Extremists Find Fertile Soil in Europe
Karim Bourti recruited the Algerian journalist last October in the Palace of Justice, a 14th century citadel swept by cold winds rising off the Seine.
In his Pakistani-style robes and full beard, the recruiter was short, round-faced, dumpy. But his stare commanded respect. And he was smooth: You are a journalist, he told Mohamed Sifaoui, but you are Algerian. We are brothers. We endure racism, the abuse of the French, the Americans. If you come back to your roots in Islam, everyone will respect you. You have a great future with us.
The journalist followed Bourti into “l’Islam des caves”: the “Islam of the cellars,” where holy warriors are bred. Bourti prowled mosques, dank prayer halls, hospitals and prisons looking for young men adrift. His acolytes hovered: college students, an airport maintenance worker, a hulking Sicilian Lebanese ex-convict.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bourti had allegedly sent recruits to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan via London. Now, he said, he wanted to dispatch Sifaoui to train in Russia’s separatist republic of Chechnya for holy war.
As Christmas approached, Bourti talked to Sifaoui about conducting reconnaissance on Algerian leaders in France and other targets, Sifaoui says, and he alluded to a terrorist spectacular in the works -- seven attacks in seven countries on the same day. But police arrested Bourti. Sifaoui ended a three-month masquerade: He had posed as an extremist to infiltrate Bourti’s cell with a hidden camera.
The journalist’s story illustrates how Al Qaeda has adjusted and cranked up efforts to recruit terrorists in Europe. The aftermath of Sept. 11 and the prospect of war in Iraq have increased the numbers of angry anti-American young men who have been pushed into the embrace of Islamic extremism, according to counter-terrorism officials. Extremists are muscling into European mosques, creating new places of worship and winning converts.
“The influence of the extremist networks grows stronger every day,” said a French intelligence official. “What the recruiters do is not illegal at first. Neither the republic nor the families of the recruits have found a way to stop them. We have more and more converts, young French with family problems, adolescent crises. Young girls too. For the Islamists, each convert is a great victory.”
Recruitment is a slow-burning fire; Iraq could supply the fuel that sets it raging. The threat of terrorist attacks in the West will spike if and when the first shots are fired in the Persian Gulf, according to European and U.S. law enforcement officials.
Although Osama bin Laden and many of his top deputies remain at large, arrests and heightened vigilance have weakened the Al Qaeda terrorist network. It has lost the Afghan sanctuary whose training camps churned out a clandestine diaspora of tens of thousands of aspiring terrorists. Yet the organization can survive blows such as the capture Saturday of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because of a fluid structure that has allowed it to evolve into a more diffuse and elusive enemy: a swarm of semiautonomous threats.
Investigators say Al Qaeda has compensated for the loss of Afghanistan with training in lawless regions where armed Islamic movements operate: in Chechnya, Georgia, Pakistan. During the time Sifaoui spent undercover, he met Mirwani ben Ahmed, an Algerian who allegedly received chemical weapons training in Chechnya last summer. Police arrested Ben Ahmed on charges that his Al Qaeda cell plotted bombings and cyanide gas attacks against targets that included the Russian Embassy here.
“There has been a change of sanctuary and a change of strategy,” said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s top anti-terrorist judge. “We know that some of the suspects were trained with chemicals in Georgia and Chechnya. The Chechens are experts in chemical warfare. And Chechnya is closer to Europe than Afghanistan.”
Border guards on the lookout for young Muslims have made travel difficult, however. So some recruiters provide improvised training elsewhere in Europe and act as de facto field commanders.
“There is a real chance they will also start getting more impact on the decision of who may execute the terrorist attack, what such attacks will target and how the attack should be carried out,” said a Dutch intelligence report prepared in December.
A war in Iraq could turn many moderate Muslims into extremists and drive many extremists over the line between malicious intent and action, experts say.
“The strategy of the terrorists is to create a clash of civilizations,” Bruguiere said. “And they will use the war to incite violence against the West. A war will have a direct impact on the level of recruitment.”
