The newspapers called him the mad shootist of Beziers. But Safir Bghioua was apparently Europe’s worst nightmare: an ominous mix of small-time gangster and apprentice terrorist gone wild.
On Sept. 1, after telling his mother he would never see her again, the 25-year-old ex-convict armed himself with an RPG2 antitank weapon and a trunkload of guns and explosives more common in Afghanistan than in a small city amid the vineyards of France’s Mediterranean coast.
Bghioua drove into La Deveze, the cement corridor of housing projects where he grew up. Wrapping a white bandanna around his forehead in homage to Palestinian suicide bombers, the son of Moroccan immigrants declared that the time had come to face maktub, or destiny.
Then he went on a Saturday night jihad. He blew up a policeman’s car with a grenade launcher; another blast sent a vehicle occupied by four officers skidding 50 feet. Bghioua exchanged gunfire with his pursuers, carjacked two vehicles and eluded a predawn manhunt as he called police from phone booths.
“I am a soldier of God, a son of Allah,” he screamed, claiming to have fought in foreign wars. “Bring in the SWAT team and let’s have a big finish.”
About 7:40 a.m. Sunday, he crossed paths at a gas station with the mayor’s chief of staff, Jean Farret, and killed him with a burst from an assault rifle. Three hours later, SWAT snipers shot Bghioua dead in a shuttered fairground.
The rampage was front-page news in France until the carnage across the ocean on Sept. 11. Although investigators have not yet found direct links to organized terrorism, the city’s mayor and other officials believe that Bghioua got his arsenal and inspiration from Islamic extremists.
“I think Islamic groups recruited, armed and trained Safir,” Mayor Raymond Couderc said. “I strongly believe he had a relationship with an Islamic network, that he was a member of a sleeper network, that he had been told he could be activated at one moment or another.”
Bghioua’s rage did not die with him. For young toughs in Beziers, he is a martyr. After Bghioua’s spree, graffiti here proclaimed: “Islam 1, Beziers O.”
Criminals Justify Actions With Rhetoric
The writing on the wall spells out a menace that was only accentuated by Sept. 11. European law enforcement and intelligence officials say crime, inequality, ethnic alienation and Islamic extremism have converged in an angry subculture that makes some Muslim neighborhoods breeding grounds for terrorists and for violent criminals who justify their actions with extremist rhetoric.
In recent years, Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations built a recruiting apparatus targeting recently arrived Moroccan laborers in Madrid, second-generation French Algerians in Paris, disaffected converts in London and others.
The recruiters are generally hard-core holy warriors with combat credentials from Algeria, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Chechnya. They cast their nets in prisons, mosques and soccer stadiums, and sent thousands of recruits to training camps in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. Despite the pounding Al Qaeda has taken in Afghanistan, the undercover army remains in place.
And the lines between criminality and extremism are starting to blur. Hoodlums from Muslim backgrounds increasingly cloak crime with an aura of holy war, according to a recent intelligence report by a West European police force.
Terrorists “now have recourse to the services of criminal professionals whom they motivate . . . with a religious discourse,” the report states. “This means that terrorists will resort more and more to criminal techniques to procure funds [bank robberies, credit card fraud, car theft rackets]. It will be extremely difficult here to separate ideology from common crime.”
A French intelligence official made this comparison: Imagine that California’s prison gangs and street gangs were predominantly Muslim. Imagine a global terror organization attempting to channel their capacity for mayhem, he said.
That is a troubling specter. Crime is rising in countries such as France and Spain, and Europe’s population is increasingly young, Muslim and vulnerable to crime and extremism.
France balances its aggressive anti-terror battle with efforts to integrate its Muslims. As Spain absorbs a surge of immigration, recent accusations that alleged Al Qaeda recruiters were accomplices in the Sept. 11 attacks brought appeals for tolerance.
“We know that fighting terrorism, whatever its source, will benefit us all,” said Mohamed Afifi Mohamed, cultural affairs director of Spain’s biggest mosque. “Let us not forget that there are thousands and thousands of Muslims here living completely within the law.”
But other Muslims are clearly a cause for concern to authorities. The intelligence officer cited interconnecting problems in France: “The violent neighborhoods, the housing projects where the young men can be recruited. And an ironic thing: When the extremists take control, violence goes down. Islam brings discipline. But then we have to watch that neighborhood for a different reason. For the extremists, there are two kinds of territory: conquered territory and territory that remains to be conquered.”
Ruthless Sect Conquers Slums
A ruthless fundamentalist sect has rapidly conquered turf in slums and prisons in France, Belgium, Britain and Germany, according to law enforcement officials. Takfir wal Hijra justifies attacks on Western society as a religious duty.
The group started in Egyptian prisons in the late 1960s as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, then fled into the desert. Translated as Excommunication and Exile, the group believes purification is achieved by withdrawing from society, then reemerging and killing anyone--even a fellow Muslim--who does not adhere to its puritanical version of Islam.
