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Al Qaeda’s Stealth Weapons

Times Staff Writer

The convicted terrorist has a hard-core moniker: “the blue-eyed emir of Tangier.”

But Pierre Richard Robert was once a French country boy, an athletic blond teenager living in a house built by his father among pastures here in the Loire region.

Robert liked drinking and fast bikes more than school. He got interested in Islam when he played soccer at the Turkish cultural center in a neighboring industrial town. He said he wanted to convert because Allah watched over him as he sped downhill into town on his bicycle.

“I told him it’s not like changing shirts,” said Ibrahim Tekeli, a leader of the Turkish community. “The imam told him, ‘I want you to reflect and talk to your family first.’ But Richard said: ‘I’ve already reflected.... For months before I made my decision, I would run the red light on the big hill every day going real fast. I would always pray to Allah to protect me. And I never got hit by a car.’ ”

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Fourteen years later, though, Robert has hit bottom. A Moroccan court sentenced him to life in prison Thursday after convicting him of recruiting and training Moroccan extremists for a terrorist campaign.

He joins an unlikely group of men with non-Muslim backgrounds that includes Richard Reid, the British “shoe bomber” convicted of trying to blow up an airliner; American Jose Padilla, an alleged Al Qaeda operative being held as an enemy combatant; and Christian Ganczarski, a German convert arrested in June by French police.

Robert and Ganczarski were not just foot soldiers, investigators say. They represent a dangerous trend as police chop away at Islamic networks two years after the Sept. 11 attacks: converts who assume front-line roles as recruiters and plotters.

The number of converts has grown as Islamic militants have struck a chord with young Europeans from non-Muslim backgrounds. These “protest conversions,” as scholar Olivier Roy calls them, have less to do with theology than with a revolutionary zeal dating to Europe’s ultra-left terrorist groups of the 1970s and ‘80s.

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“The young people in working-class urban areas are against the system, and converting to Islam is the ultimate way to challenge the system,” said Roy, a director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “They convert to stick it to their parents, to their principal.... They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam. I see a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause.”

As demographics and immigration propel Islam’s spread in Europe, the number of French converts -- the vast majority of them law-abiding -- has increased steadily to about 100,000, Roy said.

Extremists of European descent worry police for the same reasons that Al Qaeda prizes them: their symbolic value, their Western passports and their fanaticism.

“Converts are the most important work for us right now,” a French intelligence official said. “They want to show other Muslims their worth. They want to go further than anyone else. They are full of rage and they want to prove themselves.”

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The rise of the converts actually may be a sign of Al Qaeda’s weakness, a need to fill a vacuum as leaders are hunted down. The limited hierarchy of Islamic networks can make leadership a question of circumstance and initiative. A Spanish investigator said Al Qaeda has “many soldiers, some sergeants and the generals.”

Ganczarski and Robert were no generals, but they allegedly stepped up to plot attacks and recruit. And investigators say Ganczarski, 36, became a pivotal figure in Europe during the post-Sept. 11 period because of his alleged ties to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s now-imprisoned operational boss, who turned increasingly to converts while on the run.

Ganczarski is being held in a French jail as a suspected conspirator in the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that killed 21 people, including French tourists, in April 2002.

Investigators say Mohammed controlled the plot from Pakistan despite the vigilance of U.S. spy satellites that intercepted some of his coded conversations with accomplices. To elude detection, he used non-Arabs in Europe to support the Tunisian suicide bomber, Nizar Nawar, police say.

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On the day Nawar blew himself up in a truck-bomb at the historic synagogue on the island of Djerba, he called Mohammed in Pakistan, investigators say, and Ganczarski’s home in Duisburg, Germany. A German wiretap recorded the latter call: As if addressing a mentor, Nawar asked Ganczarski for a blessing, investigators say.

Although the Germans lacked proof to arrest Ganczarski, who denied involvement in the attack, the widening investigation soon involved French, Spanish and Swiss police. It revealed Ganczarski’s access to Al Qaeda’s “hard core,” in the words of a Swiss intelligence report dated last December.

