As the recent demise of Osama bin Laden brings a great deal of discussion on the future of al Qaeda, let us not forget that this terrorist organization has often been referred to as an “army of terrorists.” Immediate post 9-11 intelligence analysis indicated that the number of “hard-core” al Qaeda operatives approached 10,000 worldwide. Osama bin Laden’s death will weaken al Qaeda but not cause this “army” to disband. New leadership will emerge, the threat will continue and the danger
remains real.

Because of my DHS/Customs background, I was very interested in the recently released Department of Defense reports on Saifullah Paracha. Saifullah Paracha is currently the oldest (63 years old) of 172 prisoners still detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Paracha was a successful Pakistani businessman, and U.S. legal permanent resident, who operated a textile business and travel agency in the United States for years. He was a trusted member of al Qaeda, meeting directly with bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). Paracha was actively involved in planning post 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the United Kingdom. He was so trusted within al Qaeda that KSM gave him $500,000 in 2002 for “safekeeping.”

Paracha brought a valuable expertise to al Qaeda based upon his experience as a businessman in the textile industry, importing clothing from Pakistan into the United States in containerized cargo. This background allowed him to develop an intimate knowledge of the international shipping business and port security.

Paracha specifically discussed with KSM the use of containerized cargo as a method to smuggle plastic explosives into the United States and the UK concealed in shipments of women’s and children’s clothing. He offered his textile business as a method to cover and facilitate this importation. Plans were progressing to use this method when a number of arrests of al Qaeda operatives delayed the conspiracy until it was ultimately abandoned. Paracha was arrested in Thailand in July 2003.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers the use of containerized cargo to conceal a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) a significant threat. The Paracha case reinforces that belief. The number of containers entering the United States on a daily basis continues to “test” DHS resources designated to track and inspect that cargo.

Just as we wonder who will replace bin Laden, we need to also consider who will replace Paracha. The threat in containerized cargo remains real.