Terrorists Seen Turning to Campuses for Skills

Times Staff Writer

The cellphone’s trail led from bloodstained Fallouja to the engineering school here, a modern campus where researchers in white coats stroll past labs and the breeze rustles through trees in courtyards dotted with pine cones.

Two years ago French investigators, aided by U.S. intelligence, detected calls from Iraq to a central figure in a suspected extremist cell in Montpellier. French intelligence officials say the calls came from a militant leader in Fallouja involved in the grisly killing of four American military contractors by a mob on March 31, 2004, an incident that became an icon of the savage conflict in Iraq.

The suspected cell included a group of Moroccan students accused of studying electronics, computer technology and telecommunications in the service of a North African terrorist group allied with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group is sending fighters to Iraq, developing alliances across North Africa and plotting attacks in Europe, investigators say.


Officials say the case of the students, several of whom are under arrest, also illustrates a wider effort by terrorist networks to use universities and the Internet to replace former training camps in Afghanistan.

The well-off suspects appeared to thrive in this cheerful Mediterranean college town: dating, cramming for exams, hitting bars and nearby beaches. But their courses allegedly were a cover for acquiring expertise and designing explosive detonators for the network.

“They oriented their scientific studies to learn terrorist techniques,” a senior French anti-terrorism official said. “As people like this acquire knowledge and advance in the scientific community, they could become very hard for the police to detect. It was all quite sophisticated.”

A number of top figures in Al Qaeda have academic backgrounds in the sciences. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, is an engineering graduate, as were Mohamed Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell that produced pilots for the attacks. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the convicted ringleader of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, is another engineer-turned-militant.

In a recent book titled “The Next Attack,” two former National Security Council experts say that militants remain obsessed with developing technological capacity. The book describes bomb makers using Internet forums to reach out to academics for advice about electronics and chemistry.

The “responses suggest jihadists are able to draw on a wide range of highly skilled experts and that a significant number of Muslim scientists are prepared to help,” Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write.

Friends of the suspects here question some of the evidence against them, including their alleged level of technical expertise. Nonetheless, the friends agree that extremist activity has grown at the University of Montpellier, where the approximately 1,100 Moroccan students are the biggest contingent of foreigners.

“There is no question there is recruitment, especially at the science faculty,” said a Moroccan student leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think it’s because the science students are more naive. And at the same time, they are useful.”

The suspect students arrived in Montpellier in 2002 to find an immigrant community that is warm, welcoming and relaxed about class distinctions. Investigators say the students befriended Moroccan laborers involved in hard-core radicalism. At soccer games, prayers and traditional meals, the group coalesced around a key figure: Hamza Safi, a 21-year-old house painter and agricultural worker.

Three of the students were Hakil Chraibi, 23, son of a French-Dutch mother and a Moroccan doctor who had also studied here; Reda Barrazouk, 24, from an upper-middle-class Casablanca family; and Youcef Bouzzag, 21, also of Casablanca, whose father works for an international oil company.

In contrast to the dour and withdrawn attitudes of most members of the Hamburg cell, the engineering students enjoyed the local nightlife and became well-known leaders in Moroccan student circles, investi gators and friends say.

Chraibi looked and sounded more French than Moroccan, and often visited maternal relatives in nearby Narbonne. He played flamenco guitar and was an emcee at a North African cultural show. He dated women from Scandinavia and Britain, his friends say.

Barrazouk enjoyed pubs, playing soccer and excursions to the French and Spanish coasts. But friends said he also seemed naive and overly deferential.

Despite their Western ways, the students were devout Muslims, praying five times a day, according to their friends. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 pushed them over the line, the anti-terrorism official said. They spent hours discussing Iraq in sessions dominated by Safi, who declared that the time had come for action.

“Iraq is the key,” said the anti-terrorism official. “Iraq is both land of jihad and a factory for terrorists.”

