ulm, germany -- As Al Qaeda regains strength in the badlands of the Pakistani-Afghan border, an increasing number of militants from mainland Europe are traveling to Pakistan to train and to plot attacks on the West, European and U.S. anti-terrorism officials say.
The emerging route, illuminated by alleged bomb plots dismantled in Germany and Denmark last month, represents a new and dangerous reconfiguration. In recent years, the global flow of Muslim fighters had shifted to the battlefields of Iraq after the loss of Al Qaeda’s Afghan sanctuary in late 2001.
“There have always been people going to Pakistan, but it is more frequent now,” said a senior French intelligence official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is a return. It is a cycle. . . . And you have the attractive phenomenon that all the big chiefs of Al Qaeda are there.”
Unlike Iraq, where foreign fighters plunge quickly into combat, recruits in Pakistan are more likely to be groomed for missions in the West. Aspiring holy warriors drawn to the Pakistani-Afghan border region today include European converts and militants from Arab, Turkish and North African backgrounds, investigators said.
“Pakistan worries me more than Iraq,” a top Belgian anti-terrorism official said. “It’s true that Iraq scares them a bit because many of them end up getting strapped up with the explosive belt right away. In Pakistan, they have time to be trained as operatives.”
But the path is not straight or easy. In the German case, at least a dozen suspects meandered among Koranic schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, then traveled through Iran into Pakistan. Several suspects were detained by Pakistani authorities en route to training camps, their seemingly improvised, sometimes amateurish odysseys contrasting with their alleged ferocity.
In the past, the main threat from that part of the world has involved young men from Britain’s large Pakistani diaspora targeting Britain and the United States. In a half-dozen plots since 2003, British operatives trained in Pakistan, made contact with fugitive Al Qaeda leaders and returned home to strike. They succeeded in July 2005, when the first suicide bombings in Western Europe killed 52 people aboard the London transport system.
In contrast, extremists from North African and Arab immigrant communities in Germany, France, Spain and Italy have been more likely to join networks based in North Africa or the Iraq region.
But today, even small countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland have detected non-Pakistani extremists going to Pakistani training outposts, officials say. Pakistani immigrant communities in mainland Europe are smaller than Britain’s, but could serve as conduits to the networks, police say.
In Spain, radical Pakistani imams and recruiters are muscling into predominantly North African mosques, a senior Spanish anti-terrorism official said. In Italy, Moroccan and Tunisian extremists communicate by Internet with extremists in Pakistan in an effort to show they are major players, an Italian anti-terrorism official said.
These new links, combined with the unprecedented plots against Germany and Denmark, show a gathering menace, the official said.
“I think that Europe has been at extremely high risk during the past six months,” he said. “First, because many fighters have returned from Iraq. Second, because of the real problem of Pakistan.”
In the Danish case, the leader of an alleged cell was trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in an apparent plot to kill Danish civilians, partly as revenge for the publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, anti-terrorism officials say. In the German case, police in September arrested three suspects accused of assembling 1,500 pounds of explosive materials for vehicle bombings near U.S. military bases. The trio allegedly took orders from Islamic Jihad Union, an Al Qaeda ally based in Pakistan.
Although not a crime under German law, training in a foreign militant camp is a vital step in radicalization. The idea of the journey itself has ideological resonance, evoking Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century.
The German case is a reminder of the loose, almost anarchic workings of a radical underworld; extremists need time, perseverance and initiative.
“It is very organic, not planned or structured,” a German intelligence official said. “It’s the chaos principle, just as Al Qaeda has always been chaotic. It is about chance. No one sits somewhere in the Hindu Kush with a map and draws circles on it and says: This is where we have to send people.”
The path began in this town near Stuttgart, where a mix of German converts and Arab and Turkish immigrants coalesced in an alleged extremist cell at a notoriously radical mosque. They made contact with their Egyptian imam’s son-in-law, who directed the Qortoba Arabic-language school in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, intelligence officials say. Starting in 2005, the three main suspects spent time at the Alexandria school.
Even if many teachers and students are not violent fundamentalists, Arabic and Koranic schools in the Middle East are classic gateways of radicalization for European Muslims. German suspects also attended such schools in Saudi Arabia and Syria and roamed in Turkey, investigators say, drifting abroad for months at a time.
It is believed that Fritz Gelowicz, the accused ringleader, met a key contact at a Koranic school in Damascus, Syria, in 2005: a militant from the Baluchistan region of Pakistan who became the liaison to the camps, an anti-terrorism official said.
In March 2006, Gelowicz and two other suspects trained at a camp in the lawless Waziristan region, according to Pakistani and U.S. intelligence provided to German investigators. Intelligence reports indicate that a German-speaking trainer worked with some German suspects, an anti-terrorism source said.
Investigators say the training camp was near the city of Mir Ali, which has seen heavy fighting in recent days as Pakistani forces clash with Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. The suspects used a variety of contacts and routes. But they all entered Pakistan via Iran, German investigators say. In Iran, with its heavy security force presence, it seems unlikely that those forces would not spot foreign militants in transit, particularly German converts, investigators said. Iranian authorities either looked the other way or were complicit, they said.
“It’s impossible for them to cross Iran without help,” the Italian anti-terrorism official said. “I think it implies support from the Iranian authorities.”
The attitude of Shiite Iran toward Sunni Al Qaeda has been ambiguous. Iranian authorities have arrested some Al Qaeda figures and protected others, seeing the terrorist network as a useful weapon against the West, anti-terrorism officials say.
The role of the Koranic school in Syria raises similar questions. Several European investigations have identified schools in Damascus as busy gateways where foreign fighters, posing as students, make contact with operatives who help them join the Iraqi insurgency. That recruitment and logistical activity has the permission or involvement of Syrian spies, European investigators say.
As the plot gathered momentum early this year, a second wave of associates set off from Germany. But U.S. and German police had begun intense surveillance, and Pakistani police were on alert. During the first half of the year, Pakistani authorities arrested seven militants.
Their futile treks suggest that there is no smooth and sophisticated pipeline to the camps.
On June 10, two alleged key figures in the group made it only a few miles across the Pakistani border before their capture at a bus stop. Tolga Duerbin and Houssein al Malah had met a contact in Tehran, paid $100 to a smuggler in an Iranian border town, and were carrying satellite phones and fake Afghan IDs when they were caught, according to investigators and a defense lawyer.
Pakistani police locked them in an underground prison in Islamabad, the capital, blindfolded them and grilled them about associates in Germany, said Duerbin’s lawyer, Michael Sertsoez. Duerbin said American agents were present during interrogations, the lawyer said.
Like most of those arrested in Pakistan, the two were eventually deported. Duerbin is in jail in Germany, accused of recruiting the leader of the group, while Al Malah and another suspect are free and being monitored.
But police continue hunting for three accomplices thought to be on the loose in Europe and Turkey, potentially dangerous veterans of the path to Pakistan.
Special correspondent Laabs reported from Ulm and Times staff writer Rotella from Paris and Madrid.