Ganczarski called Mohammed’s Swiss cell phone in Pakistan “numerous times” in the months before the Djerba attack, according to the report.

The phone call intercepts also pointed to a Swiss convert, Daniel “Yusuf” Morgenej, who had befriended the German in Saudi Arabia, authorities say. Swiss police questioned and released Morgenej. But Spanish and French investigators say he and Ganczarski remain suspected links in an intricate chain leading to the plot’s accused money man, a Spanish exporter.

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Moreover, the Djerba plot appears to have been part of a larger effort led by Mohammed to deploy converts. Padilla, the American who allegedly schemed to set off a radioactive bomb, was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 after arriving from Switzerland. In the preceding weeks, Padilla placed four calls to the same phone number for Mohammed that Ganczarski had called, according to the Swiss intelligence report.

Ganczarski was born in Gleiwitz, Poland. His family moved to Germany when he was 9. He dropped out of school and found work as a metallurgist in the Ruhr Valley. It was on the shop floor that a fellow immigrant, a North African, introduced him to the Koran, officials say.

“Ever since his youth, it appears he was greatly preoccupied with questions of faith,” said a senior French law enforcement official.

His radicalization accelerated when he met a Saudi cleric visiting European mosques in search of Western-born acolytes. In 1992, Ganczarski received a scholarship to attend an Islamic university in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the senior official said.

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Ganczarski spent three frustrating years in Medina. He took special courses to overcome his lack of schooling, but failed to enter the university, the senior official said. Yet his zeal did not seem to waver.

He traveled to Afghanistan in 1998 -- the first of four sojourns -- trained at an Al Qaeda camp and saw combat there and in Russia’s breakaway republic of Chechnya, officials say.

Ganczarski met Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, who entrusted him with handling computers and communications, the senior official said. Bin Laden saw converts as “an especially potent weapon,” the official said.

Returning from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ganczarski persisted in trying to organize plots even after the Tunisian case drew attention to him, officials say.

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An alleged accomplice from Duisburg has told French interrogators that Ganczarski began preparations for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Karim Mehdi said the two explored a technique developed by Mohammed in Afghanistan. It involved packing model planes with 3 or 4 kilos of explosives and diving them into a building by remote control, according to the senior French official.

“They got as far as acquiring material,” the official said. “They did a lot of research on planes in Germany. You can pilot these planes from a mile away. The embassy is a double target -- you hit the French and Americans in one blow.”

U.S. officials declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing threats to embassies.

Mehdi also admitted scouting targets for a planned car bombing at tourist sites on Reunion island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, officials say. Mehdi said Ganczarski was an “organizer and the financier” of the plot, according to French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who described the German as “a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda.”

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Ganczarski found refuge for a time in Saudi Arabia, where he took his family last November. But after this year’s terrorist attacks on expatriate compounds in Riyadh put pressure on the Saudis, they expelled him to France. Under tough anti-terrorism laws, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere has accused Ganczarski in the Djerba attack based on his alleged ties to the plotters, and has at least two years to bring him to trial. Authorities are also interested in the fact that Ganczarski had phone numbers for two imprisoned members of the Hamburg cell that planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ganczarski’s alleged access to the inner circle is not surprising. Al Qaeda has embraced true believers regardless of ethnicity. Just as many converts marry Muslim women, some terrorism suspects of Arab origin have European wives, who often equal them in ideological ferocity.

“The Ganczarskis, the Roberts, they show that the radicalization is here, not just in the Middle East,” said Roy, the French scholar. If Al Qaeda’s urbanized, globalized jihad continues to attract angry Europeans, the network could gain a “second wind,” he said.

Robert, 31, could be a case in point. Like Ganczarski, the Frenchman represents a breed of blue-collar convert -- neither jailhouse recruit nor university radical.

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He grew up in the French hamlet of Chambles. His studies ended at Anne Frank Middle School in Andrezieux, the industrial town just down the hill where his father worked at a glass factory. The teenager made Turkish friends doing spot jobs in textile plants and playing in the Turkish soccer league, which was popular with French and immigrant youths because it used the best field in town.

