Swiss Spy in a War of Words

Times Staff Writer

Along with banks and chocolates, this placid lakefront city has another claim to fame: It is full of spies.

Claude Covassi, a broad-shouldered, gray-eyed martial arts expert, was one of them. He became an informant for Swiss intelligence in early 2004, converted to Islam and infiltrated fundamentalist circles here in his hometown. He followed the trail of holy warriors all the way to mosques in Syria where aspiring foreign “martyrs” are groomed for Iraq.

But in February, the secret agent went explosively public. He revealed his mission to its prime target, a Muslim scholar here who has been periodically accused of extremism, and gave newspaper interviews accusing his handlers of trying to frame the cleric. Since then, Covassi has unleashed everything from confidential documents to details of clandestine operations.


The former spy insists that he abandoned his masquerade because he found faith.

“It is not great speeches that convinced me but the force of prayer and understanding of the Koran,” Covassi, 36, said in a recent interview by e-mail from his refuge in Egypt. “Islam transformed my existence.”

But Swiss anti-terrorism officials reject his allegations and accuse him of a personal vendetta. It’s unclear who was manipulating whom.

Covassi’s story gives a rare street-level view of the fight against Islamic extremism. All across Europe’s Muslim communities, security forces conduct aggressive surveillance of mosques, prayer halls, bookstores, butcher shops, Internet cafes and other outposts where legal fundamentalist activity converges with terrorism.

The case of the turncoat informant also reveals the risks involved for spy agencies -- and for a scruffy legion of secret soldiers on the front lines.

Covassi alleges that he was a pawn in a turf war between domestic and foreign services in Switzerland that resembles the conflicts among anti-terrorism agencies in other countries.

“I think the situation would not have degenerated so seriously if our different intelligence services collaborated even a little,” he said. “In reality, I have been able to observe that they are in continual rivalry, trying even to damage each other.”

His war of words has shaken the anti-terrorism forces of a small country with a surprisingly active militant underworld. Questions abound about Covassi’s motivations. Is he retaliating over money or a grudge? Is he in league with extremists? Adding to the uncertainty about his credibility, a court last month sentenced him in absentia to eight months in prison for dealing anabolic steroids while he taught Thai boxing at a gym in 2002.

Some officials believe he’s trying to pressure the government to avoid the prison term.

“Sometimes you use a source and it goes wrong,” said a Swiss security official, who asked to remain anonymous. “How much of what he says is rubbish to help him get out of the criminal case, I don’t know.”

The Los Angeles Times confirmed essential parts of Covassi’s story in interviews with Swiss legislative and security officials, European anti-terrorism agents and others involved in or familiar with the events. And Covassi supports his account by providing names and phone numbers of his handlers and confidential e-mail exchanges with agents.

The intelligence oversight committee of the Swiss congress is investigating the case. But doubts persist, especially regarding Covassi’s allegation that spymasters plotted to smear the controversial Islamic scholar Hani Ramadan by linking him to Iraq-bound militants. Ramadan’s brother, Tariq, is an internationally known Islamic intellectual.

Without commenting on specifics, Federal Police Chief Jean-Luc Vez said he knew of no wrongdoing.

“The [domestic intelligence service] respects the law,” Vez said. “We do not know of a case in which they can be blamed for illegal activity.”

But Vez said the Ramadans’ history and high profile made them legitimate subjects for scrutiny. “Their writings are sometimes ambiguous,” he said. “It is quite normal that they would get particular attention.”

Hani Ramadan says he might sue the government, but will await the result of the legislative inquiry. He has declined to comment further.

“As I have always said, the Islamic Center of Geneva has nothing to hide,” Ramadan said in a prepared statement. “The two years of secret investigations by an agent ... indeed prove that, because they have not resulted in any official investigation or sanction.”

Ramadan and Covassi are ambiguous figures in a city of shadows.

Geneva has long been a crossroads for intrigue because it is a base for international institutions, including the United Nations, as well as a haven for dissidents and a repository of colossal and dubious fortunes from around the globe. Soviet and Western agents sparred in this nominally neutral territory during the Cold War.

“It is a place that is crawling with spies,” said former legislator and author Jean Ziegler, a friend of the Ramadan family.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the cloak-and-dagger game has had a new focus. Authorities have frozen millions of dollars of suspected terrorist financiers and investigated local groups allegedly linked to Al Qaeda.

Muslims make up about 4% of the Swiss population of 7.5 million, mostly Balkan immigrants considered moderates. But Geneva draws extremist Muslim ideologues and holy warriors, who have become top priorities for law enforcement.


Helped Out of Jail

Enter Covassi. Acquaintances, and his own account, depict him as engaging, athletic, restless and a slick operator.

The son of an Italian immigrant laborer, he grew up here and went to Paris to study philosophy. But he also racked up two misdemeanor convictions for fraud in Switzerland. Bouncing around Europe, he befriended far-left activists in Italy and hung out with cocaine dealers on the hard-partying Spanish island of Ibiza from 2001 to 2003, according to his account. Those contacts helped him develop a sideline as an informant for narcotics police in his hometown, said Covassi and Swiss officials.

A boyhood friend in police intelligence introduced him to agents of the domestic intelligence service, the Service for Analysis and Prevention, or SAP. The agents helped him get out of jail after an arrest on charges of credit card fraud in February 2004, he said, and enlisted him in a mission dubbed Operation Memphis.

“The SAP had the air of being worried about a terrorist threat in Switzerland,” Covassi said. “I didn’t know anything about Islam. The project of Operation Memphis seemed useful. I did not get a salary. I was repaid for expenses, along with some ‘gifts.’ I got paid a total of about $12,200.”

Covassi started attending the Islamic Center of Geneva, a mosque run by Ramadan, 47. Ramadan and his brother, Tariq, have been watched by the world’s spy services for decades.

Their maternal grandfather was Hassan Banna, an Egyptian who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical, sometimes violent group seeking to revive Islam and rejecting Westernization. The group’s philosophies have inspired Islamist movements across the world, including those that spawned Al Qaeda.

After Banna’s assassination in 1949, their father, Said Ramadan, helped spread the group’s influence across the Muslim world, but soon fled Egypt amid a government crackdown.

The Ramadan brothers were born and raised in Geneva, where their father was granted asylum in the 1950s. The two scholars say they have renounced the intolerant aspects of their legacy.

But several top European anti-terrorism officials and academics see them as sinister ideologues. The United States revoked a visa for Tariq Ramadan in 2004 as he was about to begin a professorship at the University of Notre Dame.

“We have been interested in the Ramadans for a very long time,” the Swiss security official said. “But we have found nothing for a criminal indictment. They are fellow travelers.... They are preaching. They are spreading radicalism.”

In 2002, the local government fired Hani Ramadan from his job as a French teacher in a public school because of an article he wrote about Islamic law in which he defended the stoning of adulterous women. A court later ruled the firing was excessive.

The Ramadans have defenders, too. The British government has appointed Tariq Ramadan, now a professor at Oxford, to an advisory committee on Islam. Ziegler, the former legislator, calls the brothers unfairly maligned moderates.

“There is a campaign of permanent defamation against the Ramadan brothers,” Ziegler said. “Hani is an organizer, a pedagogue, less brilliant than his brother. But there is a social dimension to his work at the Islamic Center, assisting families.... If you want Muslim immigrants to become European, you should support the Ramadans.”

In order to infiltrate Hani Ramadan’s inner circle, Covassi used his real name and a classic cover story: He presented himself as a troubled ex-convict looking for spiritual solace. Within two months, Ramadan encouraged him to convert, Covassi said.

“With other Muslims I founded a newsletter, Al Qalam, and an association to defend the rights of Muslims,” he said. “I was therefore in close contact with Ramadan and I spent many afternoons with him in his office.”

The SAP had to resort to an informant because domestic spying laws prohibit its agents from undercover work and wiretaps. The tough restrictions even put agents overseeing informants in danger of breaking the law.

In addition to trying to learn everything he could about Ramadan, Covassi investigated Islamic networks that recruit for Iraq, the new magnet for holy warriors. Radicalization is difficult to combat even in countries with robust anti-terrorism laws. The speeches and activities of many hard-core ideologues are not illegal, even if they ultimately push young men into violence.

“What’s illegal?” the security official said. “Telling the ‘brothers’ that the Iraq invasion was illegal and must be resisted? Giving someone the address of a friend in Jordan?”

Covassi said he did not turn up anything connecting Ramadan to terrorism.

