Italian and German police Friday arrested three suspected members of a network that allegedly recruited Islamic extremists in Europe to train in terrorist camps in Iraq. Italian officials say they believe five such recruits have died in suicide attacks in Iraq in recent months.
A chief target of the Italian-led investigation was an Algerian arrested in Hamburg, Germany, who also allegedly was an associate of the Hamburg-based Al Qaeda cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.
The emerging details reinforce the belief among counter-terrorism officials that Iraq has become a central new battleground for Islamic extremists. The case also may offer a look at the role of those tied to the Sept. 11 plotters in a changing Al Qaeda.
Authorities believe that the Algerian and at least two other suspected former associates of the Sept. 11 hijackers were deployed in Europe and the Middle East by the network of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a senior figure in Al Qaeda whose trail leads from postwar Iraq to this month's suicide bombings in Turkey and foiled plots around Europe.
In the months leading up to the Iraq war, investigators say, Syria-based leaders of the group coordinated the recruitment and travel of extremists from Italy and Germany through Syria, Iran and Turkey to camps in northeastern Iraq run by Zarqawi's network and Ansar al Islam, an extremist group based in northern Iraq.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Zarqawi-Ansar alliance has assumed a front-line role in launching suicide bombings against military, diplomatic and humanitarian targets in Iraq, European and U.S. officials say. Syria has come under pressure from Washington for its alleged role as a refuge and gateway for those intent on fighting U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
The Italian investigators found that five North Africans recruited in northern Italy before the war had taken part in that violent campaign, which is blamed on a mix of Hussein loyalists, Islamic extremists and Iraqi nationalists.
Three of the recruits were Tunisians, who died in the vehicle bombing of a coalition military target in Baghdad in September, Italian officials said. Unconfirmed reports from Italian military intelligence indicate that Kamal Morchidi, a Moroccan immigrant who once lived in Milan, participated in the attack last month on the Baghdad hotel where Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was staying, officials said.
Morchidi, whose presence at a prewar Ansar camp has been established, officials said, and a fifth North African recruit about whom few details are known, are now thought to be dead.
The 29-year-old Algerian arrested Friday in Hamburg, Abderrazak Mahdjoub, faces charges in Italy of terrorist association, providing fraudulent documents and involvement in illegal immigration. Tunisians Bouyahia Maher Abdelaziz and Housni Jama, who were arrested in Milan, are accused of providing money and fraudulent documents to suspected terrorists in Turkey and Singapore.
The whereabouts of the network's alleged leader, Zarqawi, remain a mystery. Investigators in several European countries believe he is in Iran, where he and his lieutenants ran his vast network by satellite phone and shuttled back and forth across the Iraqi border until Ansar al Islam's stronghold was overrun during U.S. military operations in March.
"We think he is in Iran," an Italian law enforcement official said. "But it is not clear if he continues to operate or [if] he is being held in some kind of custody by the Iranians."
European counter-terrorism officials say Iran has adopted an ambiguous posture toward Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
Denying that it in any way shelters terrorists, Iran has deported a number of lower-level Al Qaeda suspects to Europe, including a Tunisian from the northern Italian city of Cremona whose phone calls from an Iraqi training camp were intercepted by Italian police early this year.
Intelligence reports that have circulated among European investigators for months suggest that Iranian security forces have either allowed Zarqawi and Al Qaeda leaders to continue operations or captured them in a bid to gain political leverage with the West, officials say.
"It seems that the Iranians are playing with fire," a European counter-terrorism official said in a recent interview. But he, like others, added that pinning down the truth is difficult.
Zarqawi's rise reflects Al Qaeda's evolution into a looser, more splintered organization. He once commanded an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan that specialized in chemical and biological weapons. But by some accounts he has become increasingly autonomous.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, is accused of ordering the assassination in Jordan last year of an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Members of Beyyiat el-Imam, one of several groups he allegedly commands, are believed to be among the Turkish suspects arrested in the recent suicide bombings of synagogues and British targets in Istanbul.
Last year, Zarqawi operatives were arrested for allegedly plotting chemical and biological attacks in France and Britain and anti-Jewish shooting attacks in Germany.
Zarqawi gained international prominence before the Iraq war when the Bush administration labeled him a prime link between Al Qaeda and Hussein's government. Such an alliance has yet to be proved.
In addition to the arrests in Hamburg and Milan, authorities issued warrants for two more suspects, including Mohammed Majid, an Iraqi Kurd known as Mullah Fuad who is thought to be in Syria. Police describe him as a Damascus-based gatekeeper who supplied money, documents and shelter to Iraq-bound recruits.
According to Italian court documents filed earlier this year, the mullah made clear in wiretapped phone calls from Syria that he was looking for zealots willing to lose their lives. On March 30, he told an Egyptian associate in Milan to "look for those who were in Japan," which investigators say is a coded reference to kamikazes.
Mahdjoub, the Algerian arrested in Hamburg, allegedly was another leading recruiter. Mahdjoub's odyssey shows how the Zarqawi network absorbed members of a predominantly North African group of associates of the Sept. 11 hijackers, police say.
After the attacks in the U.S., some of those men were arrested and convicted as accomplices of the hijackers, some fled and others joined the effort to convert northern Iraq into a new training base for jihadis.
Mahdjoub allegedly was active in Germany until March, when he flew to Damascus, the Syrian capital. He was accompanied by the son-in-law of a Moroccan who preached anti-American and anti-Semitic sermons at a mosque attended by the Sept. 11 plotters.
The preacher, Mohammed Fizazi, is imprisoned in Morocco, accused of being the ideologue of a network involved in suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca in March.
According to the court documents, intercepts of Mahdjoub's calls from Damascus to Milan in March showed that he tried to secure forged documents for a Somali who had fled Hamburg and was a close associate of Ramzi Binalshibh, the accused coordinator of the Hamburg cell and other Sept. 11 figures. An expert document forger enlisted to help the Somali was a Moroccan associate of the Hamburg group who had relocated to northern Italy, the court papers say.
Italian authorities say they arrested the forger after he made frantic phone calls to Mahdjoub in Syria saying he had spotted police tailing him. Police captured the Somali as he prepared to escape to Syria with plans to make his way to Iraq, investigators said.
In April, Syrian police detained Mahdjoub and in May he was sent back to Germany. German police arrested him in July when wiretaps raised fears that he was plotting to bomb tourist targets in Spain, according to Italian and Spanish authorities, but the evidence was inconclusive and he was released.