International investigators say they have evidence of a North African terrorist network loosely federated with Islamic militant Osama bin Laden that poses serious new security problems for the United States.
A clearer view of this North African network, primarily composed of Algerians, emerged in recent months from informants, intercepted communications and evidence seized in a series of foiled attacks, including the 1999 arrest of would-be Los Angeles International Airport bomber Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who lived in Montreal.
U.S. counter-terrorism agencies had been focused on Middle East groups linked to Saudi financier Bin Laden, who is wanted in connection with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. But the chance discovery of the Algerian-led bomb plot targeting LAX galvanized European and North American agencies to move aggressively against suspected North African terror cells. A spate of arrests has followed from Germany to Canada. And more are expected.
Since Ressam’s arrest, no plot by any North African cell has succeeded, a record attributed to good luck and terrorist mistakes. A nervous Ressam, for example, was searched during a routine U.S.-Canada border stop and was discovered to be carrying bomb materials.
But “the Algerian terrorist cell network has become . . . particularly aggressive to us right now, and they’re becoming more of a threat to the West than was previously thought,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official.
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a top French anti-terrorism coordinator who testified against Ressam in a Los Angeles federal court in April, said that when he visited the U.S. he was “surprised by the low level of public awareness compared to the high level of the threat” Americans face from the Algerian cells.
Testifying in the New York trial of an accused accomplice, Ressam said his colleagues are intent on exporting violence to U.S. soil.
“If one is to carry out an operation, it would be better to hit the biggest enemy. I mean America,” he told a federal jury. Ressam also identified a number of other Algerian terrorists who had been part of his original attack team, most of whom remain at large.
Today, counter-terrorism officials are pooling data, decoding seized documents, gathering and translating wiretap recordings and assembling information about the associates of terrorism suspects on at least four continents.
“We are very concerned especially about security” for the Group of 8 economic summit in Genoa later this month, said one Italian diplomatic source.
The cells have proved difficult to monitor because they appear to operate independently despite their various links to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization.
For example, though many of the Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans and Moroccans have been trained at Bin Laden-run facilities in Afghanistan, once they leave the camps the North Africans are believed to be picking their own targets and carrying out their attacks with little direct assistance.
Many of the groups dissolve after an action or encounters with police, and members form new cells in new locales under new identities, frustrating efforts to track and detect dangerous operatives, authorities concede.
‘Always New People, New Targets’
One senior European counter-terrorism official compared the Islamic terrorist groups to the AIDS virus, “mutating all the time. As soon as we understand a situation, in six months’ time it’s irrelevant. . . . There’s always new people, new targets--it’s constantly changing.”
Evolution of an Algerian-flavored terrorist threat against the U.S. seemed to catch American intelligence officials by surprise. It grew out of the Algerian military’s decision in 1992 to cancel elections that a popular Islamic coalition was poised to win. The military coup was scarcely opposed by the previous Bush administration, which was focused on events in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Washington saw Algeria’s suspended elections as an internal matter with implications only for the region. Within two years, however, terrorist violence spilled over into France.
Now, as Ressam and others arrested in the LAX bomb plot have testified, radical Muslims of many national origins have come to view the U.S. in the same harsh terms as Bin Laden: as Islam’s “greatest enemy.”
At a conference of Western intelligence officials a few weeks ago in Algeria, the Ressam case and evidence uncovered by recent arrests in Germany convinced many intelligence officials that the nature of Islamic terrorism has changed, according to a European law enforcement official familiar with the meetings.
Much of the confidential discussions focused on the rise of “informal terrorist cells” of North Africans that appear to have grown out of support networks originally intended to smuggle funds and weapons to insurgents in Algeria, the law enforcement source said.
Although the cells appear to be independent, he said comparisons of groups in Canada and across Europe showed they were linked by common participants, communications and shared training experiences in Bin Laden-run camps--learning about explosives and armaments, urban warfare, sabotage, political assassination and other guerrilla techniques.
Citing other similarities, the official noted: “They undertake the same kinds of operations. Members are the same age, often from the same part of Algeria. And they share an involvement in common crimes--such as stealing laptop computers and cell phones, and bank and credit card fraud--to support their activities.”