“I won’t tell you that all the Muslims who frequent the center are all saints, but ... the only men I met who were in contact with terrorist groups belonged to intelligence services of foreign countries,” he said.

As Covassi spent time at Ramadan’s Islamic Center and Geneva’s larger, Saudi-run mosque, he says he realized they were swarming with fellow operatives for European and Arab spy agencies. He briefed his handlers about an ardent extremist at the big mosque; they told him the man was a Syrian spy recruiting militants for combat in Iraq, he said.

Pursuing the Syrian connection, Covassi says, he accompanied Iraq-bound militants as far as Damascus, the Syrian capital, in January of last year. There, he spent time at the Fateh mosque and the Abu Nour Koranic school, which have been identified in other European investigations as hubs for international pipelines feeding the Iraqi insurgency. Militants there charged $600 for passage into Iraq and $4,000 for weapons, he said.

At both places, Covassi alleged, “the Syrian secret services recruit for Iraq.”

If true, his findings reinforce accusations that Syria aids the Iraq insurgency, a charge Damascus denies. European investigators said Syrian spies probably permit militant activity in Damascus, but proving direct involvement was another matter.


A Change of Heart

Upon his return, Covassi clashed with his handlers. He accuses them of pushing him to plant names of suspected Iraq-bound militants on computers at the Islamic Center to implicate Ramadan in the recruitment network.

Covassi said that by then he had come to admire the cleric “for his human qualities and the help he gave me in my knowledge of Islam.”

As a result, Covassi distanced himself from the SAP, but not from spying. He promptly went to work for the Swiss foreign intelligence service, known by the French initials SRS, infiltrating terrorist networks across Europe and the Middle East.

The new job embroiled him in the harsh rivalry between SAP and his new agency, he said. Covassi provided The Times with excerpts of confidential e-mail exchanges with his handler at the foreign spy service. Using code names, they discuss surveillance photos, a clandestine rendezvous at a train station and a suspected plot to attack an Israeli passenger plane with a rocket-propelled grenade at the Geneva airport late last year.

Covassi and the handler disparage agents at the SAP, whom they codename “the Bears.”

In an e-mail dated Dec. 3, an agitated Covassi complains that his former bosses had renewed pressure on him to spy on Ramadan, whom he calls “the Guru.” He refers to an apartment used for surveillance operations on the Islamic Center. And he threatens to go public.

"[The agent] talks to me every day about the apartment in front of the [Islamic Center] and has confirmed to me that the Bears want to use it to go after the Guru again,” Covassi writes. “I want to emphasize some points: 1) It’s out of the question for me to participate in this plan, and therefore to put names on photos that [the agent] shows me. 2) As I told you during our meeting in the mountains, if the situation degenerates for the Guru, I wouldn’t flinch from blowing the lid off my collaboration with the Bears and the information in my possession.”

Covassi soon went on a rampage. He had two angry meetings with his old handlers. He gave an interview to the Tribune de Geneve newspaper denouncing what he called the persecution of Ramadan.

In the following days, he alleges, he received threats, his studio apartment was burgled and he was mugged on a street by two Arabs who beat him bloody.

He decided to run.

Despite his public tirade, Covassi says, his handlers at the foreign spy service assisted him in his getaway Feb. 19. An agent drove him to the airport, paid for a ticket to Spain and gave him about $8,000 in cash, he said. The SRS had already paid about $33,000 for his services, he said.

Asked about the apparent conflict among spy agencies, Swiss officials said they were working to improve cooperation.

“There is always a certain competition among services,” Vez, the police chief, said. “It’s endemic. I think the role of a leader is to ensure that the competition is not counterproductive.”

Covassi said he made his way from the Canary Islands to Mauritania, narrowly avoiding arrest, and then to Egypt, where he had friends. He says he has been there since March.

From his refuge, he fires off e-mails to journalists and politicians. He threatens to disclose well-documented secrets if the congressional commission does not bring him back to Switzerland to testify. Despite Ramadan’s family and ideological links to Egypt, Covassi insists that the Muslim Brotherhood has not given him shelter.

The runaway spy sounds plaintive, lost in his labyrinth.

“I don’t have money,” Covassi said. “I have made an effort to avoid being helped by any Islamist group so no one can claim that I am being manipulated or what have you. I am absolutely alone.”