Days before the fall of the Ansar al Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq last month, an alleged Ansar militant named Noureddine Drissi got an urgent call on his satellite phone from his imam.
The call came from an unlikely place: this comfortable northern Italian town of 70,000 known for its 13th century bell tower, Christmas sweets and violin-making workshops that preserve the delicate artistry of Antonio Stradivari.
But on the clandestine map of Islamic terrorist networks, Cremona was closer than it seemed to the Iraqi village of Kurmal in Ansar’s mountain stronghold. Drissi, a Tunisian immigrant, had left his job as the librarian of a mosque in Cremona three months earlier and made the journey to a terrorist training camp near Kurmal, authorities say. Italian police wiretapped his long-distance conversations with the religious leader in Cremona who had allegedly sent Drissi and other recruits to join Ansar’s holy war.
During the March 18 call, Drissi sounded defiant but edgy on the eve of battle, according to wiretap transcripts. His voice straining over a weak connection, he asked the imam to attend to his family if anything happened to him.
“If you hear that Ansar al Islam has been hit you’ll know it’s us
“When he gets here we’ll see.... May God help him.... You should call me before sending,” Drissi said.
“Fine! But he’s good!” said the imam, identified by authorities as a Tunisian named Mourad Trabelsi.
“May God pray for us!” Drissi said.
It is not known whether Drissi survived the combat that erupted soon afterward. Kurdish and U.S. troops routed Ansar on March 28, invading its bases and leaving hundreds of its fighters dead, captured or on the run in the borderlands where Iraq meets Iran.
Three days later, Italian anti-terrorist police carried out a related offensive in Cremona, Parma and Milan. They arrested Trabelsi and six other alleged members of a network that supplied Ansar with fighters recruited among North African and Kurdish immigrants in northern Italy.
Investigators say the case offers a picture of how Al Qaeda sought to transform Ansar’s Iraqi stronghold into a substitute, on a smaller scale, for the Afghan camps to which the terrorist network had sent aspiring holy warriors before the U.S. defeated the Taliban in late 2001. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, members of a network commanded by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a top Al Qaeda figure, fled to the Russian republic of Chechnya and northeastern Iraq. U.S. and European investigators say Zarqawi’s specialists used a camp in the village of Sargat, near Kurmal, to experiment with cyanide poisons, toxic gas and ricin, a castor bean extract that can be used as a biological weapon.
The network allegedly plotted attacks in Europe that were assigned to different ethnic cells -- Algerians in Britain and France, Jordanians and Palestinians in Germany -- but were ultimately dismantled by police.
As the prospect of a U.S. military operation in the Persian Gulf grew, the network’s recruiters in Italy sent at least 40 fighters for terrorist training in Ansar camps and to help fight Kurdish forces, prosecutors say. Alleged ties between Al Qaeda and Ansar became a prime exhibit in the U.S. government’s case for war when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his presentation to the United Nations in February, accused the Baghdad regime of protecting Zarqawi and his men.
Italian investigators say they found no evidence tying Al Qaeda and Ansar to the Iraqi regime, which did not control the region where the camps were located. In a wiretapped conversation in Trabelsi’s Renault sedan March 18, the Cremona imam and a Kurdish recruiter described Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as an infidel tyrant for whom it was not worth fighting, according to Italian court documents.
“He who has fought beneath the flag of a blind man is ignorant,” Trabelsi is alleged to have said, reciting a Koranic verse in reference to Hussein. “That has been said about only a blind man’s flag, imagine beneath an infidel flag.”
The investigation is said to have revealed an active role in Ansar plotting by suspected terrorists based in Syria and Iran -- countries seen as potential targets in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Syria was a hub for recruits moving between Europe and Ansar’s Iraqi stronghold, according to court documents. Overseers in the Damascus area apparently coordinated the flow of recruits and gave orders by phone to operatives in Europe. The suspected bosses in Syria include fugitives with ties to the Hamburg, Germany, cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, as well as to the car-bomb attack on Israelis in Kenya in November, Italian authorities say.
Iran also served as a prime route for recruits bound for the Ansar camps and as a headquarters for Zarqawi, investigators say. Especially after the defeat of Ansar, Iran has become a refuge for fugitive leaders of Al Qaeda, according to court documents. Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, has gone into hiding in Iran, as have Zarqawi and his top lieutenants, Italian investigators say.
