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Al Qaeda's Mad Scientist

The significance of Abu Khabab's death.

12:15 AM, Jan 19, 2006 • By DAN DARLING
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BEFORE HIS UNTIMELY DEMISE in Damadola, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar--a man known better among both jihadists and intelligence agencies as Abu Khabab al-Masri--was one of the most reclusive members of the al Qaeda leadership. Despite having been identified as a senior member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, little public information exists about him. He was among the dozens of Islamists arrested in the 1980s for participation in the conspiracy to kill Anwar Sadat and no information except his birth date (April 29, 1953) is available on the "Rewards for Justice" poster circulated by the U.S. government which offered a $5,000,000 reward for his capture.

According to an Associated Press report from December 2005, which cited Islamist researchers from the London-based Islamic Observation Center, Khabab grew up in Alexandria's crowded al-Asafirah district and graduated from Alexandria University in 1975. He left Egypt for Saudi Arabia in 1987 and from there traveled to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. His activities following the Afghan War are clouded in mystery, but as of the late 1990s he was in charge of his own facility at al Qaeda's Darunta training camp in Afghanistan. It is the activities undertaken at that camp and other facilities like it, however, that elevated Khabab's profile.

According to computer files recovered by the Wall Street Journal in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as of May 1999 the al Qaeda leadership, spearheaded by the group's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, had decided to establish an unconventional weapons program codenamed al Zabadi ("curdled milk"). The unit was to be headed by Khabab; a large sum amounting to several thousand dollars was approved as its start-up budget. As of May 26, 1999, another computer file noted that Khabab had made "significant progress" with his work, a comment made all the more ominous by the discovery of al Qaeda videotapes aired on CNN in 2002, which showed Khabab and several assistants killing three dogs in crude chemical weapons experiments using what is believed to have been hydrogen cyanide, the same agent used by the in gas chambers in Nazi death camps.

How far Khabab got with al Zabadi before the war in Afghanistan is unknown, but according to the Robb-Silberman commission on weapons of mass destruction, U.S. intelligence had assessed prior to the invasion that al Qaeda "had small quantities of toxic chemicals and pesticides, and had produced small amounts of World War I-era agents such as hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, and phosgene . . . Training manuals . . . indicated that group members were familiar with the production and deployment of common chemical agents" and that unconfirmed reports "indicated that al-Qa'ida operatives had sought to acquire more modern and sophisticated chemical agents."

More alarmingly, the commission noted that post-war discoveries had shown that the terror network's biological weapons program "was further along . . . than pre-war intelligence indicated," particularly with regard to an agent the report referred to by the commission as "Agent X." According to the commission, "Reporting supports the hypothesis that al-Qa'ida had acquired several biological agents possibly as early as 1999, and had the necessary equipment to enable limited, basic production of Agent X."

Following the fall of the Taliban, Khabab vanished from the public eye, only to resurface in a February 2003 CNN report on a series of suspected chemical and biological terrorist plots in France and the United Kingdom. Citing European intelligence sources, CNN reported that the terror suspects arrested in these raids "trained at a camp in the Caucasus region, particularly the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia and in nearby Chechnya" and "some of the men recently arrested in Europe were trained by Khabab not only in Afghanistan, but also in the Caucasus . . . those being trained in the Caucasus region may also be receiving instruction from men who had experience with chemical and biological weapons in the Russian army."

CNN noted that Khabab was not the only leader involved in the Caucasus training: "according to interrogations of prisoners, Zarqawi was at the Pankisi Gorge providing training for the men."

(It is interesting to note that these European terror plots served as the basis for Secretary Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on the threat posed by the Zarqawi network. According to the State Department's 2002 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, "In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations," thus making its true scope more extensive than that noted by Secretary Powell.)

Since the failed European plots, Khabab's location and activities have been unknown to the general public with the exception of a January 2004 report in the New York Post claiming that U.S. intelligence agencies were mounting a worldwide manhunt for him based on new intelligence that he had resumed his activities and may have been involved in the construction of a "dirty bomb" or other devices for use in terrorist attacks in the United States.

In March 2004, Egypt arrested his teenage son, Hamzah, following his deportation from Pakistan in an apparent bid to gain leverage on the boy's father. Since then, it is unknown whether or to what extent Khabab was involved with either the disrupted April 2004 plot by followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi to carry out a terrorist attack in Amman (Jordanian authorities claimed it would have involved the use of chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians) or the May 2005 plot using cyanide-based substances that the Russian government claims was organized by Chechen Islamists and a Jordanian terrorist known as Abu Mudjaid.

IF KHABAB CAN BE SAID to have had a lasting effect on the development of Islamist extremism, it would be that he moved the possibility of Islamists using unconventional weapons out of the theoretical and into the practical. Those wishing to view his legacy need look no further than the extremely crude but deadly chemical and biological experiments set up under the auspices of Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion.

With Khabab dead, it is unclear what has become of the leadership of al Zabadi, particularly if the other Egyptians killed in Damadola include any of Khabab's assistants or aides. The issue of determining Khabab's successor is complicated by the fact that the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda has already dealt a number of blows to the terror network's unconventional weapons efforts--including the capture of Mohammed Omar Abdel Rahman, the son of the convicted Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman whom the Los Angeles Times identified in April 2004 under his kuniyat (assumed name) of Asadullah as being a member of al Zabadi prior to his capture in February 2003. Another senior al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, is believed to have worked closely with Khabab in Afghanistan and was captured in Pakistan in November 2005.

In the absence of either man, one possible successor would be Abu Bashir Yemeni, whom the Los Angeles Times reported in April 2004 had worked with both Khabab and Mohammed Omar Abdel Rahman.

While Khabab was not listed among the senior echelons of the al Qaeda leadership, he was one of its most dangerous engineers.

Dan Darling is a counter-terrorism consultant for the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism.