After finishing high school in Ontario, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah became an al-Qaeda terrorist. Now detained in the U.S., the 21-year-old is revealing his secrets: He met with the architects of the World Trade Center and Bali bombings, convinced Osama bin Laden of his worth as an operative and planned several attacks of his own.
(Mohammed Mansour) Jabarah
In an interrogation room in New York last summer, FBI agents extracted a valuable secret from their young Canadian prisoner, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah: the code words used by al-Qaeda terrorist cells in Southeast Asia.
"Market" is code for Malaysia, "Soup" means Singapore and "Hotel" means Philippines, he told the agents. A "Book" is a passport and Indonesia is referred to as "Terminal." And then there was the code word for Americans: "White Meat."
Mr. Jabarah knew this, he confessed to the FBI, because after finishing high school in St. Catharines, Ont., he had spent more than six months as a trusted al-Qaeda operative, the National Post can reveal for the first time.
His confession, detailed in a classified FBI report obtained by the Post, describes how he was involved in planning explosions at Western embassies, businesses and tourist resorts. Among those he admitted to conspiring with was the notorious Hambali, the man behind last fall's massive bombing in Bali, Indonesia.
Less than three years ago, Mr. Jabarah was a straight-arrow student at a Catholic high school who wanted to be a doctor, worshipped at the local mosque and did volunteer work picking up litter from roads in Niagara. Today, he is a 21-year-old detainee at a U.S. military base, trying to rescue his life by revealing to FBI agents the secrets he learned as a terrorist.
Mr. Jabarah's descent into the underworld of radical Islam, where Americans are dehumanized even in code ("White Meat" comes from pigs, the consumption of which is deemed un-Islamic), is all the more troubling considering he spent his teenage years in Canada, the country that gave him refuge, citizenship and an education.
"The boy was a gentleman," recalled Hussein Hamdani, a family friend and official at the Islamic Society of St. Catharines. "He was working here in the mosque, nice polite boy.... I'm damned sure they got the wrong man."
An investigation by the Post, however, based on classified intelligence documents and interviews, has found that Mr. Jabarah long ago admitted to being an al-Qaeda agent recruited to organize attacks in Southeast Asia.
So highly prized was Mr. Jabarah that the al-Qaeda leadership went to great pains to ensure he would not get caught. Hambali, Southeast Asia's leading al-Qaeda operative, once told the Canadian: "It will be a very big hit for us if you're arrested."
- - -
The Jabarah family -- mother, father and four sons -- moved to Canada from Kuwait in 1994, three years after Allied troops liberated the country from Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who had invaded and plundered his oil-rich neighbour.
"After the Gulf War, it was really scary in the Gulf area and I wanted to have a good life and a good education for my sons and a new home," Mansour Jabarah, his father, a businessman in the financial industry, said in an interview.
They moved into a two-storey home with a porch on a quiet street in St. Catharines. The father served as vice-president of the local Islamic society. Mohammed helped out around the mosque, and participated in its volunteer programs.
At Holy Cross Secondary School, Mr. Jabarah did not stand out as a radical, although he was serious about his Islamic faith. "He was a religious boy. He didn't drink, he didn't have girlfriends," his father said. In his high school yearbook photo, he sports a thin moustache and does not smile.
Shortly after graduation in June, 2000, he flew to Kuwait City to enrol at university, but his father said he had trouble gaining admission and was also discouraged because the school did not offer Islamic studies courses in English.
He went instead to Pakistan.
The al-Qaeda faithful who roam Pakistan's religious schools in search of fresh recruits saw Mr. Jabarah as a prized asset. His fluent English and Canadian passport made him a valued potential operative. He could travel freely without raising suspicion. He was also young and unworldly. "He grew up in Canada, he never went to any Asian countries before," his father said.
The recruiting tactics used by radical Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda harness the force of religion to incite Muslim youths to violence. Psychologists hired by the government of Singapore to study 31 captured members of Jemaah Islamiyah found the recruits had been singled out in religious classes and gradually indoctrinated over an 18-month period.
Those selected to participate in terrorist attacks were unassertive, unquestioning and harboured feelings of guilt and loneliness. Gradually the recruits were led to believe the Muslim faith was under attack and a holy war against the West was a religious duty. They were promised martyrdom if they died for the cause. To complete their indoctrination, they were given code names.
Mr. Jabarah was code-named Sammy. He excelled in weapons training at al-Qaeda camps in eastern Afghanistan and made such an impression that, in July, 2001, he convinced Osama bin Laden he could be an effective international operative, according to Professor Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert in Singapore and the author of Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.
The Canadian, then 19, travelled to Karachi in August, 2001, to meet Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the architect of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, who gave Mr. Jabarah a critical assignment. He was to organize truck bombings at the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Manila.
It was to be a joint operation, with al-Qaeda supplying the suicide bombers and the money. Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional Islamic group that wants to establish a Muslim state in Southeast Asia, was to procure the explosives and draw up the plans.
"Jabarah advised that he was in charge of the financing for the operation," according to the FBI report, dated Aug. 21, 2002, and titled "Information Derived from Mohammed Mansour Jabarah." Mr. Mohammad gave him US$10,000 to get started.
For two weeks, Mr. Jabarah underwent intensive training at a house in Karachi, learning techniques for operating in urban environments, said Prof. Gunaratna, who has extensively investigated the cell. "The training emphasized operation security, measures and counter-measures to be adhered to by al-Qaeda operatives during travel, living in a city, interaction with others."
Eventually, Mr. Jabarah was introduced to Hambali (an alias for Riduan Isamuddin), an al-Qaeda member who serves as operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah. The meeting took place at the Karachi apartment of one of Hambali's four wives. He instructed Mr. Jabarah to contact his two point men in Malaysia -- Mahmoud (an alias for Faiz Bafana) and Saad (an alias for Fathur Rahman Al Ghozi).
"Make sure you leave before Tuesday," Mr. Mohammad cautioned Mr. Jabarah, according to the FBI. The Tuesday he was referring to was Sept. 11. Mr. Jabarah left Pakistan for Hong Kong on Sept. 10. He was staying at a Hong Kong hotel when hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center.
After three days in Hong Kong, Mr. Jabarah flew to the first stop in his jihad mission, Kuala Lumpur. He met a man code-named Azzam, as well as Mahmoud, a bomb-making expert who had learned his tradecraft at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Mahmoud told Mr. Jabarah to speak to Saad, who was then training with Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in the Philippine mountains.
"Jabarah told Mahmoud that he needed to go to the Philippines and Mahmoud said he would get in touch with Saad, as he is the person who could obtain any of the needed explosives," the FBI report said.
Mr. Jabarah and his associate, Ahmed Sahagi, a would-be suicide bomber, flew to the Philippine city of Makati and checked in at the Horizon Hotel. A few days later, Saad e-mailed his Manila phone number to Mr. Jabarah and they made plans to meet.
"When Saad arrived at the hotel, Saad informed Jabarah he only had 300 kilograms of TNT and he needed additional time and money. Saad informed Jabarah he wanted four tons of explosives," the FBI report said.
There was another complication. Saad thought the U.S. embassy in Manila was not a good target because it was set back too far from the road. They scouted the U.S. and Israeli embassies together and Saad decided to return to Malaysia to discuss the plot with Mahmoud.
They met again in Kuala Lumpur to talk about targets, and decided the embassies in the Philippines were no good. They wanted to try somewhere else. Mahmoud advised Mr. Jabarah to go to Singapore to record videotapes of potential targets there.
At a parking lot at Singapore's Marina South, Mr. Jabarah held a meeting with local terrorist operatives and asked for their suggestions about targets. In addition to the American and Israeli embassies, they identified the Australian and British high commissions as well as several commercial buildings that housed American companies.
Using a Sony video camera, Mr. Jabarah posed as a tourist to film sites such as the American Club and American International Assurance. The videos were labelled "Visiting Sightseeing Singapore." They were then transferred on to CD-ROMs for distribution up the chain of command.
Mr. Jabarah rented an apartment in Kuala Lumpur in November, 2001, but he was running out of money and asked his boss in Pakistan, Mr. Mohammad, for more. A few days later, an al-Qaeda agent named Youssef handed him a bunch of envelopes. Inside were wads of US$100 bills, tied with elastic bands -- US$30,000 in total.
Because TNT was difficult to obtain in the region, the cell decided to use ammonium nitrate. The operation was to use six trucks. Each would carry three tonnes of ammonium nitrate (by comparison, the truck bomb used in Oklahoma City in 1995 contained two to three tonnes of the explosive).
"Sammy would bring his people down to Singapore to rig the bombs at the secured warehouse," said a Jan. 7, 2003, report on the plot prepared by the government of Singapore. "The trucks would then be driven and parked at designated points near the targets. The local cell members would then leave the country as unknown suicide bombers arrived. These suicide bombers (believed to be Arabs) would be brought down to Singapore just a day before the planned attack."
In early December, 2001, the Jemaah Islamiyah chief Hambali told Mr. Jabarah to cancel the Singapore plot and move the target back to Manila. The advantage of attacking in Manila, Hambali said, was that the explosives were already in the Philippines and would not have to be shipped to Singapore. The attack could therefore be done sooner -- and al-Qaeda wanted it done quickly. If the embassies proved too difficult to attack, they would find other targets in the Philippines, Hambali said.
By then, however, videos and notes about the Singapore plot had been found in the ruins of an al-Qaeda safehouse in Afghanistan bombed by American warplanes. Police moved in to break up the cell. On Dec. 9, 2001, Singapore's Internal Security Department made the first in a series of arrests. Within a week they had arrested 13 Jemaah Islamiyah members.
But "Sammy" got away.
- - -
Mr. Jabarah was in Malaysia in December when an e-mail landed in the inbox of his Yahoo account. It was from Azzam. The title was "Problem." Mahmoud, Mr. Jabarah's point man who knew everything about the plot, had been arrested in Singapore, it said. Mr. Jabarah left for southern Thailand.
At a hotel in Bangkok, Mr. Jabarah met with Hambali, who advised him to get out of the region before he was caught. He was too valuable to al-Qaeda to end up behind bars, Hambali said. But Hambali was furious the Singapore plot had failed, and he began discussing attacks elsewhere.
"The last contact Jabarah had with Hambali was in mid-January, 2002, in Thailand," the FBI report said. "During this time Hambali discussed carrying out attacks with his group. His plan was to conduct small bombings in bars, cafés or nightclubs frequented by Westerners in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia."
He tried to take a bus to Myanmar but could not get a visa. He went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and flew to Bangkok and Dubai. Using his e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, Mr. Jabarah contacted Hambali and Khalid Sheik Mohammad -- the 9/11 mastermind who had sent him on his mission.
Mr. Jabarah sent them a copy of an article from a Canadian newspaper that linked him to the bombing plot in Singapore. He said he had to run and needed money. He wanted to go to Saudi Arabia but could not get a visa, so he went to neighbouring Oman, where, according to the FBI, he was helping "al-Qaeda operatives travelling through Oman to Yemen" when he was arrested in March, 2002.
According to Canadian officials, the Omani government did not know what to do with Mr. Jabarah. It did not want to hand him to the Americans, fearing Omanis would be angered that their government had delivered a fellow Muslim into U.S. custody.
They decided to give him instead to the Canadians. He was after all a Canadian citizen, and if Canada were to send him to the United States, it would not be Oman's doing. Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents brought Mr. Jabarah back to Canada in late April, 2002.
Mr. Jabarah was a big catch for the intelligence service. "To an intelligence officer, this is like having the ideal terror consultant sharing your living room with you," said David Harris, a former CSIS agent. "Jabarah's words could launch major actions. In our life-and-death footrace with terror, names, dates and places can add up to fresh leads and these can mean outstripping the enemy."
Canadian intelligence agents interviewed Mr. Jabarah for about a week and passed their findings to the Americans. The information he provided "vastly improved the knowledge of al-Qaeda," Prof. Gunaratna said. "As a result of this investigation, the Canadians will be able to move forward in better understanding and responding to the al-Qaeda network."
Mr. Jabarah had such remarkable inside knowledge about al-Qaeda and its key players in Southeast Asia that he knew the Americans would want to speak to him in person. At his request, Canadian officials arranged to transfer him to the United States last May.
After news of Mr. Jabarah's case was first publicized in Canada in July, a Toronto newspaper claimed there was no evidence against him and that the only reason Canadians were not outraged by his treatment was that he was Muslim, "not a Jones or a Bouchard." The Canadian Arab Federation and Canadian Civil Liberties Association held a news conference to demand a government probe.
Instead of facilitating his transfer to the U.S., Canada should have "been advising him not to go to the United States where he will get lost in the hellhole of secret detentions, secret evidence and secret hearings," said Raja Khouri, the Arab federation president.
But documents obtained by the National Post under the Access to Information Act support Ottawa's claims that he wanted to go to the United States. According to the documents: "Jabarah voluntarily came to Canada and then voluntarily went to the United States."
Officials say he knew he had two choices: Keep quiet and face criminal charges for terrorism, extradition and possibly a lengthy prison term, or he could co-operate. According to authorities, he chose to talk. One of most dangerous terrorists to emerge from Canada became one of its most valuable contributions to the war on terrorism.
- - -
The inside account that Mr. Jabarah supplied was distributed to police and intelligence services in August, 2002, and some responded by heightening security at their embassies. It was not enough, however, to prevent the worst act of terrorism since Sept. 11.
In Thailand, Hambali had ordered his deputy, Muklas, to plan attacks at places where Western tourists were known to hang out, including nightclubs in Indonesia, Prof. Gunaratna said.
"Ironically, before the Bali tragedy, the U.S. intelligence community communicated this specific threat to Southeast Asian security and intelligence services in August, 2002. However, the Southeast Asian services failed to develop the contact or ground intelligence essential to detect and disrupt a terrorist attack."
Two Canadians, Mervin Popadynec, an oil industry engineer from Wynyrd, Sask., and Rick Gleason, a financial advisor from Vancouver, were vacationing on the Indonesian island paradise of Bali when Hambali's men struck on Oct. 12.
The bombers parked a minivan packed with explosives on the narrow street outside the Sari Club, a nightclub in the city of Kuta that was filled with Western tourists. Flames roared through the club and the building collapsed, killing almost 200.
Mr. Popadynec was killed instantly. Mr. Gleason died later from burns that scorched nearly half his body. A friend recalled him as an adventurous traveller and outdoorsman with a "refined sense of humour." But to the terrorists, they were no more than "White Meat."
- - -
The FBI appears to have completed its interrogation of Mr. Jabarah, but his fate remains uncertain. He celebrated his 21st birthday in detention in December, reportedly at a military base beneath Brooklyn's Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Some officials speculate his New York lawyer, David Wikstrom, has been negotiating a plea bargain with the U.S. Justice Department, but his father said he knew nothing about that. Mr. Wikstrom declined to comment.
The father insisted his son had no advance knowledge of any terrorist plots and called the claims lies. "No, this is false information, 100%, because Mohammed's situation, he doesn't know this kind of information," he said from Kuwait City.
"And in the meantime his wish is now to go back home to Canada to continue his education as a doctor," he said.
"He's an excellent boy."
In the FBI's account of its interrogations, Mr. Jabarah spoke about the bombing plots with cold detachment, sounding like a university student tackling an exam problem.
When he was asked about the bombing plot in Singapore, he said it "would not have been difficult," according to the FBI report. "This embassy is very close to the street and did not have many barriers to prevent the attack," he told the agents.
Asked about the plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Manila, he added that "a plane would be needed to attack this building because the security was very tough."
No mention was made of the lives that would have been lost.
1 June, 2000 Graduates from Holy Cross High School in St. Catharines, Ont. Goes to Kuwait, then Pakistan.
JULY, 2001 Recruited by al-Qaeda because of his "clean" Canadian passport, fluent English and performance in training.
2 August, 2001 In Karachi, meets senior al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheik Mohammad, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Hambali, operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah. Mr. Mohammad gives him US$10,000 and instructs him to organize bombings at the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Manila. "Make sure you leave before Tuesday [Sept. 11]," Mr. Mohammad warns.
3 SEPTEMBER 10, 2001 Flies to Hong Kong to get visas.
4 SEPTEMBER 13, 2001 Three days later, flies to Kuala Lumpur, meets al-Qaeda bomb expert Faiz Bafana, alias Mahmoud, to discuss the bomb plot.
5 SEPTEMBER, 2001 Goes to Makati, Philippines, to meet Fathur Rahman Al Ghozi, alias Saad, who tells Mr. Jabarah he needs more time, money and explosives. They discuss switching the operation to Singapore.
6 OCTOBER 16, 2001 Arrives in Singapore to scout targets, using a Sony video camera. The plot takes shape. Mr. Jabarah intends to pack six trucks with ammonium nitrate. Arab suicide bombers are to arrive to drive them to the targets, which include the U.S. and Israeli embassies, British and Australian high commissions and American businesses.
DECEMBER 9, 2001 Singapore's Internal Security Department arrests members of Mr. Jabarah's cell. Among those caught is Faiz Bafana. Mr. Jabarah receives e-mail titled "Problem."
7 DECEMBER, 2001 Travels to Bangkok and meets with Hambali, who tells him to leave. "It will be a very big hit for us if you're arrested."
8 JANUARY, 2002 Meets for the last time with Hambali and discusses a plot to bomb sites frequented by Western tourists in Indonesia. Goes to Dubai, stays at a hotel and contacts his al-Qaeda boss Mr. Mohammad to tell him he has to run.
9 MARCH, 2002 Goes to Oman, gets arrested.
10 APRIL, 2002 Canadian intelligence agents bring him back to Canada. He wants to go to the United States so he can make a deal.
11 MAY, 2002 CSIS facilitates his transfer to New York.
AUGUST 21, 2002 The FBI issues a confidential intelligence report to its allies based on Mr. Jabarah's confession. Several Western countries put their embassies in Southeast Asia on alert.
12 OCTOBER, 12, 2002 Jemaah Islamiyah detonates truck bombs at a Bali nightclub packed with Western tourists, killing almost 200, including two Canadians. Authorities say Hambali was behind the blast.