Probe Links Syria, Terror Network
Syria has functioned as a hub for an Al Qaeda network that moved Islamic extremists and funds from Italy to northeastern Iraq, where the recruits fought alongside the recently defeated Ansar al Islam terrorist group, according to an Italian investigation.
The investigation, which began last year, could intensify the growing debate about Syria’s alleged ties to terrorism.
Two weeks ago, Italian police arrested seven alleged Al Qaeda operatives. They were charged with sending about 40 extremists through Syria to terrorist bases operated jointly by Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam, whose stronghold in northeast Iraq was recently overrun by Kurdish and U.S. troops.
Transcripts of wiretapped conversations among the suspected operatives and others paint a detailed picture of overseers in Syria coordinating the movement of recruits and money between Europe and Iraq, according to court documents obtained by The Times.
An Italian judicial order dated March 31 said the conversations show that a Kurdish spiritual leader, identified as Mullah Fuad, was the respected “gatekeeper in Syria for volunteers intent on reaching Iraq.”
Mullah Fuad and others based near Damascus gave orders to the suspects in Italy, authorities said. On March 23, a caller from Syria identified as Abdullah instructed an Egyptian in Milan to do all he could to procure fraudulent documents for an accused Somali terrorist, according to authorities.
“When he contacts you, be at his complete disposal,” said Abdullah, according to a transcript of the wiretapped conversation. “Anything he asks, give it to him. Anything he needs, get it for him.”
“I’m at your orders, God willing,” replied the Egyptian, identified as Rady Ayashi. He was arrested a week later as he attempted to flee to Syria.
Italian investigators say that they have no evidence that the Syrian government was aware of the network or protected it, and that they hope to get help with the case from Syrian authorities. Still, the activity of the alleged terror network raises questions because the Syrian government has aggressive security services that would likely be aware of extremists operating in their territory.
“We are not interested in the politics of it,” an Italian law enforcement official said Thursday. “The investigation shows that there were several leaders in Syria. That’s the bottom line.”
Syria has lent a hand to the U.S.-led crackdown on Al Qaeda that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In an unusual act of cooperation with U.S. authorities, Syrian agents in late 2001 arrested and interrogated a Syrian German accused of recruiting Mohamed Atta and other Sept. 11 hijackers. Yet Syria also has long been accused of aiding and protecting Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
As rumblings of a coming U.S. war on Iraq increased late last year, Italian police detected increased phone contact between suspects in Italy and the Ansar terrorist training camps in Iraq. Ansar’s struggle against Kurdish forces had become the new cause for aspiring holy warriors among Europe’s Muslim immigrant populations. Street surveillance in Milan, Cremona and Parma, and phone intercepts assisted by U.S. intelligence agents, helped Italian police track recruiters and the extremists they sent off to the camps.
The conversations soon indicated that the route to the terrorist stronghold in Kurdistan led through Syria. On Feb. 27, Ayashi, the Egyptian in Milan, talked with a Kurd in Parma about a group of recruits whose progress they were monitoring, according to a transcript.
“No, no, one moment, they are in Syria, in Aleppo, not in Sulaymaniya,” Ayashi said. “They are in a hotel called Ragdan.”
The Kurd, Mostafa Amin Mohamed, gave Ayashi a satellite phone number that U.S. agents identified as belonging to operatives at the Ansar al Islam camps, according to court documents. The two suspects agreed to alert the Ansar contact that the men were en route, then give the recruits further instructions.
“I’ll tell them to leave Aleppo for Iraq,” Ayashi said.
“No, listen to me, you have to tell them they need to go to Damascus first and they have to be careful, very careful.” responded Mohamed, who was later arrested.
Ensuing conversations made references to Mullah Fuad in Syria as the point man for recruits bound for Iraq, investigators say. A wiretap March 5 picked up a recruiter in Parma giving Fuad’s Syrian number to a Tunisian wanting to help a “brother” make the trip.
On March 16, a Tunisian in one of the Ansar camps called the Parma recruiter via satellite phone to ask for money, according to the transcript.
“I have sent so many transfers through Mullah Fuad and they always got there, no problem,” the recruiter said. “He’s an upright person.” Police subsequently arrested the recruiter.
Italian investigators are still trying to identify Mullah Fuad and the other suspects in Syria. Police have the mullah’s voice on tape during a conversation with Ayashi on March 30 that, investigators say, shows that extremists were traveling from Italy to Syria after the war began.
“Listen ... this week you’ll be getting guests,” Ayashi said.
“I’m in agreement, but the guests better be alert and prepared,” Fuad said.
“No, good people with good intentions.”
“I don’t need good men, I need alert people who are prepared ... ,” Fuad said.
In addition to the mullah, Italian investigators are keenly interested in a North African suspect in Syria named Abderrazak. He figured in wiretapped conversations with two of the now-arrested suspects: Cabdullah Ciise, a Somali who allegedly has ties to the attacks on Israeli tourists in Kenya in November, and Mohamed Daki, an accused Moroccan document forger who is an admitted associate of members of the Hamburg cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. Abderrazak also could have ties to the Hamburg cell, Italian investigators say.
Abderrazak acted as a long-distance coordinator for Ciise, who came to Milan from London on March 24 in search of fraudulent documents, according to the transcripts. Ciise addressed Abderrazak respectfully as “Sheik.” The Somali complained that the operatives in Milan seemed slow and untrustworthy; Abderrazak told him that the Milan group had orders to give him money and fake documents, according to the transcript.
“Are you sure they aren’t spies?” Ciise asked.
“No, don’t get strange ideas in your head,” Abderrazak answered.
Six days later, Abderrazak tried to calm a panicked Daki, who told him the police were closing in, according to the transcript.
“Listen to me. Stay calm and ignore them completely; pretend there’s nothing wrong,” Abderrazak said. “Behave normally. Don’t think about them too much.”
Daki asked him about getting visas, apparently in order to escape from Europe, and Abderrazak responded: “For the visas I’ll call you this evening and give you a number you can call, understand? Don’t worry. Take it easy. Later, we’ll see about it. Don’t ruin everything.”
Days later, all seven suspects in Italy were behind bars. During a wiretapped conversation in a police holding cell April 1, Ayashi and Ciise talked about traveling to Syria and Iran and described Mullah Fuad and Abderrazak as leaders and as wanted fugitives, according to court documents.
“For me, their target is Mullah Fuad,” said Ayashi, adding moments later: “They want the boss.”