A World Wide Web of terrorist plotting
They never met face to face, but the two young zealots became brother warriors in the new land of jihad: the Internet.
Investigators say their bond made them central figures in a terrorism network that spanned eight countries, involved more than 30 suspects and hatched plots in Washington, Toronto, London and Sarajevo.
Maximus was the online moniker of Mirsad Bektasevic, a lanky Bosnian refugee with a dark stare and a hunger for action. At 18, he returned from Sweden to this war-scarred city, where he assembled an arsenal for a suicide attack and filmed a “martyrdom” video.
Irhabi007 was Younis Tsouli, a Moroccan living in London with his diplomat father, investigators say. Hunched day and night over his computer, the diminutive 22-year-old allegedly served as a pioneering cyber-operative for Al Qaeda, oversaw Bektasevic’s mission and was at the hub of other plots.
Their case shows that the Internet has become a virtual training camp and operations center replacing the Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Bosnia that produced a legion of fighters, formed them into cells and launched them at targets.
The soldiers of this looser network were more technologically and culturally agile than the grim fanatics who executed attacks in the past, according to trial evidence, court documents and interviews with investigators, defense lawyers, family and friends. They spoke more English than Arabic and listened to the rap of Kanye West along with the harangues of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Their Western ways enabled them to communicate and cross borders with ease. And investigators say they had a youthful disregard for life.
At the same time, many were amateurish and reckless. That made them easier to track, but presented investigators with a dilemma: A fighter may lack experience, but he remains a menace if he is willing to die for his cause. As militants radicalize more quickly and operate more independently, the threat they pose often is harder to assess.
One thing hasn’t changed. Fledgling holy warriors still need real-world arms and expertise.
Al Qaeda takes hold
Eleven years after the siege of Sarajevo ended, downtown bustles: stylish young crowds, cafes full of smoke and talk, the call to prayer echoing among ornate Ottoman mosques.
On the edge of this capital city, however, the Butmir neighborhood looks somber and shuttered, as if nursing old wounds. There are flak-shredded ruins on Polygonska Street, where Bektasevic’s uncle owns a house with an eagle statue on a balcony. A haze floats over a garbage dump at the end of the street.
Beyond the dump rise the mountains from which Serb snipers and artillery rained fire onto Sarajevo. The onslaught brought fighters from across the Muslim world to defend Bosnian Muslims.
The battleground became a spawning ground for Al Qaeda. After the war, hundreds of militants gained Bosnian passports and stayed. Extremists groomed here were involved in plots such as the bombings of Paris trains in 1995 and one targeting Los Angeles International Airport in 1999.
Bektasevic’s family fled to Sweden at the start of the war when he was 5, and he lived with his widowed mother on welfare. Most Bosnians practice a tolerant Islam, but some refugees in Scandinavia have been swept up by extremism that has spread among young Muslims there. At about 13, Bektasevic grew interested in his religious heritage after memorizing a Koranic verse to pray at the funeral of a friend.
“This was the thing that change [sic] my heart,” he later told interrogators. “I liked it and I wanted to know more.”
The pimply teenager dropped out of school after ninth grade and racked up juvenile arrests. He spent six hours a day on the Internet, soaking up rage and gore. On a radical website, he befriended half a dozen teenagers in Denmark. Their families were Palestinian, Moroccan, Turkish, Bosnian; after the youths visited an extremist cleric in London in 2004, Danish intelligence put them under surveillance.
Bektasevic drifted to Copenhagen, where he slept at a mosque and became a leader of the group. In the summer of 2005, they filmed a video declaring themselves “Al Qaeda in Northern Europe.” It featured a logo allegedly designed by a long-distance associate: Irhabi007.
The word means “terrorist” in Arabic. Court documents and investigators identify him as Younis Tsouli.
‘A flair for marketing’
Tsouli had moved to London about four years earlier with his father, a deputy director of the Moroccan tourist office. Father and son shared a basement flat on a quiet street in West London that mixes brick apartment houses with ethnic restaurants.
The younger Tsouli sometimes attended the Shepherd’s Bush mosque near a stretch of Uxbridge Road where black-veiled women push baby strollers and men smoke hookahs in scruffy cafes. He registered for college computer studies, officials say. But he apparently spent most of his time at his computer.
His alleged alter ego, Irhabi007, appeared on radical sites in 2003. His first real coup came in May 2004 when he copied and disseminated a video of Zarqawi beheading Nicholas Berg, an American contractor in Iraq. Two months later, he hacked into the servers of the Arkansas highway department to distribute Zarqawi videos.
Irhabi007 came up with revolutionary ways of finding space to disseminate big multi-media files without getting caught. He allegedly posted materials about bomb-making and hacking, trolled Web pages of U.S. soldiers in Iraq for tips on targets, discussed a plot against the U.S. warship Kennedy.
“He had a flair for marketing, advertising,” said Evan Kohlmann, a private anti-terrorism consultant who helped investigators track him. “It was all so professional.... He had a unique, bloodthirsty brand of humor.”
In one online exchange, Irhabi007 celebrated the slaying of a U.S. diplomat in Iraq, according to a transcript. The victim’s name “sounds Jewish,” he jeered. “Not any more! LOL. !!!! nice catch. (:! NEXT.”
When Kohlmann proposed an online dialogue, he answered: “Dear Evan: I don’t do interviews. If you wish to discuss anything, then the forum is a good platform.”
A Zarqawi aide gave Irhabi007 instant notoriety in October 2004 by praising his talents in an online statement. Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq organization started sending him videos and asking him to post them, according to Bosnian court documents. In addition to acting as “media guy” for Al Qaeda in Iraq, he also allegedly began recruiting fighters and assisting with their journeys, Kohlmann said.
“He was working like a telephone operator, putting people in touch with the Zarqawi organization,” Kohlmann said.
Soon, Tsouli allegedly turned to a new front.
American prosecutors say he communicated with Syed Haris Ahmed, a Pakistani American, and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, a Bangladeshi American, both in Atlanta. In March 2005, the two took a bus to Toronto and met with Canadian extremists to discuss possible attacks on military bases and oil refineries, and a trip to a Pakistani terrorist camp, according to a U.S. indictment.
The next month, they drove Ahmed’s pickup truck to Washington, where court documents say they videotaped the Capitol, World Bank headquarters, a subway station, a hazardous materials vehicle and fuel storage tanks. The video was intended “to establish their credentials with other supporters of violent jihad as well as for use in violent jihad,” the U.S. indictment says.
Sadequee allegedly communicated with Tsouli before and after the trip to Washington, and sent him the alleged reconnaissance video, which Tsouli stored in a PowerPoint format, according to the indictment.
Tsouli was also in contact with the Toronto cell, investigators say. For the Bosnian plot, he allegedly provided guidance, financing and a video on assembling a suicide bomb vest, investigators say.
Tsouli activated a new cellphone Sept. 19 to call Bektasevic, according to court documents. Upon arriving in Sarajevo a week later, Bektasevic bought a phone card and sent a text message with the number to a suspect in London with the words: “Give this to Bond.”
“Bond,” according to Bosnian prosecutors, was Tsouli.
40 pounds of explosives
Bektasevic first stayed at a cheap hostel in Sarajevo, a city he knew from family vacations. Although his uncle gave him the keys to the house near the garbage dump, he chose to sleep in an apartment across town that he rented under an assumed name.
On Oct. 7, he phoned Abdul Basit Abu-Lifa, 17, a baby-faced Palestinian Dane with shoulder-length curls.
“Try to get more money because I think, thank God, brother, I have found some really good stuff, you know?” Bektasevic said, according to a Danish wiretap transcript. The intercepted calls to Copenhagen also referred to “the trainees” and “the best place to do you know what.”
In his search for explosives, Bektasevic enlisted two friends who worked at a halal grill. He met them in 2003 after prayers at the King Fahd Islamic Center, a big Saudi mosque that draws Muslim radicals.
Bajro Ikanovic was 27: bearded and bear-like, he had returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina and found Islam after a series of criminal escapades in France. He was trying to reform his friend, Amir Bajric, 25, a fast-talking ex-convict with striking gray eyes. Despite the likeness of Osama bin Laden tattooed on his chest, Bajric had a weakness for alcohol and women.
The grill belongs to a meat company run by former foreign fighters. It is among the Muslim businesses targeted by Bosnian authorities investigating the underworld of arms and extremism that is a legacy of war, officials say.
In mid-October, the Copenhagen crew sent help. But it wasn’t Abu-Lifa, whose father sensed trouble and confiscated his passport. Instead, Abdelkader Cesur, 18, a pudgy Turk who spoke confident English, got on a bus for Sarajevo despite a warning from Danish intelligence agents that his radicalism was going to get him in trouble.
Two days after the Turk arrived, Tsouli called Bektasevic from London, prosecutors say. Three days after that, on Oct. 19, 2005, the two Bosnians handed over more than 40 pounds of explosives in a metal strongbox from an abandoned military base.
Bektasevic got to work assembling his explosives vest in the sparsely furnished safe house on Polygonska Street. He chopped slices of a mixture of nitroglycerin and ammonium nitrate and put them in the refrigerator to harden. Dizzied by the chemical stench, Cesur slumped on a couch.
At 3:55 p.m., there was a knock on the door: three plainclothes detectives with a search warrant. Bektasevic snarled, “Who are you to search my house, you trash?”
They wrestled him to the floor. A detective charged in and saw that Cesur had his hand under a coat. The detective yanked away the coat, revealing a silencer-equipped pistol. He slapped the gun out of the Turk’s hand and overpowered him.
Alerted by Danish intelligence, police had shadowed the two since their arrival and decided to nab them as soon as they got their hands on explosives.
“We found a detonator in the suicide belt,” said Ifo Sako, chief of counter-terrorism for the Bosnian federal police. “Only a crazy individual, or someone about to do something, keeps a detonator hooked up to explosives.”
Police also arrested Bajric, Ikanovic and a third Bosnian. A search turned up a video of a masked Bektasevic and another man posing with rifles, bomb timers, ammunition and a grenade-launcher.
“These weapons are going to be used against Europe, against those whose forces are in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bektasevic declared in the video.
But police could not find those weapons or identify the second man. Bektasevic had conducted reconnaissance on international troop contingents, investigators say, but his exact target in a city full of foreign troops, embassies and relief agencies remains unclear.
Intelligence officials had wanted to keep watching the young suspects, said Vjek Vukovic, an assistant security minister who is leading a crackdown that recently stripped more than 300 foreign suspected militants of their passports. But the police insisted on quick arrests, he said.
“I am sure the network was much bigger,” he said. “Who knows how many got away?”
Nonetheless, phone and Internet clues indicated that the cell in Bosnia was in contact with suspects in Western Europe and North America. Investigators from half a dozen countries picked up the leads.
Three days after the Sarajevo arrests, the second domino fell.
British police already had been watching Tsouli for some time, investigators said. Now they raided the basement apartment in West London and arrested him after a violent struggle, according to Bosnian court documents. Two other suspects also were arrested.
Police accused all three of credit card fraud for “financing terror at home and abroad,” documents say. Tsouli and another man also face charges of plotting a bomb attack in Britain.
The Copenhagen group was rounded up five days after the Britons.
After extended surveillance in Atlanta, the FBI arrested Ahmed, 23, last July as he returned from a trip allegedly to seek terrorist training in Pakistan.
Sadequee, 21, fled to Bangladesh, got married and spent eight months there before authorities captured him and sent him back. Both men are charged with conspiracy and providing material support to a terrorist group.
Also last summer, Canadian police rounded up 17 suspects in Toronto. They are charged with a bomb plot and conspiring to take legislators hostage and behead them in Parliament.
The defendants in London, Atlanta and Toronto have pleaded innocent, and trials are likely to begin this year.
In January, a Bosnian court convicted five men including Bektasevic, who was sentenced to 15 years, and Cesur, who received 13 years.
The next month, a jury convicted four youths in Copenhagen on terrorism and theft charges. The judge sentenced Abu-Lifa to seven years in jail, but overturned the other terrorism verdicts, citing insufficient proof.
That mixed outcome shows the difficulties of prosecution when a case involves extremist activity on the Internet. Investigators are still learning about the online culture, and experts say that European judges in particular are often skeptical of computer-related evidence.
On the other hand, militants who operate on the Internet leave a trail that makes them vulnerable when they venture onto real-world battlefields, investigators say.
“Irhabi downloaded an image that says a lot to me,” Kohlmann said. “It was a caricature labeled ‘Beware of the Nerd.’ It’s like he’s saying he revels in his geek status. And he thinks nobody can catch him. He wasn’t a stupid guy. But at some point, he starts believing he’s untouchable.”
Rotella was recently on assignment in Sarajevo.