In the Italian case file, wiretaps of suspects based in Europe, Syria and Iraq fill dozens of pages of transcripts that tell an inside story of Al Qaeda in action.
Funding Not a Worry
A June 15 conversation laid out a blueprint of the network’s evolution and survival despite law enforcement pressure. An unidentified visitor from Germany counseled the Egyptian imam of the Via Quaranta mosque in Milan to avoid communicating via the Internet, to speak in code with associates and to use messengers. Funding was still plentiful, the visitor said.
“Don’t ever worry about money, because Saudi Arabia’s money is your money,” the visitor said, speaking cultured Arabic with a North African accent.
And he explained how the terrorist networks had regrouped after Muslim leaders in London and others had been arrested. “Sheiks” had held secret strategy meetings in Austria, Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries where there was less heat, according to the transcript.
“Now Europe is controlled via air and land, but in Poland, Bulgaria and countries that aren’t part of the European Community everything is easy,” the visitor said. “First of all they are corrupt; you can buy them with dollars.... They are less-controlled countries, there aren’t too many eyes.”
Police are still trying to identify the apparently high-ranking visitor. The Milan imam, Hassan Nasr, was a key suspect, but he disappeared in February. His friends and family accuse Egyptian and U.S. spies of kidnapping him. An investigation has turned up no trace of him.
The Via Quaranta mosque and another on Milan’s Viale Jenner have been bases for terrorist recruitment and logistics since the late 1990s, according to police.
Investigations led by prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso have resulted in a dozen arrests and eight convictions of extremists affiliated with the mosques. Nonetheless, during the last year, the two mosques became pivotal to the gradual restructuring of European networks under the command of Zarqawi, authorities say.
Zarqawi, 36, once ran his own training camp in Herat, Afghanistan, where militants learned to use chemical and biological weapons. His network allegedly includes Algerian combat veterans who trained in Chechnya and Jordanian gunmen who killed a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Amman, Jordan, last year.
Investigators say Zarqawi has considerable autonomy from Bin Laden -- and an obsession with Israeli targets because of his Palestinian-Jordanian background. In April 2002, German authorities arrested five people believed to be his followers and charged them with plotting a shooting attack on Jews in a public place. A few months later, Italian police identified suspects who were in phone contact with Zarqawi and his allies, court documents show. Two Kurds living on the semi-rural edge of Parma had set up operations for Ansar, according to authorities. Their phone number was found on Ansar leader Mullah Krekar when he was arrested in Amsterdam last September. Krekar was later deported to Norway and is under investigation by authorities there.
The Kurds allegedly worked with the imams in Milan and Cremona to radicalize young Muslims and send them to the battlefields of northeastern Iraq, according to court documents. The Kurds also made money by smuggling illegal immigrants, including extremists, into Europe, police say.
The two Kurds were “dedicated to the logistical support and finance of the group and the provision of false documents,” a prosecutor’s report states. “The network took advantage of a logistical structure in Turkey and Syria, managed by a Kurd known as Mullah Fuad, who assisted the passage of volunteers into Iraqi territory via smugglers.”
Wiretaps in recent months contain detailed conversations in which Fuad organized the flow of “brothers” to Iraq via the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
As one recruit prepared to depart Milan, an Egyptian recruiter gave him Fuad’s number in Syria and said: “I’ve talked to [the mullah] about your work ... understand? Before you get to the wall and before you start the work, contact me.”
Call from ‘The Wall’
The reference to “the wall” is code for the Iraqi border, investigators say. The Italian investigation benefited from intelligence passed on by U.S. authorities, who in December provided numbers of half a dozen Thuraya satellite phones used by suspects in Iraq. Among them was one used by Zarqawi’s top lieutenant at the Ansar camps, documents show.
U.S. law enforcement also warned in December that the Zarqawi network was intent on “committing terrorist attacks with nonconventional weapons, including chemical or toxic agents, in the United States, diverse European countries including the United Kingdom, and the Middle East,” court documents show. Several dozen arrests in Britain, France and other countries during the last six months were made with the intent of blocking plots by Zarqawi operatives, who police say want to make their mark with an unprecedented chemical or biological attack.
Zarqawi and his aides supervised his network from a refuge in Iran, where they remain, investigators say.
