Embassy plot offers insight into terrorist recruitment, training
As 19 hijackers around the United States prepared this summer for a deadly day in September, authorities say, a related but decidedly different Islamic network was plotting an attack on an American symbol in the heart of Europe: the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
The European network also allegedly took orders from Osama bin Laden and may have had ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers. But the apparent plot to blow up the embassy by early next year was foiled when police recently dismantled the group in raids in four countries.
The story of the European network offers a frightening look at who the terrorists are and how they are recruited and indoctrinated. It also underscores the increasing focus of investigators on the activities in Europe of bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, especially several Sept. 11 hijackers who lived in Germany and moved around the continent.
For the most part, the suspects in the alleged Paris conspiracy do not resemble members of the state-sponsored groups that waged past terror campaigns in Europe. The half-dozen key suspects didn’t have to concoct fake identities or make risky cross-border journeys; they were already home. The central figures are upwardly mobile young men of North African descent who seemed to fit the European model of immigrant integration.
Europeans have worried for years about the potent appeal of Islamic extremism to the millions of Muslims in the continent’s increasingly large and violent slums, where youths defiantly chant bin Laden’s name and scrawl it on housing project walls. But the alleged terrorists were strivers from solid families. Some had university backgrounds, and two even had jobs in municipal government. One of them counseled troubled young immigrants.
“There are so many people in the [slums] who are ready to work with” terrorists, said Philibert Lepy, a lawyer for a Frenchman accused of terrorist activity. “It’s a big problem in France. [But] these people ... are even more ominous because they seem to be integrated into society.”
They are an odd mix: an honor student and computer enthusiast from Paris accused of being the communications expert; a former pro soccer player mired in drugs and crime who was allegedly the designated suicide bomber; and three non-Arab converts to Islam, including a Frenchman who spent a childhood of soccer and Catholic school in the Alps.
The group seemed to have its head in Paris, its soul in London and its heart in Afghanistan. None of the young men was particularly religious at first, investigators say, but each followed a clandestine path that has attracted dozens of French Muslims and turned them into terrorist “sleepers.”
The recruits went to London and frequented mosques that are allegedly academies for al-Qaida and gateways to training camps in Afghanistan, authorities say, where the men hardened themselves for holy war. They allegedly returned as undercover soldiers, plotting the attack in Paris while concealing a conversion to terror that now shocks their families. The portrait of the suspects emerges from interviews with relatives, friends, associates and law enforcement and government officials in Europe.
Driving the transformation were the unforgiving principles of Takfir wal Hijra, or Anathema and Exile, an extremist Islamic splinter group that is allegedly part of the bin Laden network. The Takfir movement originated in Egypt in the 1970s and was associated with groups responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Today, the archaic, sectlike movement to which the suspects in Europe belonged sees violence as a sacred duty and regards even moderate Muslims as legitimate targets. But it also permits disciples to engage in “impure” Western conduct in order to infiltrate infidel societies.
“They don’t have to go to mosques; they can even drink and use drugs to maintain their cover,” said a French law enforcement official. “They can commit crime to finance their activities. It is like an intelligence service.”
The profile of the Paris suspects also recalls a cult, say French and U.S. officials, who compare the indoctrination techniques in Europe to Western religious sects that prey on young people left vulnerable by personal frustrations, family problems, drugs.
“Who’s out there recruiting?” a U.S. official said. “What does it take to find these people and transform them into terrorists? There’s mind control here, someone preying on the psychological weaknesses of bright kids. There’s a whole group of people pulling people into the network.”
There are signs that the European network had contact with the U.S. hijackers. One French suspect may have crossed paths in London mosques and Muslim-dominated neighborhoods with Habib Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent who was arrested in Minnesota before the World Trade Center attack.
Moussaoui was a once-ambitious college student, but he embraced Islamic radicalism, distanced himself from his family and allegedly trained in Afghan terror camps. He then attended U.S. flight schools and is a suspected accomplice of the Sept. 11 hijackers, according to U.S. and French officials.
