In June, anti-terrorism police in this Mediterranean university town arrested Hamid Bach after dawn prayers and allegedly found bomb-making materials in the spacious, government-subsidized apartment where the Moroccan lived with his family. Bach confessed that he had set off to fight in Iraq but instead came home with orders to help carry out a bombing in Italy, police say.
The call to battle reached Wesam Delaema in Amersfoort, a medieval Dutch town where he was captured in May in a raid that turned up homemade propaganda videotapes of a remarkable odyssey. The Iraqi had driven his Opel Omega from Amersfoort more than 2,500 miles to his native Fallouja. A video showed him with masked fighters planting explosives to ambush an American convoy, say U.S. prosecutors, who won an indictment against him this month.
Bach and Delaema came from unexpected hotbeds of holy war: small, provincial cities that epitomize the comfort and serenity that draw immigrants to Western Europe. But stories like theirs are spreading across the continent.
In early 2003, extremists started moving fighters from Europe to Iraq, raising fears of what would happen if and when they came back. Now militants are beginning to return with combat experience, guerrilla-war skills, ideological fervor and leadership status, European and U.S. officials say.
"It's a huge concern," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official who had been in contact with European counterparts. Like others interviewed, the official asked not to be named for security reasons. "It's at the top of the agenda. Everyone's working on the returnees. What are they doing? Who are they?"
Early this year, U.S. intelligence agents issued an alert that Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose network is believed to extend far beyond Iraq, had dispatched teams of battle-hardened operatives to European capitals. Although the London transit bombings in July apparently did not involve Iraq veterans, they were the first suicide attacks in Western Europe — a grim precedent that might encourage others.
Iraq has become a superheated, real-world academy for lessons about weapons, urban combat and terrorist tradecraft, said Thomas Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Extremists in Iraq are "exposed to international networks from around the world," said Sanderson, who has been briefed by German security agencies. "They are returning with bomb-making skills, perhaps stolen explosives, vastly increased knowledge. If they are succeeding in a hostile environment, avoiding … U.S. Special Forces, then to go back to Europe, my God, it's kid's play."
Experts estimate that several hundred extremists from Europe have gone to Iraq. They are believed to be a mix of immigrants and European-born militants. The ranks of foreign fighters are still dominated by Saudis and other Arabs.
Estimates of returning Islamic fighters tend to be even more elusive.
A Dutch intelligence official estimated that 10 to 20 had returned to the Netherlands. German agents have detected at least 50, Sanderson said, including members of a Munich cell charged with helping wounded fighters travel to Europe for treatment. In the Montpellier case, Bach accompanied a veteran of a previous combat stint, one of a handful of suspected Iraq veterans in France.
As Delaema's story reveals, Europe has become a base for recruitment, propaganda, finance and logistics.
Networks in Europe are in frequent, direct communication with insurgents in Iraq. During the two-week ordeal of two Italian humanitarian workers kidnapped in Baghdad in 2004, extremists in Italy assisted the abductors by phone, giving updates and analyses of the Rome government's response, an Italian intelligence official said.
European counter-terrorism investigators, with the close assistance of U.S. agencies, have focused on blocking the flow to and from the war zone. Among increasingly fractured Islamic cells that often operate autonomously, fighters fresh from the front lines are prime candidates for organizing plots, just as veterans of previous conflicts once were.
"Iraq has become the new Chechnya, the new Afghanistan," a top French law enforcement official said. "The concern is that they go, they fight, they come back and they do operations in Europe."
Like thousands of "graduates" of Afghan training camps, they are a moving target. Itinerant fighters cover their tracks. In countries with strong civil rights safeguards, it remains difficult to prosecute someone for participating in a foreign conflict or even training with militants overseas.
The Delaema case, laid out in court documents filed in Washington, illustrates the obstacles. Dutch investigators had wiretapped him, according to court documents, and he provided hard evidence against himself in the videotapes that he filmed in Iraq and distributed among extremists in the Netherlands, officials say.
But the Dutch had become worried that they could not keep him in custody when U.S. authorities hurriedly sought charges under laws covering crimes against Americans overseas. A grand jury in Washington indicted Delaema Sept. 9 — the first U.S. criminal case filed against a suspect accused of insurgent violence in Iraq.
Delaema, 32, was born in Fallouja, according to U.S. court documents. He moved to the Netherlands in the 1990s, said Wim de Bruin, a spokesman for prosecutors. Delaema obtained a Dutch passport and worked as a hairdresser. He learned Dutch well enough to appear as a contestant on the Dutch equivalent of "The Price Is Right," officials say.
Delaema returned to his homeland out of nationalism more than religious zealotry, investigators say.
As the insurgency heated up in October 2003, he trekked across Eastern Europe and Turkey to Iraq in his Dutch-registered Omega, officials say. A fellow Iraqi immigrant who appears in video footage of the trip has also been jailed, De Bruin said.