Another thing they share, say counter-terrorism officials, is a common objective: to kill as many people as possible for the greatest media impact. One intelligence analyst called it “McVeigh terrorism,” a reference to Timothy J. McVeigh, who killed 168 people in a single bomb blast in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Last December, German police in Frankfurt arrested two Algerian and two Iraqi men on the eve of what they said was a planned bomb assault across the Rhine River in Strasbourg, France. Explosives, detonators and an arsenal of weapons were seized along with an amateur videotape eerily narrated by the suspected terrorists as the camera panned a crowded outdoor Christmas market, a cathedral and other possible targets.
The German investigation got a boost last month when Spanish authorities, acting on a French arrest warrant, apprehended and jailed Mohammed Bensakhria, an Algerian who investigators say was a leader of the Frankfurt terrorist cell.
Discovery of the explosives and weapons in Frankfurt increased the urgency of counter-terrorism efforts across Europe at the beginning of this year. British authorities launched Operation Odin, zeroing in on a London group believed to be a contact point for terrorist operatives in Europe and a recruitment center for North Africans to train in the Bin Laden camps.
In February, police in London detained 11 men--most of them Algerians--on terrorism, fraud and forgery charges. Wiretaps had revealed that members of the London and Frankfurt groups had been in close contact at the same time the Strasbourg bomb plot was being planned.
One of the men arrested in London and currently fighting extradition to France was Mustafa Labsi, a former roommate of Ressam in Montreal. Labsi is believed to have accompanied Ressam to Afghanistan for terrorist training.
Another of the London detainees was Abu Doha, who authorities believe is a key figure in the North African jihad network. In court testimony last week, Ressam named Doha as one of his contacts in the LAX bomb plot.
A senior American official said, without amplification, that Ressam has told investigators he received “instruction” from Doha while preparing his foiled attack on the Los Angeles airport.
British authorities have since released Doha, a move that puzzles some European officials. The crown prosecutor’s office discontinued Doha’s case, a procedure that permits its reopening if new information is developed. The office declined comment on the matter.
Seized from the Doha’s flat were 200 propaganda videocassettes about the jihad in Chechnya, 100 black berets, a telescopic rifle sight and blank Italian, French and Spanish passports, according to an inventory prepared by Scotland Yard.
British authorities also confiscated a credit card duplicating machine, laminating equipment, 20 credit cards, a series of passport photos depicting Doha in various guises and a large amount of cash in British pounds and Spanish pesetas.
U.S. officials are particularly interested in Doha, whom intelligence sources regard as an important player in the moujahedeen (holy warrior) network in Britain.
“He gets people to go to the Afghan camps, gets money for [North African terrorist] groups and assists in the trafficking of false documents,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official who also said Doha operates independently from Bin Laden.
“Is he plugged into [Bin Laden’s] network? Absolutely. But is he on the payroll? I doubt it,” the U.S. official said.
Even before Ressam’s public testimony linking Doha to the LAX bomb plot, European intelligence sources also had confirmed that the London-based Algerian was in regular contact with one of Bin Laden’s chief lieutenants, Abu Jaffar in Peshawar.
“We do know . . . that Abu Doha was recruiting people for Abu Jaffar,” said one intelligence source citing a conversation known to Western agents in which Jaffar pleaded with Doha: “Why don’t you send me more fighters?”
Ties to Bin Laden Training Camp
Ressam, who said he attended Bin Laden’s Khalden training camp with as many as 30 other Algerians in 1998, was carrying Jaffar’s coded telephone number when he was arrested by U.S. Customs Service agents.
And former Ressam roommate Labsi, who remains in British custody on a French warrant charging him with conspiracy to bomb a police station in Lille, France, during the Group of 7 summit in March 1996, remains under investigation by U.S. and European authorities looking into the LAX and Strasbourg plots.
One Western European official characterized Labsi as an important fixture in the region’s North African terrorist network.
“We found Labsi everywhere,” the official said. “He is an operations man. He’s not a thinker but a fighter.”
In testimony, Ressam said he was relying on colleagues to help him in his plot to attack LAX. However, when Labsi and a colleague were stopped by British immigration authorities, Ressam said, he was forced to improvise and recruit other accomplices without a background in terrorist camp training.