Moreover, U.S. and European law enforcement agencies are investigating whether Nizar Trabelsi, alleged to be the intended suicide bomber in the Paris plot, had contact in Spain this summer with suspected hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta.
Atta was in Spain between July 7 and July 19, according to Spanish police. A bin Laden lieutenant had been arrested in southern Spain the month before, and Atta may have arrived to give new instructions to al-Qaida operatives, according to Juan Cotino, the chief of the national police. Atta met with still-unidentified Middle Eastern men on the northeastern coast, police say.
Trabelsi is also believed to have traveled to Spain in July and August. Police are investigating whether he and Atta met directly or had contact with the same people, such as six members of an Algerian terrorist cell who were recently arrested by Spanish authorities. Trabelsi met with one of the Algerians, who admits that he was involved in a Paris bomb plot and had written suicide notes, according to the Spanish police chief.
Atta may have gone to Spain to plot with Europe-based terrorists, Spanish authorities say. Compared with the iron discipline and cohesion of the U.S. hijackers, though, the European network seems more loosely organized and somewhat improvised.
In fact, the suspects may have been pawns in a bigger game. The bin Laden organization has shown a talent for misdirection and could have sought to divert attention from the imminent, far more ambitious airborne offensive in the United States.
The timing of the discovery of the Paris plot is therefore interesting, officials say. On July 28, the accused ringleader, Jamal Beghal, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates with a false French passport on his way back from Afghanistan. He soon named fellow conspirators in a detailed confession and was extradited to France.
Beghal, 36, could have been acting under Machiavellian instructions to mislead Western law enforcement with the specter of a traditional attack in Europe -- “putting chaff on the radar screen,” in the words of one U.S. official. Or the European network could have been part of a multipronged global strategy.
In either scenario, the alleged Paris plot was serious business. It showed the widespread and insidious threat in Europe -- a threat embodied by the alleged chief of the network, the Algerian-born Beghal.
The big catch
Of all the suspects, Beghal appears to be the only veteran: He was jailed briefly during France’s battle in the mid-1990s with Algerian terrorists of the now-defunct Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, an especially violent movement whose remnants were partially absorbed by al-Qaida. He has been known to French anti-terrorist officials for some time.
“He is a big catch,” a French law enforcement official said. “He could lead into the heart of al-Qaida.”
Beghal is described as smooth and charming. He is tall and big-jawed, with striking green eyes. He has a French wife and three children. They lived until 1997 in a ground-floor apartment in Corbeil-Essonnes, a middle- and working-class suburb south of Paris that was the suspected hub of the network.
Not much is known about Beghal’s past or how he made a living. His apartment complex was government-subsidized, but with its well-kept lawns and playgrounds, it was by no means a ghetto. Unlike frequent visitors who dressed in Muslim garb, Beghal had an appearance that was Western, neighbors told reporters. The family moved out abruptly about four years ago, neighbors said.
Beghal resurfaced in Britain and lived in London and Leicester. He became an assiduous worshiper at mosques in the Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park neighborhoods where extremist clerics rail about an anti-U.S. jihad. Frustrated Western officials say those mosques, and a prayer center off Baker Street in London, are thinly disguised European headquarters for al-Qaida.
Aspiring terrorists are indoctrinated and screened in London before being dispatched to training camps in Afghanistan, according to investigators. Beghal and other suspects have admitted making trips to the camps, though Beghal recanted other aspects of his confession and said he was coerced.
In his confession, Beghal said he went to an Afghan camp near Kandahar in March and met with a top bin Laden aide, Abu Zubeida. During that sit-down, Beghal was given three gifts that supposedly came from bin Laden. Zubeida allegedly ordered him to plan an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris to be executed by early next year.
There were two possible strategies, investigators say: ramming the building with a van bomb or sending in a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-laden vest or belt.
A central figure in Beghal’s alleged attack team was Kamel Daoudi, 27, who had known Beghal since about 1998 and was also born in Algeria. Daoudi’s photos show a slender, close-cropped young man with a startled stare behind wide-framed glasses. His disbelieving family and teachers say his upbringing does not suggest a cold killer in the making.