Sifaoui says Bourti predicted that combat in the Persian Gulf could bring Islamic violence to Europe.
“The Americans are about to do the stupidest thing imaginable,” Sifaoui said. “An attack on Iraq will nourish terrorism.”
Sifaoui, 36, has bright, restless eyes behind his glasses, a short beard, small hands. He just published a speedily written book, “My Assassin ‘Brothers,’ ” that recounts his experiences in Bourti’s world.
The book brought death threats. While Sifaoui gave an interview recently in a corner cafe, a bull-shouldered police bodyguard in an overcoat waited outside.
Bumming a cigarette from someone at a nearby table, Sifaoui said: “This is not the best time to try to give up smoking.”
Sifaoui came to France as a political refugee after he survived the bombing of the Soir d’Algerie newspaper by Islamic terrorists in 1996. The explosion killed 37 people, including three of his friends.
Sifaoui says he met Bourti by chance last year while covering the trial of two members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, charged in a series of bombings here in 1995. Bourti and friends in fundamentalist attire attended the trial each day.
One afternoon, Bourti struck up a conversation with Sifaoui and told him that he looked familiar. They realized that they were from the same neighborhood in Algiers. Sifaoui identified himself as a journalist but gave an alias, fearing that Bourti would recognize his name from articles criticizing fundamentalism.
Sifaoui recounted his experiences interviewing Islamic activists in Pakistan and elsewhere, pretending to be sympathetic to the cause. Bourti and his friends decided that he was an ally who could use his press card to gather intelligence and open doors.
Sifaoui arranged interviews with French reporters to whom Bourti presented himself as a man of peace defending Muslims against injustice. But Sifaoui says he secretly videotaped conversations in which Bourti admitted his allegiance to Bin Laden and acknowledged that his rhetoric about nonviolence was “takiya” -- double talk for infidels.
Bourti did prison time in 1998 for terrorist-related activity. He is in jail now, accused of assault and involvement in terrorist activity.
A law enforcement official said Bourti is under investigation for involvement in a cell that allegedly raised money and provided safe houses and logistics for “brothers” on the move. Police are also examining his ties to suspects accused in the plot against the Russian Embassy.
Bourti’s main mission was to find soldiers for holy war, according to Sifaoui. Bourti said he was entrusted with this task by theologians affiliated with Saudi cleric Salman Odah, who was imprisoned by Saudi authorities in the 1990s for calling on the government to expel all foreign troops from the Arabian Peninsula and leading an act of civil disobedience. Sifaoui says Bourti quoted the Koran: “Prepare whatever resources and troops you must to terrorize the enemies of God.”
“I incite people,” Bourti said, according to the journalist’s book. “I encourage them to do jihad.”
One disciple died for the cause. Bourti said he sent 28-year-old Djamel Loiseau, the son of an Algerian father and French mother, to train at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, according to Sifaoui.
Loiseau died in the battle of Tora Bora against U.S. and allied Afghan forces in December 2001, his corpse found frozen in the snow.
The first steps toward holy war have not changed much. In countries that enshrine individual rights, such as Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, the law makes it hard to interfere with religious proselytizing.
“The first stage of the recruitment process, the actual ‘spotting,’ is still taking place quite publicly,” the Dutch intelligence report said. Dutch police have arrested about 20 suspected Al Qaeda recruiters in the last year for crimes such as immigration offenses or document forgery, according to a Dutch official. Ten remain in jail, he said.
In France, police conducting routine searches now keep their eyes open for Islamic literature and videos as well as guns, drugs and contraband. They pay closer attention to cases such as a bust in January in a high-crime, heavily immigrant suburb of Paris. Authorities seized a herd of 425 sheep sold illegally for ritual slaughter during Muslim holidays. This booming black market helps identify believers willing to defy the law, and it also is suspected of helping finance extremists.
The leading ideologues are often from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states; their organizations function as gateways to Al Qaeda. The groups include the Tabligh, an order of itinerant evangelists; the venerable Muslim Brotherhood, which is popular among Egyptians and Syrians; Takfir wal Hijra, a sect active among criminals; and Salafists, who preach a return to the letter of the Koran.
