaeda's top leaders in the tribal region of Pakistan. The Algerian terrorists said they were abandoning and sealing off a training area after a leak of a chemical or biological substance.

AQLIM, once known as the Salfist Group of Call & Combat, is one of the most radical and violent Islamist groups operating in North Africa. It has ties to Moroccan terrorists who carried out the 2004 Madrid train bombings and bombed the UN headquarters in Algiers in 2007, killing 41 people.

There are two types of plague. Bubonic plague, which is spread by bites from infected rat fleas, killed a third of Europe's population in the 14th century but can now be treated with antibiotics. Pneumonic plague is less common but more deadly. It is spread, like the flu, by airborne bacteria, and can be inhaled and transmitted between humans without the involvement of animals or fleas.

For years, U.S. Defence Department officials have warned al-Qaeda operatives have been actively pursuing sophisticated biological weapons research.

News of the latest al-Qaeda threat broke as two million people crowded into Washington's National Mall to witness the inauguration of Mr. Obama. It also came four days after Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence, said Osama bin Laden's third-eldest son and heir apparent, Saad, has been released from house arrest in Iran.

The 27-year-old, who was groomed by his father to assume a leadership role in al-Qaeda, had been detained since after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

U.S. intelligence forces say during his detention, Saad bin Laden was allowed to continue to operate. He played a prominent role in ordering a 2002 suicide bombing of a Jewish synagogue in Tunisia, commanded a series of bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca, Morocco, in May, 2003, and sent suicide car bombers who killed 35 people in Riyadh, also in May, 2003.

During his final news briefing of the Bush administration, Mr. McConnell said Saad bin Laden is now "probably in Pakistan."

His departure could signal a new relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, but it might also suggest al-Qaeda is moving to consolidate its leadership in territory under its control in Pakistan.

By expelling senior al-Qaeda members, Iran might also be trying to clear the decks for a new relationship with Mr. Obama's administration.

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