“He was a good student, without troubles, very quiet, shy; he worked well,” said Bruno Plane, his high school principal in Paris. “He never expressed hatred against anyone or anything in particular. He was the very model of integration.”
Unlike the United States, which often emphasizes ethnic identity, French officialdom rejects the idea of hyphenated citizens. For example, the government does not release statistics based on ethnic origin. The unspoken deal is that immigrants who embrace French language, education and culture will be accepted without labels.
Daoudi’s family emigrated from Algeria when he was 5. He grew up in Paris’ bustling, bohemian 5th arrondissement, a magnet for students and tourists, and later moved to the middle-class suburbs.
Daoudi was a top student all through elementary and high school. He had an interest in computers and enrolled in college to study aeronautical mechanics, but he quit after his second year. His father has told reporters that Daoudi began acting mysteriously in 1996. He dropped out of sight periodically, traveled to London and Afghanistan and moved into Beghal’s former apartment in Corbeil-Essonnes, according to authorities.
The dismantled cell phones and alarm clocks found in Daoudi’s apartment during last month’s raids could have been bomb-making components, authorities believe. Although the extent of his computer expertise is unclear, police suspect that Daoudi was in charge of communicating with conspirators via the Internet. He was handy enough with a keyboard to get hired by the Corbeil-Essonnes City Hall in 1998 to work at the municipal cyber-cafe, a job he eventually lost because of spotty attendance.
Another suspect, Jean-Marc Grandvisir, also won a coveted “youth employment” post -- a job reserved for people younger than 25 -- at the same City Hall in 1999. Grandvisir worked in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods heading off violence and counseling wayward youths. He got excellent results on a promotional exam, according to Catya Martin, the mayor’s chief of staff.
“He was doing a very good job,” Martin said. “He was one of our best employees. His colleagues thought it was a mistake when he got arrested.”
The athletic, 23-year-old Grandvisir “never went around preaching” about Islam, Martin said.
Grandvisir is not North African; his family comes from the Antilles islands in the Caribbean. He was one of four French converts to Islam who are unlikely figures in the case and demonstrate the extremists’ apparent ability to recruit across ethnic and religious lines.
Another example: Jerome Courtailler, whom Dutch police arrested in Rotterdam on Sept. 13, allegedly in possession of fake documents and a machine for printing bogus credit cards. He grew up in the verdant foothills of the Alps, where his hometown, Bonneville, is a simultaneously bucolic and cosmopolitan resort town favored by skiers and hikers for its stunning views of Mont Blanc.
Courtailler and his brother, David, enjoyed apparently blissful childhoods. They excelled at soccer and clowned around in judo class. They were handsome and popular with girls. Their father, Michel, was a respected butcher whose shop window looked out on the cobblestoned town square. His sons worked in the shop as teen-agers, and Jerome pursued the trade for a time. David studied accounting at Catholic school with mediocre results, a teacher recalled. He also served a year in an elite army mountain battalion.
Meanwhile, the father’s business failed and he separated from his wife, according to friends. His sons grew despondent, slid into alcohol and drug abuse and decided that they had to get out of Bonneville, according to friends and David’s account.
David Courtailler has told French journalists that “friends” told him he could turn his life around in Britain. Courtailler’s lawyers and officials interested in the case believe that those “friends” may have been the Courtaillers’ first contact with the extremist network.
In early 1997, the brothers lived in London, converted and came under the influence of radical Muslims. A key question for European and U.S. investigators involves the suspected contacts between the Courtaillers and Moussaoui, the French Moroccan aviation student jailed in the United States. The brothers were in London at roughly the same time as Moussaoui and frequented the same mosques. There have been reports that the three shared an apartment, but David Courtailler has publicly denied ever meeting Moussaoui.
On the other hand, Courtailler has given a detailed account of the al-Qaida training procedures to French judges investigating the network’s international operations.
Courtailler initially converted to Islam to help shake a drug habit, said Lepy, his lawyer. Courtailler soon accepted an offer from a man at the prayer center on Baker Street: $2,000, a visa to Pakistan and the phone number of a contact there in Peshawar.