Recruiters typically cite their own interpretations of hadiths, or the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
“It’s also a form of empowerment,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has lived among Takfir groups. “The problem is, you get a lot of poor, young, uneducated people quite willing to buy into the ideology, but who are not really [religiously] trained. So they pick and choose and pull out little pieces of evidence from hadiths, not understanding the context or history.”
Takfir is part of a pan-Islamic movement called Salafism. Salafists and Takfir members have been arrested in a crackdown on Al Qaeda terrorists plotting attacks on U.S. targets in Europe.
In addition to supporting those groups, Bin Laden has financed legal and human rights associations that provide lawyers for jailed militants. The network calls on exconvicts to repay the favor after their release, said Roland Jacquard, a French expert with ties to intelligence services.
“When these people get out of jail, they are being recruited for an action,” he said.
Fundamentalism appeals to convicts who feel as if they are spiritual exiles adrift between North African and European cultures, said Alain Grignard, a Belgian expert on Islam and an anti-terrorist police commander.
“They preach if you are rejected as a criminal you are rejected as a Muslim, so they try to use your energy that way,” Grignard said. “It’s not a problem of religion, but of sociology.”
In prisons, Islamists try to convert North Africans, sub-Saharan Africans and native Frenchmen alike. In a recent first-person account in the newspaper Le Monde, an inmate of Algerian descent described Taliban-style jailhouse rules. Extremists demand that fellow inmates wear long pants in the exercise yard because shorts offend their faith. They change channels if Jews appear on television and distribute anti-Jewish literature.
“You are our brother, look at the way France put you in prison, that’s why you should fight with us,” one jailhouse recruiter told the author.
An imprisoned terrorist lectured the author-inmate on avoiding Coca-Cola and other infidel food products and gave him a seminar on urban warfare: how to fashion a crude mine out of rifle cartridges, a fuse with a cigarette, a detonator with a battery-powered alarm clock. A baby-faced Frenchman told of learning combat techniques in Afghanistan, then attacking a tank with a rocket launcher near Kabul in the 1990s.
This combination of terrorists and criminals is volatile and unpredictable, said Abul Ela Madi, an Egyptian militant.
“The new generation of terrorists is more fierce, violent and dangerous than their predecessors,” he said. “We will see new people with no known connections or history [of terrorism] who will surprise us with operations that are more violent than ever.”
Secret Trips, Odd Goings-On in La Deveze
The rampage in Beziers was certainly a surprise. Bghioua was born into a family of six children who lived in one of 2,500 public housing apartments in the industrial ghetto of La Deveze. In the projects, well-tended grounds and satellite dishes alongside clotheslines on the balconies, recent remodeling, job and youth programs all are the fruits of France’s welfare state.
Beziers has only 70,000 residents, and La Deveze is not as harsh as the vast banlieues, or suburban ghettos, of Paris where youths ambush firefighters and mail carriers with rocks, washing machines heaved off roofs and gunfire.
Nonetheless, a social gulf separates La Deveze from Beziers’ historic downtown of narrow streets and stone churches. Bghioua was a typical product of La Deveze, according to city officials. He moved in an underworld of drug dealers in warmup suits and hip-hop attire who feud along ethnic lines: Moroccan, Algerian, Turkish, Kosovar, Catalan Gypsy. He racked up half a dozen arrests for car thefts and drugs.
But during the year and a half before his death, he dropped out of sight for long periods, officials said. His family and friends have said he made trips to the Balkans--they mentioned Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo--frequent destinations for European extremists sent to train, fight or acquire arms for Al Qaeda. Investigators are also pursuing leads that he saw action in Chechnya.
Bghioua’s secretive activities coincided with odd goings-on in La Deveze. Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared. An intelligence service detected weekly visits to the projects by so-called barbus (bearded ones), Islamic itinerant clerics, according to a law enforcement official. The word on the street was that they offered young people paid trips overseas.
Investigators still haven’t pinned down contacts between extremists and Bghioua or the source of his arsenal. Police have discovered that he rented a garage stocked with stolen cars. Like guns and drugs, cars flow in and out of the Balkans, and the illicit trade overlaps with terrorism.
Some federal officials dismissed Bghioua as a mad gunman. That angers local leaders, who note that he had an accomplice, a youth who acted as a getaway driver part of the night and has not yet been identified.
“I can tell you two things: Safir wasn’t crazy and he didn’t act alone,” said a law enforcement official familiar with the case. “He had to be part of a network. He couldn’t get those arms on his own. Somebody trained him. He hit a moving car with the RPG, which is very difficult. This involves either high-level banditry or Islamic terrorism. Bandits usually aren’t suicidal in this manner.”
In his diatribes that night, Bghioua threatened to storm police headquarters and said he wanted to die like a soldier. He ended up killing an old soldier--Farret, 72, was a veteran of the French Foreign Legion.