The Turks of Andrezieux, who describe themselves as moderate Muslims, remember Robert as a silent kid crouching off by himself in the mosque. Like many converts, he had struggled with “drinking, stupid things” and yearned for discipline and purpose, said Tekeli, 35, a veteran union activist.

“In Europe you have everything you need: work, health benefits, family,” he said. “Yet something is missing. People find it in religion. And Islam is the religion that is growing. The French young people are more open than their parents.”

Robert’s stunned father called his change of faith “a betrayal,” Tekeli said. But when Robert turned 18 and decided to study Islam in Turkey, his parents paid for the trip. Robert traveled to Konya, a center of tourism and religion that is a magnet for European converts.

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When Robert returned to France in 1992, the French intelligence official said, he complained that Turkey was “too secular.”

He went to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where in the mid-1990s he trained at a camp run by Al Qaeda, according to French and Spanish investigators.

He also married a Moroccan woman and began wandering between Europe and Morocco. They came to Chambles for an extended stay about seven years ago, living at his parents’ house before renting apartments around the nearby city of St. Etienne, a fading landscape of shuttered arms factories and abandoned coal mines.

Robert had acquired a beard, traditional Islamic garb and the name Yacub. During visits in 1999 and 2000 to an Islamic bookstore in St. Etienne, he impressed the manager with his Arabic and his religious knowledge.

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“He knew more than me,” said the manager, Ahmed Abdelouadoud.

Robert’s aggressive ideas caused conflict even at fundamentalist mosques, the intelligence official said. He became an itinerant late-night preacher in housing projects, Tekeli said.

He also got involved in the used-car racket in which Islamic extremists are active, buying cars in Europe for resale in Morocco. In 1998, he was jailed in Belgium on suspicion of auto theft.

That was nothing compared with his clandestine activity in Tangier, the Moroccan smuggling haven where Robert, by then a father of two, spent most of his time the last two years. He was convicted Thursday of recruiting several dozen young men for terrorist cells he set up in Tangier and Fez.

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Robert’s Al Qaeda credentials crossed cultural borders: The group made him its “emir.” He led weapons training sessions in forests and deserts, according to the court’s verdict.

Then came the May 16 suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Casablanca, the worst attack ever in Morocco, a kingdom that prides itself on its relative tolerance. Police rounded up hundreds of extremists, catching Robert in a forest at the wheel of a pickup truck with fake Dutch plates.

Authorities charged that he served as a leader of a network that had planned a coming wave of attacks on tourist and commercial targets. After initially confessing, Robert denied it all and said he had been tortured because police needed a foreign fall guy.

“I am the victim of a frame-up by the security services,” he said in a statement relayed by his lawyer.

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Robert also testified during his trial that he had worked as an informant for French intelligence, a claim French officials denied.

Investigators say Robert was part of a strategy of “training the trainers” -- a model of how an increasingly decentralized Al Qaeda will function. The network exported terrorism to Morocco through a handful of recruiters who quickly whipped locals into killing shape, officials say.

Robert also wanted to bring his war home to France, police say. He and Abdulaziz Benayich, a die-hard holy warrior with longtime ties to European terrorist cells, schemed about using a bazooka or rocket-propelled grenade on targets including a giant refinery and a plutonium shipment near Lyon, about an hour from Robert’s hometown, investigators say.

When Spanish police captured Benayich in June in Algeciras, across the strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, he had shaved off his body hair -- as is done in a purification ritual that precedes suicide attacks.

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“He was preparing for an attack,” a Spanish police commander said. “Benayich is very dangerous.”

Although some French officials feel Robert’s threat has been exaggerated, he narrowly avoided the death penalty that was requested by prosecutors.

His old friends have watched the news reports. Robert looked exhausted in court, a pale figure surrounded by guards. He had shaved his beard. One day he wore the red and yellow jersey of Galatasaray, a Turkish soccer team.

At that moment, the “blue-eyed emir” resembled the 17-year-old his friends remember: crouched over the handlebars on his way to town, praying to Allah, gathering speed.

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