From Peshawar, Courtailler was taken to Khowst, Afghanistan, where he admits spending several months at a training camp in 1997 and 1998. His fellow moujahedeen-in-the-making were Algerians, Yemenis and other Arabs. They trained with old Soviet assault rifles in a primitive camp where the main diet was rice, according to the lawyer.
Courtailler saw no Europeans or other non-Arabs at the camp. But in a chilling bit of testimony, another witness has told French investigators that he encountered two Anglo-looking Americans from California at a bin Laden training camp, according to a French law enforcement official.
Courtailler took pains to keep his father in the dark, according to a family friend. He called his father from Afghanistan and said he was in London, even complaining about the damp, foggy weather, the friend said. The training was cut short when Courtailler fell ill with a vitamin deficiency and spent three months in bed at a snow-covered outpost, according to his lawyer.
Upon returning to France, Lepy said, Courtailler was stunned to discover that his trip had landed him on a CIA terrorist watch list. Police were alerted after Courtailler was arrested for shoplifting a pair of shoes in the French town of Calvados, his lawyer said. That led to interrogation sessions in Paris with legendary anti-terrorist Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who was conducting a follow-up probe of the 1998 bombings of the U.S Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Courtailler spent six months in jail and remains under judicial investigation on suspicion of criminal conspiracy to commit terrorism. He denies any role in terrorist acts.
Bonneville police officer Philippe Brozoni, who has walked the beat around the town plaza for 15 years, did not recognize Courtailler when he saw him last summer. He had a thick black beard, wore a long robe and joined members of the town’s sizable population of North African immigrants at an Islamic prayer center behind the plaza, the policeman said.
“I know the family,” Brozoni said. “They never had any problems. The boys were so good-looking, such good athletes. The father was hard-working. One would never have expected such a thing.”
The brothers’ soccer coach, Gerald Vagneron, said simply, “That’s what’s so frightening -- how one can swing in the wrong direction.”
Courtailler is worried about his brother, according to his lawyer. Townspeople say Jerome has not been back home since 1997. Authorities believe that Jerome Courtailler, who is also known as Salman and is in custody in the Netherlands, was deployed by the terror network to Rotterdam as part of the plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
The suspected bomber
Another base for the compartmentalized network was Brussels, where the suspected would-be bomber in Paris surfaced this year after returning from a camp in Afghanistan, according to officials.
Like his accomplices, Trabelsi, a 31-year-old Tunisian, defies stereotype. Far from living in the shadows, his professional soccer career made him a public figure and left him with a comfortable lifestyle.
Trabelsi had no need to work out in gyms, as did the U.S. hijackers, who reportedly tried to beef up at health clubs in the final weeks before the attacks. Trabelsi is 6-foot-4, about 190 pounds, and apparently still fit.
In 1989, at age 20, he got his start in the German soccer league with the third-division Fortuna Dusseldorf team. His break was the result of a recommendation by his uncle, a working-class immigrant who met the team’s president and persuaded him to give his nephew a tryout.
The dreadlocked rookie had raw ability and was genial and eager to please, according to teammates. He never mentioned Islam or Middle East politics, they said. The only outward sign of his faith was a tiny Koran he tucked into his sock as a shin guard. His curly-haired daughter sometimes attended his practices.
But the Tunisian soon had troubles. Coaches and teammates said Trabelsi -- who, though outwardly approachable and friendly, did not socialize with his colleagues -- often failed to show up for practice and seemed unwilling to expend the energy needed in the competitive world of European soccer.
“Nizar had all the qualifications for a soccer career,” Coach Aleksander Spengler said. “He just did not make use of his talents.”
At the Wuppertaler S.V. team, where Trabelsi played during the 1992-93 season, he had a reputation as a malingerer who blamed others for his problems. The team canceled Trabelsi’s contract before the season was over. The rejection seemed to send Trabelsi into a tailspin. He lasted in German soccer for a couple of more seasons, dropping to a lower league each year. By 1995, he was out of the game.
