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Jihad’s Unlikely Alliance

Times Staff Writer

The odd crew of longtime extremists and radicalized gangsters accused of carrying out the March train bombings here nourished their holy war with holy water.

And hashish.

The water came from Mecca, the Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia. The conspirators drank it during purification rituals at a barbershop that was an after-hours prayer hall for adherents of Takfir wal Hijra, a secretive Islamic sect allegedly active in the criminal underworld of Europe and North Africa.

The hashish came from Morocco, European investigators believe. The ideologues of the terrorist cell justified selling drugs as a weapon of jihad. The Moroccan dealer who financed the plot traded a load of hashish for the dynamite that slaughtered 191 people aboard commuter trains on March 11. The drug trafficker led the cell along with a Tunisian economics student, a duo whose disparity reflects the evolving nature of Islamic terrorism. Both blew themselves up after a standoff with Spanish police last month.

As investigators analyze the Madrid bombings and try to prevent new attacks, they are intrigued by the importance of the drug connection. The predominantly Moroccan cell came together with remarkable speed, teaming a drug gang with students and shopkeepers and raising the specter of “narco-terrorism,” a phenomenon more commonly associated with such nations as Colombia. It also offers a textbook example of the potentially explosive combination of Islamic extremism and organized criminal networks.

“It worries us very much,” a Spanish police commander said. “Until now, Islamic terrorism and drugs were two separate areas. Now you are not sure where to look. You are not sure whom you are dealing with. I don’t know of any previous cases like this in the West.”

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Madrid’s hidden jihad reflects a wider effort by Islamic networks in Europe and North Africa to tap the violent energy of criminal networks of diverse ethnicities and specialties, anti-terrorism officials say.

In Italy, a member of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia, converted to Islam and recently set up an exchange of arms for drugs between the Camorra and Islamic terrorists, an Italian prosecutor said.

In the prisons of Belgium and neighboring countries, recruitment by Islamic groups has accelerated during the worldwide terrorism offensive stoked by the war in Iraq, said Belgian police anti-terrorism commander Alain Grignard.

“The intermingling of terrorist networks with the criminal milieu is becoming more and more important,” said Grignard, an expert on Islam. “It’s in prisons where political operatives recruit specialists whom they need to run their networks -- specialists in fraudulent documents, arms trafficking, etc. They use concepts that justify crime, that transform it into redemption.... The prisons of today are producing the terrorists of tomorrow.”

European investigators worry in particular about North Africa, source of a diaspora of millions of immigrants in Europe. Most of the alleged train bombers lived divided existences, shuttling between Madrid and their native Morocco, particularly Tangier and Tetouan. Those northern cities are capitals of thriving criminal mafias and a fundamentalist movement that has also bred ideologues and soldiers linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and last year’s suicide bombings in Casablanca.

Morocco’s proximity to Spain makes it a gateway for the legal and illegal movement of people, goods and ideas. The implications for Europe compare with the threat to California if the Mexican border region were a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.

The danger also spills south into poor, vulnerable countries including Mali, Mauritania and Niger, where terrorists are turning to long-standing smuggling networks that provide a rare source of fast cash, officials say.

In some ways, terrorism and gangsterism are old companions. Heroin crops have helped fund the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although the director of France’s lead anti-terrorism agency has not seen a recent expansion of ties between gangsters and terrorists in his country, he says extremists in France, which has Europe’s biggest Muslim population, have a tradition of working with criminals and dabbling in robbery, drugs and fraud.

“The links with drug traffickers were established perhaps in a more concrete fashion with the attacks of Madrid, but in France most of the [extremist] structures that we have dismantled have been financed by crime,” said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, chief of France’s DST intelligence service. “What is difficult to prove judicially are the links between crime and terrorism. When you arrest them they are stickup gangs, they are counterfeiters, they are small-time dealers.... It’s difficult to show that the money has served or will serve for terrorist activity.”

The cash and firepower of the Madrid dealers clearly drove the attack that influenced a national election and divided the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, making Al Qaeda’s first strike in Europe its most devastating since those on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001. The blurring of criminality and extremism went further and faster than the pre-Sept. 11 pattern in Europe, when convicts recruited by the Al Qaeda terrorist network typically passed through radical London mosques, training camps in Afghanistan and battlegrounds such as Chechnya.

The train bombers caught international counter-terrorism agencies off-guard, even though some were known to security forces. One suspect in the bombing plot was an informant for an anti-drug unit of the paramilitary Civil Guard, according to police. Ironically, the suspects’ involvement in drug trafficking helped mask their extremism.

Moreover, the Takfir wal Hijra sect to which most of the suspects belonged cultivates stealth. The name means “Excommunication and Exile.” The order was founded in Egypt in the 1960s by an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. They set up a society in exile in the desert.

Takfir’s disconcertingly flexible theology attracts criminals and drug addicts; it also influences radicals who do not belong to the movement. Takfiris accept drinking and vice and encourage short hair, fashionable dress and an outwardly Western lifestyle as a holy warrior’s disguise against detection.

The clean-cut, well-groomed ways of the lead Sept. 11 hijackers were a Takfir-style undercover strategy. The sect has figured in terrorism cases in Europe, notably a foiled 2001 plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris in which a Tunisian -- a former soccer player with a classic Takfiri profile of drug addiction, dealing and jailhouse conversion -- planned a suicide bombing.

In the Takfir creed of outward conformity and internal exile, crime is a means of waging war against the West.

“Crime that was once practiced with no trace of an Islamic reference, once they have converted, rather naturally acquires an objective, a justification, a religious legitimization,” said De Bousquet de Florian, the French intelligence chief. “Because the base of Takfir doctrine explains that crime can be committed for the good of the cause.”

That doctrine shaped the Moroccan networks involved in the train attacks and the Casablanca bombings, which authorities say were carried out by youths radicalized in the Sidi Moumen slum, a center of criminal rackets.

An imam linking the two cases was Hicham Temsamani, whose brother is a drug lord from the Rif region of Morocco. Before the Casablanca attacks, Temsamani allegedly helped organize terrorist cells in Tangier. He also spent time in Madrid, where he served as a spiritual guide at early meetings and Takfir rituals of the future train bombers at such places as the Paparazzi barbershop in the Lavapies neighborhood, investigators say.

Spanish police arrested Temsamani last summer and extradited him to Morocco in the Casablanca case. But his acolytes kept praying and scheming as two leaders emerged: Jamal Ahmidan and Sarhane Abdelmajid Fakhet.

Ahmidan’s aliases were “Mowgli” and “El Chino,” distinctly nonreligious monikers that show his easy familiarity with Spain’s street subculture. Ahmidan, 33, and his brothers allegedly peddled large quantities of hashish smuggled from Morocco and the the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.

Ahmidan had done time in Spain and his native Morocco. Police believe that he converted to radical Islam behind bars within the last few years.

Despite his reputation for fanaticism at the Madrid mosque he attended, Ahmidan also frequented discotheques and bars. He struck his Spanish neighbors as friendly and flashy. They remember him zooming by on a motorcycle with his long-haired girlfriend, a Spanish woman with a taste for revealing outfits.

In contrast, Fakhet, 37, seemed a driven and tormented intellectual. The sole Tunisian of the group arrived in Spain eight years ago and won a government scholarship to study economics. His teenage wife, the sister of a reputed terrorist arrested in the Casablanca case, wore a head-to-toe burka. Fakhet worked as a real estate agent, impressing his bosses with his sales talents, but exasperating them with his disregard for rules and schedules.

Fakhet’s rage, police say, resulted partly from his reverence for Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the accused Syrian-Spanish boss of a Madrid Al Qaeda cell that was dismantled in 2001. Fakhet and a dozen other accused train bombers were longtime associates of the Barakat cell, police say. With Barakat in jail, Fakhet made it his mission to take care of Barakat’s wife and six children.

“Their situation inspired and infuriated the Tunisian,” the Spanish commander said. “He was the one who kept insisting that the group had to do something here in Spain. Why go to Afghanistan if you can fight jihad here?”

Only a few of more than 30 suspects in the case had trained in Afghan camps. That may explain why the bombings were not suicide attacks, a break with Al Qaeda’s usual style.

Police believe that Barakat’s ideological influence set the stage for Fakhet’s embrace of Ahmidan and his crew of half a dozen drug traffickers. Fakhet, seen as the dominant figure in the cell, had contact with Ahmidan as early as late 2002, but the other traffickers surfaced in the plot only a few months before the bombings, police say. Although Barakat claimed in recent court testimony that he condemned the bombings and Takfir wal Hijra, years of surveillance suggested that Barakat had a Takfir-style philosophy, police say.

“We know that when Barakat had been consulted in the past, he justified drug trafficking if it was for Islam,” a top investigator said. “He saw it as part of jihad.”

The traffickers took charge of obtaining money, weapons, phones, cars, safe houses and other infrastructure. Ahmidan rented a rickety rural cottage from one of Barakat’s associates on Jan. 28, turning it into a headquarters and bomb factory. He enlisted Spanish jailhouse contacts to arrange the exchange of 66 pounds of hashish for 220 pounds of dynamite stolen from a mine in the Asturias region in late February.

Days before he and a dozen others allegedly planted the backpack bombs on four commuter trains, Ahmidan flew to the island of Majorca, apparently to arrange a sale of hashish and Ecstasy, police say. The cash went into a war chest for follow-up plots, among them a foiled attempt to blow a high-speed Madrid-Seville train off its tracks, authorities say.

Police cornered seven of the fugitives at an apartment in suburban Leganes on April 3. The suspects blew up the place, killing themselves and a SWAT officer after a standoff in which they chanted ritualistically, draped themselves in sheets of martyr’s white and called their families to say goodbye.

Six of the corpses have been identified: They included those of Fakhet, Ahmidan and three dealers. Fifteen more suspects are in jail, eight are fugitives and several others are free but face lesser charges.

Despite the homegrown nature of the operation, police believe that the Madrid group followed orders from an Al Qaeda mastermind with a sophisticated understanding of Spain. The inquiry has focused on Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a Syrian-Spanish jihadi trained in combat and ideology. Nasar edited an extremist journal in London in the mid-1990s, then went to Afghanistan to run a training camp for Syrians, investigators say. He is believed to be in Iran.

Nasar’s stature in Al Qaeda today compares to that of his Jordanian associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, the alleged leader of networks in Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, police say. Both are considered potential masterminds.

The anger of extremists and criminals toward society came together in Madrid, expressing itself in the indiscriminate cruelty of the bombings.

As for the holy water that anointed the alliance, the rituals show the improvised, arcane beliefs of some fundamentalists, police say. The practice of drinking water imported from Mecca to prepare for martyrdom is part religion, part superstition, experts on Islam said.

“They drank the water to purify their souls,” the Spanish police commander said. “To ask forgiveness in advance for the crimes they were going to commit.”


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