When a SWAT commander subsequently accepted Bghioua’s challenge and told him to come to the city’s exhibition park, an isolated spot near La Deveze, he showed up ready for battle.
Islamic leaders condemned Bghioua’s rampage. On the street, though, the reaction reflected profound bitterness. Bghioua’s family, which has rejected contacts with the press after initial interviews, described him as a sensitive man driven to a “suicidal gesture” by injustice and racism.
“There’s a lot of hostility by the cops against us,” his oldest sister told the Midi Libre newspaper, which withheld her first name. “Safir felt excluded from everything.”
Some youths compared the drama to the case of Khaled Kelkal, a 24-year-old member of an Algerian terror group who became an underclass folk hero after dying in a shootout with gendarmes outside Lyons in 1995.
“There is a small group who see Safir as a hero,” said Jean-Marc Barascut, the director of a local social services center. “Just as there are those who, after Sept. 11, you could hear saying that it served the Americans right. But most of the kids reacted with incomprehension.”
Still, police across Europe worry about other potential Bghiouas and the patient, systematic recruitment network that trolls for them.
Recruiters infiltrate neighborhood anti-crime groups and substance abuse treatment programs to snare vulnerable candidates, according to experts. Neighborhood soccer teams are another tool.
“You have the same person being the trainer for the team who may also be the recruiter for a terrorist group,” said Frank Spicka of Interpol’s anti-terror unit.
In Lyons, Bordeaux and Limoges, adult soccer clubs have been run by radicals with terrorist ties, according to Jacquard, the expert with ties to intelligence services. In his book “Fatwa Against the West,” he recounts how a team dominated by North African immigrants held a moment of silence on the field in memory of Kelkal, the desperado slain in Lyons. A team from Nanterre played in front of fans who chanted Islamic slogans and wore paramilitary regalia, according to Jacquard.
In Madrid, meanwhile, the recent breakup of an alleged recruitment cell offered an in-depth look at its methods.
Spanish police spent six years shadowing the accused ringleader, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a rotund, bespectacled Syrian with alleged links to suspected terrorists in Europe, the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia. Barakat worked with four veterans of pan-Islamic legions in Bosnia.
Their recruits were mostly manual laborers who had recently arrived from North Africa, sometimes on rafts that make the illegal crossing from Morocco.
Barakat’s group allegedly fished for followers at the gloomy, fortress-like Abu Baker mosque in Estrecho, a bustling neighborhood where elderly Spaniards chat on street corners marked by signs of change: graffiti, Islamic butcher shops, storefronts offering telephone and money wiring services for immigrants.
The suspects also frequented the Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid, an opulent white mosque with a restaurant, library, gym and school.
The Soldiers of Allah, as they called themselves, started by passing out literature for fundamentalist groups including Islamic Jihad, a Bin Laden-linked terror organization, according to authorities. Recruits were taken to safe houses for indoctrination sessions featuring crude videos of combat in Chechnya.
Police say that more than 100 men attended the recruiting sessions in Madrid, and authorities have publicly identified a dozen who went on to training camps and battlefronts in Afghanistan, Indonesia and Bosnia.
Those who traveled to Afghanistan were received by Adnar Adnan Mohamed Salah, a formerly Madrid-based Palestinian who had become chief of a training camp, authorities say. Spanish police listened on wiretaps as Barakat, Salah and others coordinated their travels over elaborate routes and furnished fake documents and cash generated through credit card fraud and other crimes.
One of the most gung-ho militants was Yusuf Galan, a bearded Spanish convert who allegedly attended a terror camp in Indonesia in July. He was a fixture outside both Madrid mosques and participated in anti-U.S. protests.
In contrast, other alleged recruiters were long-established Syrian immigrants married to Spaniards. One worked as a carpenter, another as a plumber. The structure of the cell was fluid and anarchic, which experts say is the style of today’s terror networks.
Barakat has Spanish citizenship and a Spanish wife from a working-class background who converted to Islam. They have four children.
On the morning of his arrest, Barakat and his wife went out to drive the children to school and ran into a police contingent headed by Judge Baltasar Garzon, perhaps Europe’s best-known judge and a veteran of the fight against Islamic and Basque terrorists.
Searching Barakat’s apartment and sedan, police found videos of Chechnya that allegedly enticed young immigrants to battle.
One of them shows grizzled Islamic fighters at a table holding strategy sessions. The scene shifts to a foggy, snow-covered forest and the ambush of a Russian army convoy. Trucks erupt in flames, explosions shaking the camera. Guerrillas pull corpses from the wreckage.
Then the baleful holy warriors drag out survivors: boyish, crew-cut Russian soldiers cowering with hands in the air, victims of a war that seems much closer to the streets of Paris, Madrid and New York than it did before September.
Times staff writer David Zucchino contributed to this story.