Exposing Al Qaeda's European Network

by Charles M. Sennott
The Boston Globe
August 4, 2002


TARAGONA, Spain - It was in the middle of July 2001 when Mohamed Atta came to this industrial city on the Spanish Gold Coast to meet with Marwan Al-Shehhi and several other Arab men.

Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, had flown from Miami to Madrid, then had driven 350 miles in a rental car, staying in roadside motels along the way. He and Al-Shehhi, a pilot from the United Arab Emirates, eventually led the hijackings out of Logan Airport.

Spanish and US investigators now think the Taragona meeting was one of the final planning sessions for the Al Qaeda cell. What is known about it is in a 700-page report by Spanish authorities, the product of several years of wiretaps of Islamic militants.

The report has become instrumental in showing how Al Qaeda methodically built a European network before executing the devastating attacks of last year. Excerpts of the report, reviewed by the Globe, trace the precise movements of the core Al Qaeda cells in Europe. Among the findings:

The cell that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, along with several others in Europe, made up a network that relied on clusters of religiously motivated Muslims from North Africa who had settled in Spain in the mid-1990s.

The planners of the Sept. 11 attacks traveled extensively across Europe to elude law enforcement.

To this day, Europe remains Al Qaeda's forward position for logistics, financing, and recruitment in Osama bin Laden's war against the United States and the West.

An 11-month dragnet across Europe has resulted in the arrests and questioning of more than 200 people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda, in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, England, and the Netherlands. The arrests disrupted the infrastructure of the organization, US and European officials say.

But top counterterrorism officials in Europe say they believe Al Qaeda is still actively recruiting and preparing for attacks in Europe. Officials also warn that to perceive the threat as coming only from Al Qaeda is a mistake, since the group is reorganizing.

''That September 11th emanates out of Europe is not an accident or an aberration,'' said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the chief French antiterrorism judge, who for 20 years has been at the forefront of tracking down and arresting Islamic militants in France and across Europe. ''It is the result of a long evolution that had gone ignored by law enforcement, by the government, by the US, by Europe, the media, and the public.

''Europe was and still is where the logistical core lies,'' Bruguiere said. ''I am not a psychic, but I believe there will be an attack on the West, and that it is likely to be an American target here in Europe.''

David Veness, director of the Scotland Yard's counterterrorism unit, also sees evidence that Al Qaeda is trying to reconstitute itself. In Britain, he says, the threat has increased because of London's cooperation with the United States in the war in Afghanistan and because of recent British crackdowns on Islamic militants.

The work of the Spanish investigators, US officials say, is a case study of a post-Sept. 11 spirit of cooperation in international law enforcement, after decades of independence and secretiveness among investigative agencies in Europe and the United States.

For years, it seems, Al Qaeda played off that divisiveness. It also exploited other facets of European life. Police surveillance is less severe in Europe than in the Middle East, and the European Union's open borders offer mobility for those trying to elude investigators.

Striking a balance between democracy and security in Europe has become critically important, experts say, given the belief that Al Qaeda cells are still active.

Interviews with investigators, terrorism experts, and Muslim clerics in Europe paint a picture of Al Qaeda cells in Germany, Spain and Britain penetrating established mosques and recruiting Muslims who often hold citizenship or longtime residency in the host countries.

Cells in Italy, meanwhile, have developed logistical expertise. An Al Qaeda cell in Milan, for example, is believed to have created a cottage industry in supplying false passports and other bogus documents, European intelligence officials say. Based on wiretaps of the Milan Al Qaeda cell from late 1999 through the summer of 2001, Italian authorities say, Al Qaeda operatives were brought into Europe from camps in Afghanistan; others may have entered the United States using false documents.

The Spanish Al Qaeda cells appear to have focused on facilitating travel for operatives, even handling matters as specific as providing malaria pills to those who were headed to training camps in Afghanistan. Spain was also one of Al Qaeda's financial centers. Spanish authorities say they have tracked almost $200,000 in money transfers through a network of businesses that financed operations.

The key Al Qaeda coordinator in Spain, authorities say, was a Spanish citizen of Syrian origin named Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, also known as Abu Dahdah. A transcript of a November 2001 interview of Yarkas by Baltasar Garzon, a judge on Spain's high court who has headed an investigation into Al Qaeda for two years, indicates that numerous lines to Sept. 11 principals passed through the self-proclaimed businessman.

His phone number was found in a notebook belonging to Said Bahaji, who shared a Hamburg apartment with Atta and who, German authorities say, was part of the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks. Atta had made at least one prior trip to Spain, in January 2001 when, investigators say, he met with Yarkas.