The arc of Trabelsi’s life suggests psychological vulnerability: a promising immigrant who achieved a measure of success and then fell apart. He divorced his wife and drifted into alcohol, drugs and crime. German police say he trafficked drugs between Germany and Rotterdam. In 1994 he was sentenced to 18 months’ probation in Dusseldorf, Germany, for importing cocaine.
A string of petty crimes followed in Germany between 1994 and 1998: theft, unauthorized use of a car, illegal gun possession. In January 2000, Trabelsi was charged with cashing two forged bank checks in Dusseldorf. By the time the bank had detected the fraud, Trabelsi had disappeared.
During this period, Trabelsi had begun to wander -- to Saudi Arabia in 1996, home to Tunisia, then back to Germany, according to accounts provided by his lawyer to reporters. Finally, in October 2000, he made the journey that most members of the European network seem to make, to Afghanistan, according to the lawyer’s account. Investigators say he trained in an al-Qaida camp. Trabelsi has reportedly admitted to the trip but not to terrorism.
In Brussels, Trabelsi rented a fourth-floor apartment in the pleasant, leafy neighborhood of Uccle on the city’s southern rim, home to both middle-class workers and diplomats. As preparations for the bomb plot intensified this summer, authorities say, he traveled to Spain.
Based on the confession by Beghal, Belgian police raided Trabelsi’s apartment in Brussels on Sept. 13. They say they found an Uzi submachine gun and a notebook with scribbled references to acetone and sulfur, chemicals used in explosives.
The hunt then led to a weathered downtown Brussels neighborhood where brick facades and colorful signs above stores and ethnic restaurants record successive waves of immigration -- Spanish, Italian, African, Asian, Middle Eastern. In the basement of an Egyptian snack bar called The Nile and owned by the family of a man arrested with Trabelsi, investigators found about 220 pounds of sulfur and 13 to 16 gallons of acetone.
The discovery of the potential bomb-making materials, investigators say, reinforces accusations that Trabelsi underwent a sinister metamorphosis. Friedhelm Runge, president of the Wuppertaler team, remembers how different Trabelsi seemed when the two ran into each other a few years ago. The Tunisian had cut off his wild “Rasta curls” and his skull was shaved nearly bald.
The accusations are “nearly unbelievable if you knew this boy,” Runge said.
In the end, the suspected plotters probably had little chance of success. France’s aggressive anti-terrorist task force had identified them weeks before Sept. 11 and had them under intense surveillance.
French police using eavesdropping devices overheard Grandvisir and other suspects apparently trying to destroy evidence in a suburban apartment and went in after them. Daoudi fled France to Britain, where he was arrested late last month and sent back to Paris for arraignment.
Beyond the alleged bomb plot, which must still be proved in court, the most worrisome result of the case may be what it shows about the presence of accused and potential terrorists in Europe. The threat exists in both obvious and unexpected places.
At the gendarme post in the picturesque alpine town of Roche Sur Foron, Chief Warrant Officer Jean-Claude Campia is more accustomed to traffic accidents and shoplifting than international terrorism. But once a week, David Courtailler reports dutifully to Campia’s tidy office under the terms of his release pending the outcome of the investigation.
Campia, who considers Courtailler something of a naif, said the convert claims to have been shocked by the militarism of the Afghanistan camps and by the attacks on the World Trade Center. Islam prohibits the killing of innocents, Courtailler told the gendarme.
The full beard and robe are gone now and Courtailler dresses like a typical young Frenchman. He has been pleasant and cooperated fully with the DST, France’s domestic counterespionage service, when it questioned him after Sept. 11, according to Campia.
“He just wants to be able to live a quiet life and get a job out of the media view,” Campia said.
Asked if he thinks the local boy is a terrorist, Campia replied briskly, “He certainly isn’t up to anything at the moment.”
But then the gendarme thought for a few seconds and put a hand to his narrow chin.
“But of course,” he said, “he could be a sleeper.”
Los Angeles Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Rome, Marjorie Miller in London, Megan K. Stack in Madrid and Carol J. Williams in Berlin and special correspondents Reane Oppl in Bonn and Craig Pyes, Sarah White and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.
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