Many recruiters are self-taught zealots in their 30s and 40s, veterans of combat in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Chechnya. Some came to Europe on the orders of Al Qaeda. Anticipating retaliation for the World Trade Center attacks, Bin Laden’s brain trust accelerated the deployment of operatives in 2001, according to Roland Jacquard, an anti-terrorism consultant to the French government and the United Nations.
“They knew they could lose the sanctuary in Afghanistan,” Jacquard said. “So they dispatched well-trained people to Europe who knew the weaknesses of the system: asylum laws, immigration rights, the open borders.... This way, the organization could survive and replace members.”
Recruiters have led an attempt by hard-core Islamists to take control of mosques, according to intelligence officials. Bourti is charged with beating up the imam of a mosque in the Belleville neighborhood in an ideological dispute.
“He imposed himself in the mosques,” Sifaoui said, describing the scene at the two-story building in Belleville. “The imam spoke upstairs. But downstairs, Karim and the fundamentalists were in control. That’s a metaphor for what’s going on.”
European law enforcement agencies use informants and electronic surveillance to keep close watch on mosques. But recruiters also operate in makeshift prayer halls in Brussels, Islamic bookstores in London, smoky coffeehouses in Amsterdam, prisons in Milan. The need for stealth has led them to the Internet, whose Web sites and chat rooms resist traditional policing.
Recruits tend to be teenagers and men in their 20s. Second- and third-generation Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans, the biggest Muslim populations of mainland Europe, seem the most vulnerable.
Investigators find two profiles among recruits. One characterizes high school graduates who have pursued higher education or a skilled trade. Despite their promise, the clash between their culture and that of the West overwhelms them. They find refuge, and isolation, in extremism.
The working poor, especially petty criminals, offer another fertile pool. Small-time gangsters and extremists have established an alliance in some of the low-income apartment towers that ring Paris like a gloomy concrete forest, according to the French intelligence official.
Although hoodlums of North African descent smoke marijuana, wear Nikes and drive BMWs, many of them also admire Bin Laden, the official said. They share turf and services with extremists: documents, weapons, vehicles. And they are susceptible to the extremists’ message of discipline and respect.
“These kids grew up together in the projects,” the official said. “They help each other out. They preserve friendships and connections. I’ve seen plenty of guys move from street violence to Islamic fundamentalism. I haven’t seen any go in the other direction.”
Jailhouse converts are among the most zealous, especially those from non-Muslim backgrounds like “shoe bomber” Richard C. Reid, who is of British and Jamaican descent. Bourti’s sidekick was Mehdi “Rudy” Terranova, a brawny street fighter whose parents were Sicilian and Lebanese. Terranova converted to Islam in prison and later received weapons training in an elite unit of the French army. He was arrested with Bourti in January.
Recruits are fed a diet of religious literature and videos about the struggle in Chechnya and elsewhere. The Dutch intelligence report says they are sometimes assigned jihad veterans as “buddies,” who live with them to ensure total psychological immersion. Bourti used this approach, according to Sifaoui.
“Karim lived with them, kept them in close contact, always in a group so they were under his control,” he said.
The next crucial step is a statement of allegiance, often videotaped, in which the recruit renounces the earthly life for a crusade with the goal of dying for the cause.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, militants in Europe followed a well-worn route. They made pilgrimages to radical mosques in Britain, where clerics such as Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza al Masri were revered by holy warriors. British-based extremists screened recruits and organized their trips to the camps in Afghanistan, supplying plane tickets and fake papers if necessary.
Much of that has changed. Although Al Qaeda allegedly retains small camps on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, getting there is much harder.
Abu Qatada has been jailed as an alleged leader of the European networks. In January, Abu Hamza was barred from preaching at his Finsbury Park mosque after a crackdown on an Algerian cell involved in producing ricin poison. He still preaches on the street, but he faces multiple investigations and expulsion from Britain.
