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Terror cells regroup - and now their target is Europe

Terror cells regroup - and now their target is Europe

Author: Antony Barnett, Jason Burke and Zoe Smith
Publication: The Observer
Date: January 11, 2004
URL: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,1120629,00.html

Introduction: Secret intelligence papers from across the continent reveal a growing danger from a widening network of fanatics - and this is a struggle the West cannot lose

They had been watching him for months, aware that his pop star good looks concealed a secret life as one of Europe's new terrorist kingpins. Finally, on a cold winter dawn, the police moved in. Abderrazak Mahdjoub did not resist as armed German officers surrounded his Hamburg home and led him away.

For at least a year, investigators claim, the 30-year-old Algerian had been a key part of a network of Islamic militants dedicated to recruiting and dispatching suicide bombers to the Middle East. Several volunteers had got through, wreaking havoc in a series of attacks in Iraq. Many more were on their way, along with bombers focused on targets in Europe.

Even worse, his associates were planning bombs in Western Europe. At least two European intelligence services had made previous attempts to take Mahdjoub out. Now, finally, it was the Germans' turn. This weekend, just over a month after his arrest, Mahdjoub remains in prison at an undisclosed location. He is likely to remain incarcerated for some time.

Mahdjoub's arrest was a minor victory in a major war being fought, bitterly and secretly, in cities from London to Warsaw, from Madrid to Oslo. It pits the best investigative officers in Europe against a fanatical network of men dedicated to the prosecution of jihad both in Europe and overseas. It is a war security officials know they cannot afford to lose - and that they know they will be fighting for the foreseeable future.

Previously seen as a relative backwater in the war on terror, Europe is now in the frontline. 'It's trench warfare,' said one security expert. 'We keep taking them out. They keep coming at us. And every time they are coming at us harder.'

An investigation by The Observer has revealed the extent of the new networks that Islamic militants have been able to build in Europe since 11 September - despite the massive effort against them. The militants' operations go far beyond the few individuals' activities that sparked massive security alerts over Christmas and the new year. Interviews with senior counter-intelligence officials, secret recordings of conversations between militants and classified intelligence briefings have shown that militants have been able to reconstitute, and even enlarge, their operations in Europe in the past two years. The intelligence seen by The Observer reveals that:

* Britain is still playing a central logistical role for the militants, with extremists, including the alleged mastermind of last year's bombings in Morocco, and a leader of an al-Qaeda cell, regularly using the UK as a place to hide. Other radical activists are using Britain for fundraising, massive credit card fraud, the manufacture of false documents and planning. Recruitment is also continuing. In one bugged conversation, a senior militant describes London as 'the nerve centre' and says that his group has 'Albanians, Swiss [and] British' recruits. He needs people who are 'intelligent and highly educated', he says and implies that the UK can, and does, supply them.

* Islamic terror cells are spreading eastwards into Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic for the first time, prompting fears of a new battleground in countries with weak authorities, powerful criminal gangs and endemic corruption in the years to come.

* Austria has become a central communications hub for Muslim extremists; France has become a key recruiting ground for fighters in Chechnya; and German groups, who often have extensive international links, are developing contacts with Balkan mafia gangs to acquire weapons.

The investigation has also revealed that, despite moves by the government there to crack down, Saudi Arabia remains the key source of funds for al-Qaeda and related militant groups.

Investigators stress that most of the European cells are autonomous, coming together on an ad hoc basis to complete specific tasks. To describe them as 'al-Qaeda' is simplistic. Instead, sources say, the man most of these new Islamic terror networks look to for direction is Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamic militant who some analysts believe was behind the recent Istanbul suicide bombings against British targets and synagogues. Though he follows a similar agenda to Osama bin Laden, the 37-year-old Zarqawi has always maintained his independence from the Saudi-born fugitive. Last week, his developing stature in global Islamic militancy was reinforced when he issued his first-ever public statement, an audiotape calling on God to 'kill the Arab and the foreign tyrants, one after another'.

Zarqawi is believed to be in Iran or Iraq. However European investigators have discovered that one of his key lieutenants is an Iraqi Kurd known only as Fouad, a cleric based in Syria, who handles the volunteer suicide bombers sent from Europe to launch attacks in Iraq.

Italian investigators made the first breakthrough in the hunt for Zarqawi's operatives. Just after 10pm on the evening of 15 June, 2002, an unidentified Arab visitor from Germany - believed to be a senior figure in the militants' network - arrived at a mosque in the Via Quaranta, Milan. He began by warning the mosque's Egyptian imam, Abu Omar, about increased surveillance. He was unaware that Italian police were listening to his every word.

Transcripts obtained by The Observer reveal that the visitor spoke of a project needing 'intelligent and highly educated people'. Already, the visitor said, that 'where the jihad part is concerned there was a battalion of 25 to 26 units'. It is these 'units', believed by investigators to mean potential suicide bombers, that the authorities knew they had to find.

The visitor then began a review of recent developments. He stressed that 'the thread begins in Saudi Arabia', where the bulk of funds apparently still comes from. 'Don't ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia's money is your money,' the visitor says. He then refers to recent 'confidential' meetings in Eastern Europe with Islamic militant leaders.

'Now Europe is controlled via air and land, but in Poland and Bulgaria and countries that aren't part of the European Community everything is easy,' he says. 'First of all they are corrupt, you can buy them with dollars...[Secondly] they are less-controlled countries, there aren't too many eyes.'

The man named Austria as a launch pad for attacks. 'The country from which everything takes off is Austria. There I met all of the sheikhs and all our brothers are there ... it has become the country of international communications. It has become the country of contacts.'