Neither Doha nor Labsi has been charged publicly in connection with the LAX bomb plot.
Also arrested but later released in London was Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, an ethnic Palestinian twice convicted in absentia by Jordan on terrorist charges. Also known as Abu Qatada, Omar is an Islamic religious leader who has issued fatwas, or religious edicts, sanctioning terrorist attacks in support of Algerian causes. He also has championed Muslim fighting groups from Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, helping steer them to Bin Laden training camps, intelligence sources said.
In April, Italian police, after consultation in Washington, arrested five Tunisians in Milan accused of operating still another logistical support group for Islamic terrorists.
Italian officials said the Milan group falsified documents for North African immigrants recruited in Europe for jihad training in Afghanistan. Some also were recruited to reinforce Muslim fighters in war zones such as Chechnya, where Islamic insurgents are resisting Russian forces.
The Milan cell may have had contacts with 40 or 50 other Islamist recruiters in Europe, according to Italian investigating magistrate Stefano D’Ambrosio in a published report. The Milan group had also been in contact with the Frankfurt terrorist cell, officials told The Times, and authorities feared that the Tunisians might also be planning a terrorist action.
Over the last year, Tunisian jihadists have been trying to form a unified fighting group, and their increasing militancy has alarmed counter-terrorism officials. Like the Algerians, they share goals similar to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group and may work together at times, though operating independently, officials said.
“The Tunisians are a threat,” said one Western European intelligence analyst. “They are all over Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Although the threat of North African militants is freshly perceived by the U.S. and most European countries, the French have been zealously tracking many of its key members for years.
For French investigators, the Ressam case actually began in 1996--more than three years before the Algerian was arrested at the U.S.-Canada border. The French were investigating Ressam and two of his Montreal roommates--Labsi and Said Atmani--for allegedly trafficking in false passports and other documents for Islamic militants in Canada, Europe and Turkey.
In October 1999, French Magistrate Bruguiere flew to Montreal to press Canadian officials to search the residences of Ressam, Labsi, Atmani and other Algerian expatriates. His formal request for a Canadian search warrant had been pending since the spring of 1999, but French officials complained that the Ottawa government was “unhelpful” and skeptical that the Montreal Algerians were dangerous.
At the same time, French investigators suspected several Canada-based Algerians of conspiracy in prior terrorist bomb attacks in France.
Ironically, as negotiations between the French and Canadian governments dragged on, Ressam was acquiring the components for a bomb he planned to detonate on the eve of the millennium in a crowded LAX passenger terminal.
Searches finally were conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in October and yielded the names of key members of the Algerian network in London and Pakistan who Ressam would later say had trained and guided him in his terrorist mission. Police also uncovered forged documents and stolen Belgian passports traced to a batch used by other terrorists in the network to move between countries under false names.
Ressam left Montreal in the fall to finish assembling his bomb in Vancouver. But the search results apparently spooked Canadian authorities who feared a terrorist attack in Montreal. A few weeks later, local police were alerted to watch public transit centers and other sensitive sites.
In December, about the time Ressam was arrested at the U.S. border, Montreal police detected members of the Algerian group casing a subway station in the heart of the city near McGill University. At least three Algerians identified as suspected Ressam associates were recorded by security cameras taking videotapes of the central station, according to a Canadian law enforcement official involved in the investigation. He did not identify the Algerians caught on the surveillance tapes.
“No one got much sleep for the next two weeks,” the official said, recalling the extra police security maintained throughout Montreal until the new year arrived without terrorist incident.
Ressam Convicted in Los Angeles
In the U.S., Ressam’s capture prompted authorities to launch one of the biggest dragnets in years. Hundreds of Algerians were stopped and questioned in major cities and border regions across the country.
Ressam was convicted of terrorist activity by a Los Angeles federal jury in April and could face up to 140 years in prison. He since has agreed to cooperate with investigators in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Ressam’s cooperation and the spate of arrests involving North Africans in Europe provide substantial evidence that there is more than Bin Laden in the jihad terrorist threat to the U.S.
“Bin Laden exists, but he is not responsible for all that happens,” said one European counter-terrorism official. “It is a big forest and he is but one tree--a big one and a dangerous one, but there are others big and dangerous as well.”