“I don’t think he spent much time in Iraq,” an Italian law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “His lieutenants ran the activity at the Ansar camps.”
U.S. and Italian investigators determined that the suspects in Italy repeatedly communicated with the alleged terrorists using the satellite phones in the Ansar stronghold. In a nimble bit of subterfuge Jan. 28, police stopped an Egyptian recruiter on the street in Milan for a feigned immigration check, then surreptitiously copied phone numbers from his address book, according to documents. The numbers were in code: once deciphered, they corresponded exactly with the phone numbers of Zarqawi’s henchmen in northeastern Iraq, police say.
Phone intercepts allowed investigators in Cremona to track Drissi, the 38-year-old librarian at the mosque here, as he allegedly prepared for jihad four months ago. He embarked on the journey with the help of a widespread, convoluted network that is typical of Islamic extremism.
On Dec. 13, Drissi went to a phone booth at the train station and called Iraq to announce his imminent departure via Syria and Iran, according to a transcript. When he was told of the death of a friend in combat, Drissi exclaimed: “May God accept him among the martyrs!”
Drissi, his wife and two children left Dec. 24 on a flight for Damascus. It was not unusual for trainees to bring their families, who were housed in Kurmal and other villages on Ansar’s turf.
Two weeks later, Drissi had made it as far as Iran. He enlisted Trabelsi back in Cremona to advise the Ansar militants that he was on his way, according to documents. Drissi also contacted associates in Germany for help in getting money sent to him.
On March 11, Trabelsi got through to Drissi in Kurdish territory on a satellite phone. They exulted when they heard one another’s voices, but Drissi alluded to dark events ahead.
“I think that a big bomb is coming, do you understand?” Drissi said. Investigators think that this could be a reference either to an impending terrorist plot or to the U.S. offensive against Iraq that was days away.
As the imminence of the war brought more recruits from Italy to the Ansar stronghold, Drissi told Trabelsi it was no time for amateurs, according to the transcript of a call three days later.
“Listen, there’s one here who wants to go there,” Trabelsi said.
“Who is it -- Kamel?”
“No, that one’s no good!” Drissi exclaimed. He added: “If there’s someone good, send him by another route. Ask if there’s people who want to come and then send them.”
Although prosecutors say the conversations are explicitly incriminating, Trabelsi’s lawyer denies charges of terrorism. As strict Muslims, Drissi and Trabelsi simply admired Ansar al Islam’s campaign to impose Taliban-style fundamentalism in northern Iraq, said the lawyer, Franco Antoneoli.
Drissi took his family to Ansar territory as part of a spiritual mission, not a military one, Antoneoli said. Trabelsi sent about $1,500 to Iraq because Drissi had asked him to sell his property and forward the money to help sustain his pilgrimage, the lawyer said.
“For a good Muslim, it was a way of getting closer to God,” Antoneoli said. “A world of pure Islam. Yes, it was a zone controlled by Ansar al Islam. They talk about war and attacks on the phone. But Drissi did not train or fight with them.”
As for Trabelsi, 33, his lawyer said he has a wife and three children, has spent 10 years in Italy and works as a manual laborer. The imam lived in a weathered brick building on a narrow, quiet street about two blocks from the Stradivarius museum here. He is a religious leader in a community of North Africans who have been drawn to the thriving small cities of the Po Valley in part by jobs in industry and agriculture.
Trabelsi denies being a terrorist recruiter, though he has “very strong sentiments that are anti-American, pro-Taliban, pro-Osama bin Laden and pro-Palestinian,” Antoneoli said. “But that’s not a crime.”
Trabelsi and the others are charged with terrorist activity, providing fraudulent documents and aiding illegal immigration. If they go to trial, they will have to explain their contacts with a wild corner of Iraq where combat has wiped out their dreams of jihad or a fundamentalist sanctuary.
It is likely that picturesque, seemingly sleepy Cremona will figure into their stories.
After Kurdish troops and U.S. Army Special Forces overran Ansar al Islam’s stronghold, they recovered at least two Italian identity documents belonging to the group’s Arab fighters. One of them was a 20-year-old Moroccan, Sayed Hamsi, who is believed to have died in combat.
His identity card was issued Jan. 9, 2001, by the city of Cremona.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman, in northern Iraq, contributed to this report.
The first article in this series can be found at www.latimes.com/ansar.