Poland is a particularly important location too, the man says and names a 'Sheikh Abd al-Aziz', before boasting: 'His organisation is stunning.'

After translating the conversation, held in Arabic, Italian investigators immediately relayed the information to counterparts elsewhere in Europe. The British security services swung into action. The transcripts also reveal the continuing importance of London.

'The nerve centre is still London,' the man says and hints that there are many recruits from the UK: 'We have Albanians, Swiss [and] British.'

The role of the UK was reinforced when, last April, 29-year-old Somali-born Cabdullah Ciise was arrested in Milan days after arriving from London, where he had fled to escape Italian investigators months earlier. The Italians suspect him of financing a terror cell involved in the car bomb attack on Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya in November 2002. According to Italian court documents, Ciise transferred money from Great Britain to Somalia through Dubai.

He is also accused of being an important member of Zarqawi's international terrorist organisation. A year earlier, in May 2002, Faraj Farj Hassan, the suspected leader of an Islamic terrorist cell in Milan, was arrested in Harrow, west London, where he had taken refuge with a relative who had political asylum. Hassan, 23, was arrested for immigration offences and is believed to still be held in Belmarsh high security prison awaiting extradition to Italy.

And last November, an Algerian-born British national from west London was arrested after travelling to Poland. He was the subject of an Algerian arrest warrant alleging his involvement in a terrorist group.

When the Italians arrested Ciise they put him in the same cell as another Islamic radical known as 'Mera'i'. Again, the conversation was bugged; it gives a chilling insight into the mind of a hardened militant.

Mera'i tells Ciise that he hates their jailers: 'They like life, I want to be a martyr, I live for jihad. In this life there is nothing, life is afterward, the indescribable sensation of dying a martyr.'

Then the pair talk about the Syrian-based cleric Fouad, whom they describe as the 'gatekeeper' to Iraq. Other transcripts reveal conversations between Fouad and Mera'i about how they had organised the flow of 'brothers' to Iraq via the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo. British suicide bombers who died in Israel last year travelled through both cities. One of the network's recruits is believed to have been involved in the rocket attack in October against the Baghdad hotel where Paul Wolfowitz, the American deputy Secretary of Defence, was staying. One phone call between the two reveals Mera'i telling Fouad that: 'This week more guests will be arriving ... they are good people.' Fouad replies: 'I want those that are awake and prepared ... I want those who will strike the earth and make iron rise out of it ... I'm looking for those that were in Japan [ie, kamikaze or suicide bombers].'

The Italian investigation yielded important intelligence and the focus shifted to Germany. After 11 September, authorities there had concentrated on rounding up all those connected with the 'Hamburg cell' who had led the attacks on New York and Washington. Soon, however, they came across a group known as 'al-Tauhid' (the unitarians) which posed as grave a threat. Al- Tauhid were loyal to Zarqawi; indeed, many of their key personnel had trained in his camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

According to an intelligence dossier compiled last year by German criminal intelligence, the link between the Italian network and the German cells was a 30-year-old Palestinian called Mansour Thaer. Another connection was a Turk called Mevluet Tar, a 23-year-old who spoke fluent German. Both were quickly picked up.

The dossier lists a dozen senior al-Tauhid operatives in Germany. Most were involved in the provision of false passports or spent their time raising and transferring funds to fighters in the Middle East. But others, many still at large, were involved in plotting bomb attacks against Jewish targets in Western Europe. At least one militant liaised with Albanian mafia gangs in a bid to obtain weapons, the dossier reveals. Only a handful of the individuals named in the document have been arrested.

Last week there were more arrests. In Paris a group alleged to be recruiting fighters for the war in Chechnya was picked up. In Switzerland a series of raids broke up an alleged support and fundraising network which had connections to the men who set off bombs in Riyadh last May. In Spain, a favoured entry point into Europe for North African militants, investigators continue to chase down terrorists linked to cells rounded up earlier.

A Moroccan cleric called Mohammed al-Garbuzi, whom local authorities claim was a key figure in the Casablanca bombings last May, is believed to be at large in the UK. Scotland Yard last week warned leaders of the Jewish community that the threat 'remained high'. Senior British police officers said they are aware that millions of pounds are being raised in the UK by credit card fraud for Islamic militant groups.

'We act when we can,' said one police source. 'But we are stretched enough going after the clear and immediate threats, let alone their back-up.'

Security experts stress that the campaign to prevent another major bomb attack in Western Europe has got no easier since major round-ups after 11 September. 'We are dealing with something that is organic, not mechanical,' one told The Observer . 'You can't remove a part and watch it all break down. It's more like fungus. Burn some away and it just keeps growing somewhere else.'

The targets, the death toll and the suspects

Istanbul November 2003, 62 dead
Target: British consulate and bank, synagogues
Suspect: Local Islamic group thought to be linked to al-Qaeda or Abu Musab Zarqawi

Baghdad August-October 2003, 50 dead
Target: Al-Rasheed hotel, UN and Red Cross headquarters.
Suspect: European suicide bombers believed to have been recruited by Mullah Fouad in Syria.

Casablanca May 2003, 41 dead
Target: Jewish community centre and Spanish social club
Suspect: Local Islamic group. The authorities want to interview a Moroccan cleric, Mohammed al-Garbuzi, who is believed to be in Britain.

Riyadh May 2003, 34 dead
Target: Luxury compounds in Saudi capital
Suspect: Swiss arrest an eight-strong 'logistics cell'.

Mombasa November 2002, 16 dead
Target: Israeli tourists at Paradise hotel
Suspect: Kenyan Islamic cell. Some funds allegedly provided by a Somali-born militant living in London, arrested in Milan and 'a part of Zarqawi's cell'.

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