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Europe's Terrorist Incubator

Europe's Terrorist Incubator

Author: Marie-Rose Armesto
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
URL: http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB10316943082556395-search,00.html?coll

What has changed in Europe since September 11, 2001? In at least one European country, not much. A Belgian Islamist cell has recruited young, second-generation Muslims for Osama bin Laden's organization, but no one wants to recognize it officially. The politicians act as if pristine Belgium has nothing to do with terrorism or its operatives. A senior Belgian minister even told me recently: "We are not really concerned, you know. Bin Laden's war is against America, not against us."

There are many troubling aspects to this answer. For one, Belgians are already involved in this war, but sadly in ways that have aided the terrorists. I learned just how crucial Belgium is to the terrorist underworld when I wrote my book, based on testimony from the wife of one of the two terrorists who killed Afghan rebel leader Ahmed Shah Masood two days before 9/11 last year. Masood was an enemy of Osama bin Laden, and his assassination has been seen as a prelude to Sept. 11. His killers carried Belgian passports. Theirs were fakes, but that of the wife was genuine.

The Belgian government has also waved aside the findings of a recent enquiry by the parliament's research committee, which warned that Islamic extremists have successfully "infiltrated political parties." That the Belgian government has chosen to ignore my findings and others' that show how easily terrorists have operated here suggests worse than the usual bureaucratic lethargy. It speaks of a dangerous denial of Belgium's role in incubating the terrorists threatening civilized society. The minister's candid, off-the-record comment thus revealed the source of the complacency.

Belgium, of course, has been a launching pad for Islamic radicals in the past. In the '90s Algeria's Islamic Armed Group was very active here. Today, some of these very same people are involved in Belgium's al Qaeda cells.

These illegal activities are helped by the fact that no fewer than 19,000 Belgian passports were stolen last year. Some of them may be going to non-terrorists, no doubt, but not all. Many suspected al Qaeda members have been arrested with Belgian passports in their pockets, according to press reports. Even one of Mohamed Atta's roommates in Germany, Hosaini, had a Belgian passport. He is now wanted in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

I've been researching Malika and her associates since she herself called me from Pakistan in December to ask me for help getting her out. She had seen me on television and thought my involvement would be some sort of guarantee for her safety. What I was to find out was that she, her husband and his accomplice had not just come from Belgium, but had been radicalized and indoctrinated here in our mosques.

Her husband, Abdessattar Dahmane, had been born in Tunisia and arrived in Belgium in 1988 to study journalism. He never got his degree. According to people who knew him, he was more fond of girls, raggae music and Belgian beer than of studying. "He was a very normal person and he enjoyed life very much" his first wife, Samira, told me.

All that began to change around 1995, according to other witnesses, when Dahmane suddenly grew a beard, began to dress as a traditional Muslim and refused to shake hands with women. Apparently he had found "true Islam" and fell under the sway of radical imams in Brussels' mosques.

It was in one of these centers that Dahmane married Malika in April 1999. She too had undergone a radical transformation. Once she was a rebel who had fled from her traditional Moroccan family because she wanted to live as a Westerner, and even had a child out of wedlock. After indoctrination at the center she began wearing a heavy veil and had a new goal in life: "to defend Islam and fight against the unbelievers."

For several months, Malika and her new husband lived together in a dark little apartment in north Brussels owned by Pakistanis. Dahmane was then identified by the police as a document forger and Belgian special services began to trail him to find out if was linked to a militant Muslim cell. Well, at least the police thought they were trailing him. In effect they were trailing another Dahmane, a local street sweeper. The real one was able to get away to London in May 1999.

He was arrested after British police detected he was traveling with a stolen Belgian passport, but he successfully argued that he was seeking asylum from Tunisia's dictatorship and was placed in a refugee transit center. From there he and an accomplice were able to escape a few days later and flee to Pakistan and then on to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Dahmane underwent intense military training in Darunta, one of bin Laden's main military camps. For nine months he learned how to construct homemade bombs and how to kill. He learned above all that as a soldier of Islam killing "Islam's enemies" was not a crime but a duty.

Belgium is not the only country to have spawned Islamic soldiers, of course. There's the American John Walker Lindh. And when Malika finally joined her husband in Jalalabad she discovered other Western-educated women, some with young children, from France, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Bosnia, there for the same cause. In Jalalabad, they lived as colonists in large comfortable houses at special secured compounds, secluded from Afghans. "Osama bin Laden helped the Arab fighters who reached his movement by offering some facilities," she once told me.

The rest is well-known. Dahmane and another accomplice blew up Masood in a suicide mission while posing as journalists on Sept. 9, 2001. Malika chillingly said to me about Masood: "He came to Europe to ask for arms to kill us. So, we had to stop him." After Sept. 11 Malika went on living in Jalalabad until December. She was captured at one point by Masood's soldiers, but they did not know who she was. She was able to escape with the help of Arab and Taliban brothers in arms and evacuated to Pakistan by the al Qaeda network.

On Dec. 17, I received a phone call from Peshawar, Pakistan from a woman I had never met but who knew me as a reporter on Belgian TV and who said point blank: "My husband killed Masood. My name is Malika. I'm a Belgian citizen. I want to go back to my country. Please, I need help. I prefer to be put in a Belgian jail than be caught by Americans."

She soon surrendered to the Belgian Embassy and two days later, accompanied by a Belgian police officer, she disembarked in Brussels. After being interrogated by special services, she was set free.

The killing of Masood and the implication of the Belgian passport holders in the crime has opened some eyes in the judiciary. Under the direction of Judge Christian De Valkeneer, an inquiry into Masood's assassination has already led to the arrest of at least eight suspects. But even this, according to a senior official at the antiterrorist police, represents only "the tip of the iceberg."

According to Judge De Valkeneer, his biggest worry is that the police's antiterrorist squad is still too small. Malika is still free, though she may not remain so for long as the judge has just charged her with associating with criminals. Belgian justice operates at a painstakingly slow pace, as the world has learned while waiting six years for prosecution of the infamous pedophile, Marc Dutroux.

Looking back on her story, and those of her friends, one finds many of the strands that tie Europe to Sept. 11 and the rest of the world terrorist network. As long as Belgium's politicians remain in denial, Europe's little "capital" will be an attractive base for these sinister transplants.

Ms. Armesto is a Belgian television journalist and the author of the book, "Son Mari a tue Massoud," (Balland, Paris, 2002.)

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