Experts are working to assess Al Qaeda’s current ability to provide paramilitary training. The Afghan camps were largely primitive, but they created an esprit de corps and enabled Al Qaeda masterminds to cultivate promising operatives for major missions.
Today, individual networks in the Al Qaeda alliance try to fill the training void with piecemeal solutions, investigators say.
Chechnya is an example, French investigators say. The region’s guerrilla war had drawn Arab and North African volunteer fighters for years. During the last year, Al Qaeda and Chechen rebels have grown closer. They have engaged in chemical and biological training at bases in Chechen territory and the neighboring Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, according to Bruguiere.
The so-called Chechen network of Algerians arrested in December allegedly planned to hit the Russian Embassy here, in a switch from a past focus on U.S. targets. The case has raised fears that Chechnya, only three hours from Western Europe by plane, could replace Afghanistan as a base, Bruguiere says.
Bruguiere acknowledges that there are obstacles to a mass flow of trainees to the Caucasus region, including pressure from Russian and Georgian troops and language differences between Chechens and Arabs.
Law enforcement officials say training is available in Pakistan and Algeria, countries with fierce Islamic movements and lawless zones. Sifaoui reported that Bourti said there were secret training camps in Albania. And young extremists go to Koranic schools in North Africa and the Middle East that do not provide weapons instruction but “facilitate it,” the French intelligence official said.
Some training takes place closer to home, investigators say. Terrorist trainers in Europe have broken down the process into a “virtual academy,” in the words of a U.S. official. They use safe houses and a voluminous Al Qaeda manual with instructions for bomb-making and other tools of the trade, investigators say. Physical conditioning occurs with and without weapons in remote areas such as the Alps and the forests of the Ardennes, investigators say.
“You can have a three-day intensive firearms course if you need it,” the U.S. official said. “You pick a backwoods location, use it and lose it.”
To the alarm of police, recruiters have pulled together a mix of Afghan-trained veterans and newcomers and seem intent on carrying out attacks with chemical or biological weapons.
One former London-based recruiter, Rabah Kadre, was the central figure in the Algerian network that came together in late 2002. Kadre returned to Western Europe from hiding in Slovakia. Others left Chechen camps for France.
Investigators have also found evidence indicating that recent recruits underwent covert training in Italy and Spain.
The group’s determination to carry out a strike had investigators in Britain, France and Spain scrambling to head it off during recent months.
“Kadre is a recruiter who passed into action,” Jacquard said. “The decisions are left to them -- they don’t have to receive orders. It’s a problem because you can have competition among groups. More attacks are possible.”
Kadre and his associates are suspected in the plot against the Russian Embassy here, the ricin case in Britain and an alleged plan to attack the London subway with cyanide gas. Another leader has been charged with stabbing a British police detective to death during a raid in Manchester.
For all the menace, Al Qaeda has yet to carry out a major attack in Europe, which in the past served largely as a haven for indoctrination and logistics. Bourti gave Sifaoui the impression that he would take part in a series of major attacks, but it’s not clear whether that was all talk.
If the U.S. leads an invasion of Iraq, however, authorities expect an increased risk from organized cells as well as militants acting alone or in small groups.
“The networks are fragmented, but somebody with a bit of knowledge can gather a group,” he said. “If he can convince a young guy to blow himself up in a supermarket so he can spend eternity with virgins in paradise, that’s hard to stop.”
The extremists have branded Sifaoui a traitor. Some accuse him of ties to Algerian intelligence services, which have committed atrocities in their battle with Islamic extremists. The journalist responds that he has little admiration for the Algerian government. He says he did his duty by documenting the way the recruiters spin their webs. His book and hidden-camera footage have become evidence against Bourti, and Sifaoui says he has no regrets.
He worries instead about his own safety and the impact of war in Iraq on the Arab street of Europe. His foray into the underworld showed him the dangers of warrior gurus who turn aimless souls into human weapons.
“In their minds, all these young men are fighting for God,” he said. “God is their general, not Bin Laden. They love death like you love life.”