The groundwork for Al Qaeda's network in Europe was laid in the early 1990s by Islamic militant groups from North Africa. In the forefront was the Islamic Group of Algeria. After an Islamic fundamentalist party won a parliamentary majority in 1992 in Algeria only to see a military-backed regime seize power, the group stepped up a guerrilla movement and began targeting France, Algeria's former colonial ruler. That's when the group began to establish logistical support networks in border countries such as Spain and Germany, and across the English Channel in Britain.

''Ninety percent of the Al Qaeda cells in Europe are North African and emerge out of the Salafist school of Islam,'' said Magnus Ranstorp, director of research at St. Andrew's University Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Ranstorp recently briefed US and European investigators on the background of Al Qaeda's recruitment and development in Europe.

The Salafist school is a fiery puritanical form of Islam that seeks to restore what its believers see as the true essence of an Islamic society, including the reestablishment of a caliphate and the imposition of Islamic law. They believe that the secular governments in Algeria and Morocco are corrupt and anti-Islamic, and that they must be overthrown.

In 1994 and 1995, when the Islamic Group of Algeria was carrying out attacks in France, the Salafists of Algeria formed an alliance with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Essentially, they were becoming ''part of a franchising company known as Al Qaeda,'' one senior French investigator said. This effectively handed bin Laden a well-established network of cells to carry out a broader jihad, not just against France and Algeria's military-backed government, but one that worked with a confederacy of insurgencies from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Indonesia, Yemen, and other Muslim countries, all of which would now focus their rage on the United States.

One of the doctrines that emerges out of the Salafist school is ''Taqiyyeh,'' Arabic for a process of concealment of true beliefs to confuse the enemy. Understanding Taqiyyeh, Ranstorp says, is at the heart of understanding why law enforcement has not fully laid bare the European staging area for the Sept. 11 attacks.

The key cell that formed along these lines came together in Hamburg. The arrest of seven Al Qaeda suspects there on July 3, German authorities say, illustrated a brazen attempt by the terrorist network to regroup under the noses of German law enforcement officials in Hamburg.

The man believed to have founded the Hamburg cell is Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 41, a German citizen of Syrian origin and a former locksmith. Authorities say he played a critical role in linking Atta with Al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan. German authorities had been trailing Zammar in the months before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he is believed to have slipped away and into Morocco.

In June, The Washington Post reported that Zammar had been secretly arrested in Morocco - with the knowledge of the US government - and had been flown to Syria, where he was being questioned, and where the information from the questioning was being passed to US investigators.

If Zammar is talking, as European and US officials suggest he is, he may help authorities understand how such sophisticated cells were developed in Europe. German officials privately wonder if the United States was so eager to get that information that it allowed Zammar to flee Germany, knowing that his interrogation and his possible extradition might be easier in Syria.

Spain's police report, despite its insights, may be excluded from the US case against the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. Spanish law, like that of most European Union countries, prevents any information gathered by its law enforcement agencies to be used in a death penalty case, such as Moussaoui's.

Still, the work done by Spain's investigators and its antiterrorism judge, US officials say, is now considered essential to understanding Al Qaeda.

Gustavo Aristegui, head of a Spanish parliamentary foreign affairs and intelligence committee, said the report ''reveals that Spain has a deeper understanding of militant and moderate Islam than most countries in Europe.''

''We have to know how Al Qaeda sees the world in order to fight against it,'' added Aristegui, the son of a diplomat who was assassinated by Syrian extremists. He has devoted much of his life to studying Islam.

The Al Qaeda operatives who gathered in Taragona a year ago had to look past racy billboards and the modern sprawl of chemical refineries and industrial ports to see the ruins of the golden age of Islam.

There is also a massive Universal Studios amusement park called Port Aventura, where the eight-loop roller coaster, billed as unique in Europe, twists and turns in bright orange lines across the sky.

A man who fit the description of Al-Shehhi arrived at the ticket window of Port Aventura on July 17, 2001. He told a clerk, ''I have four hours and I want to really use it,'' according to a section of the Spanish Al Qaeda report.

The man asked about ''the most extreme rides.'' At the time, the amusement park's electronic arcade featured a ''Far West'' section - with a replica of an American town and a game similar to a flight simulator.

The game has been removed by management, employees said, but Spanish investigators theorize that Al-Shehhi may have passed time there as he made his journey through the adventure park amid the shrieking of European tourists willing to pay for a moment of terror on a wild roller coaster ride.

 

Globe correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.

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