Safi made his first trip to Iraq in 2003 with a fourth engineering student, Said Baha. They returned to Montpellier a few months later, and Baha was later arrested on suspicion of extremist activity in Morocco, authorities say.

In 2004, the Montpellier group came to the attention of French police because Safi received phone calls from a cellphone in Fallouja. There are suspicions that the phone was looted from one of the four slain U.S. contractors, according to court sources and reports in French newspapers.

But a French intelligence official said investigators had confirmed only that the calls were made by a militant leader involved in the Fallouja killings, not that it was taken from one of the victims. Investigators have not disclosed the identity of the militant.

Last summer, police carried out an anti-terrorism raid here, charging laborer Hamid Bach, a 35-year-old father of three, with heading to the Middle East with Safi in 2004 to fight in Iraq. Bach allegedly got as far as Syria before he backed out. He returned with orders to assist in terrorism plots in France and Italy, authorities said.

Safi continued to Iraq for the second time, and died in combat there, French intelligence officials say.

At the time, police chose not to arrest the students, preferring to keep them under surveillance. Chraibi had begun acting tormented and mysterious, friends said. He grew and shaved off a beard, alternated partying and dating with long sessions on his prayer rug. At a party last year, he refused to join other musicians in a jam session.

“He said the guitar led him into temptation and music wasn’t appropriate for him anymore,” the student leader recalled. “We argued about it. I showed him religious texts.... I told him not to be ridiculous. But he insisted. That was a sign to me that he was fragile and could be manipulated.”

With Chraibi, a computer engineering major, allegedly in a lead role, the students plunged into the clandestine world of the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat. At the urging of Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, investigators say, the network has broadened across North Africa and concentrated on sending fighters to Iraq and plotting strikes on Europe.

The students allegedly planned their course work to gather information and materials for the network. Expertise in electronics and telecommunications helped them develop sophisticated long-range detonators for bomb attacks, police say. In addition, they landed one-month paid internships with companies that gave them access to labs and the opportunity to order components in the name of their employers, investigators say.

“They had completed at least one device and were building others,” the French anti-terrorism official said. “There was travel to training facilities in the south of Algeria to share their knowledge and to receive instruction.”

The students have confessed to preparing detonators for networks based in Algeria, where the government has fought a bloody war with militants. But investigators think there may have been targets in Europe, the official said. Arrests in France last year and in Italy last month indicated that the network was developing plans for attacks in Bologna and Paris, French and Italian authorities say.

In December, Chraibi abruptly left town after entrusting Barrazouk with a bag containing a laptop and other materials and the key to his campus apartment. He did not say where he was going, his friends say.

Shortly before Christmas break, they said, Chraibi sent Barrazouk an e-mail asking to be picked up at the airport and adding, “Mission accomplished.”

But Chraibi never returned. His family arrived days later from Morocco, anxious because he did not answer phone calls. The family made a police report and stayed at his apartment while they looked for him.

On Jan. 16, Barrazouk stayed up late with friends cramming for an exam. But at dawn, agents of the French anti-terrorism service kicked down his door. They also raided Chraibi’s apartment, and told his stunned parents that he had been arrested in Algiers with other suspected terrorists.

Meanwhile, Bouzzag was arrested at a university in Troyes in northern France. He had transferred there in September to major in telecommunications engineering, which the anti-terror ism official described as “a choice of academic specialization made in the interest of the network.”

The mood among Moroccan students here has turned wary. Despite the sinister image of budding bomb makers that officials paint, friends doubt the trio had the skill to assemble high-tech devices. “I don’t think they were that good,” a fellow engineering student said.

Students fear French police and Moroccan spies as well as extremists. They see Barrazouk and Bouzzag as hangers-on and find Chraibi’s behavior, and the whole case, hard to explain.

“If it’s true, it’s a waste,” the student leader said. “Our countries are full of misery. Scientists, engineers -- those are exactly the kind of people we need.”