In Fallouja, Delaema narrated the ambush videotape, explaining the masked militants' tactics and displaying a remote-controlled mine, the documents say.
"Delaema gave a speech in Arabic in which he said that they were the 'Fighters of Fallouja,' " the documents say. "Delaema [said] that they will attack the Americans that day. Delaema claimed that they have done many attacks and that they were successful."
Delaema allegedly made half a dozen trips to Iraq, but investigators are certain of only one trip by car.
Back in Amersfoort, he busied himself with propaganda, recruitment and logistics for the insurgency, the indictment says. Wiretaps recorded phone conversations in which he encouraged fighters in Iraq to film attacks and send him the footage. He allegedly discussed providing camera equipment to them and raising money for relatives of a slain "martyr."
Dutch justice officials will have to decide whether to try him on Dutch charges or allow his extradition to the United States.
Although police found no sign that Delaema planned attacks in Europe, French authorities say they aborted a gathering threat in Montpellier.
The 35-year-old Bach was born in Khemisset, Morocco, and has a wife and three children. He worked part-time as a truck driver and lived in La Paillade, an outlying district that the municipal government of this cheerful, youthful city has striven to keep from becoming a slum.
Maintenance crews were recently at work sprucing up the verdant, sun-splashed street of the housing project where the family lives, near a day-care center, City Hall branch and police substation. Gleaming blue commuter trams glided past a high-ceilinged market offering meat prepared in accordance with Muslim guidelines and counters heaped with figs, dates, olives and apricots. Outside, stands were brimming with discount clothes and appliances. Men sipped tea and chatted in Arabic at a cluster of cafe tables in the center of the bustling market.
Bach was active in the fundamentalist Salafist movement, investigators say. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, Bach took part in meetings around Montpellier at which North Africans said the time had come to defend Islam in Iraq, sources close to the case say.
"You had the whole ideological palette represented at the meetings, from reasonable to rather romantic to violent," said one of the sources. "Bach says that he decided after the invasion of Iraq he could no longer be a spectator. It was his duty as a Muslim to go and fight."
Bach became part of a small group led by Hamza Safi, a fellow Moroccan who had fought in Iraq in 2003, French and Italian investigators say. After returning to Montpellier, Safi remained in phone contact with an insurgent leader in Iraq who had been responsible for numerous deaths there, investigators say.
Safi and Bach traveled to Aleppo, Syria, in June 2004. They stayed with a militant identified as Mohammed whose role was to get them to an insurgent training facility in Iraq, officials say. Most of the approximately 30 militants known to have left France for Iraq went via Syria, often spending time at Koranic schools there that serve as way stations and provide cover stories, a senior French intelligence official said.
Mohammed told Bach to carry out a suicide bombing in the combat zone, say investigators, who describe it as an example of militant leaders' quick, efficient screening of recruits.
Confronted with the idea of dying for the cause, however, Bach lost his nerve. He refused, according to his confession. The operative in Aleppo responded by telling Bach he could do his part by carrying out an attack in France, investigators say. Bach said he objected again but finally agreed when Mohammed ordered him to help extremists plot a bombing in Italy.
"He was told, go back and our brothers in Italy will contact you," a senior Italian counter-terrorism official said.
The case suggests that, in addition to overseeing the insurgency, masterminds in Iraq and Syria are trying to direct operations against Western targets. The threat seems particularly serious in Italy after strikes against Britain in July and against Spain last year. These nations were targeted at least partly because of their presence in Iraq, and Italy is a member of the U.S.-led coalition there.
"The Italians are very fearful because they have troops" in Iraq, the French intelligence official said. "And they are right to be concerned."
Safi kept going to Iraq, where he may have died in combat, investigators say. Bach denies crossing the border, but investigators suspect he may have reached the northern Iraqi city of Mosul before turning around.
In any case, Bach's return to Montpellier unknowingly landed him in the middle of a full-fledged surveillance operation. Police had detected his network thanks to an informant's tip alerting them to the phone conversations between extremists here and in Iraq, officials say.
Police shadowed Bach for some time before arresting him and finding suspected bomb components in his apartment, including electronic circuits, diagrams and 19 containers of oxygenated water, a frequent ingredient in homemade explosives. Bach does not deny that he set out for Iraq to kill Americans, sources close to the case say. But they add that he now says parts of his confession were extracted under duress during a grueling, four-day interrogation process.
He said he stockpiled the oxygenated water as part of medical supplies for charities in Morocco. And he asserted that, during the eighth interrogation, he said what police wanted to hear because they threatened to jail his wife and turn his children over to a welfare agency.
His wife, Achlougi, denied in a June newspaper interview that her husband was capable of violence. But her words seethed with the kind of rage that may be propelling immigrants to Iraq and back again.
"When one sees what is going on [in Iraq], one is furious, one feels hate," she told the Midi Libre newspaper. "We are free to say we feel hatred for the Americans. Afghanistan, tomorrow Syria, after that Iran, that's enough. Something has to happen."