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Al Qaeda's Tracks Deepen in Europe

Surveillance Reveals More Plots, Links

By Peter Finn and Sarah Delaney Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, October 22, 2001; Page A01

MILAN, Oct. 21 -- Telephone wiretaps and listening devices planted in the apartment of a 33-year-old Tunisian here have produced evidence that a network of terrorist recruits trained at Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan has fanned out to a half-dozen European countries, according to Italian investigators.

The Tunisian, Essid Sami Ben Khemais, moved to this city in March 1998 after completing two years of training at camps run by bin Laden's al Qaeda network, the investigators said.

Khemais was put under surveillance by the Italian authorities, who found a trove of fresh information about terrorist cells sent to Europe. Many members of the network may still be at large, law enforcement officials said.

"In the past we had seen some links to Afghanistan, but we saw them as more or less acting here without close connections to al Qaeda," said a senior German intelligence official. "Now we are seeing more and more links between cells and to al Qaeda. We are rethinking everything."

"Before September 11, we had no idea of the depth of the problem," added a senior Italian official.

Details of the Milan cell, which was run by Khemais, are spelled out in 300 pages of Italian court documents, including police reports, arrest warrants and transcripts of the bugged conversations and tapped phone calls. The documents, obtained by The Washington Post, paint a picture of conspirators discussing bombings and other attacks in Europe. They also made cryptic remarks about a mysterious, dangerous chemical that suffocates people. It could be put in a tomato can, they said, and released when the can is opened.

The records also offer an example of how the terrorist attacks on the United States have jolted Europe to the presence of an interlocking set of terrorist cells that is believed to span Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain, France and Belgium, with supporters in numerous other countries, including Switzerland.

Indoctrinated with combat videos from Chechnya, absorbed into al Qaeda by bin Laden agents in Europe, and trained in Afghanistan for operations against the West, these cells of determined young men are a major challenge for law enforcement in Europe and the United States, according to investigators.

According to European court, police and intelligence sources, the cells were organized under two large umbrellas. One was an Egyptian movement called Anathema and Exile. The other was an Algerian group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. These umbrella networks, multinational in membership, coalesced through the efforts in Europe of three key individuals anointed by al Qaeda, the sources said.

The first is Abu Doha, 36, an Algerian who moved to London in 1999 after a stint as a senior official at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. He was charged with organizing attacks on the United States and is in detention in London, fighting extradition to the United States.

The second is Mohamed Bensakhria, 34, an Algerian who was arrested in Spain in June, after fleeing a police raid in Frankfurt, Germany, where he was based. The third is Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian with Belgian citizenship. Maaroufi is wanted on an Italian warrant issued by anti-terrorism prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso, but remains free because of his Belgian citizenship, which prevents his extradition to Italy.

According to European law enforcement officials, the three men were tasked by al Qaeda with forming strong links among groups across the continent and organizing terror attacks in Europe.

"These are the critical figures," said the German intelligence source.

The Milan cell was one part of the larger network. When Khemais moved to Milan, the sources said, the structure of terrorist networks in Europe was changing. A group of violent, radical militants had left behind conflicts in Egypt and Algeria, and wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, all of which were over or in abeyance. The "brothers," as the militants called themselves, soon found a new organizing principle in bin Laden's campaign against targets in the West, according to Italian investigators.

"The Algerian situation, for years the epicenter, has in the past few years lost its centrality in favor of a new binding capability represented by the project of bin Laden," according to an April report by the Digos, the Italian anti-terrorism police.

The taped conversations in the Milan cell bolster the conclusion that the young men had Europe in their sights.

For example, in March, bugs in Khemais's apartment picked up a conversation between the Tunisian and Lased Ben Heni, a 31-year-old Libyan veteran of the Afghan camps. "God loves us because Europe is in our hands," said Heni, who was arrested this month in Germany on an Italian warrant. He added, "Now we are mujaheddin muhajirun [fighting immigrants]. This is our duty that we have to carry on with honor. . . . We have to be like snakes. We have to strike and then hide."

Khemais said in the bugged conversation, "Al Qaeda exists from Algeria to the Philippines. They're everywhere."

It is not clear whether these European networks of al Qaeda were connected with the cell in Hamburg led by Mohamed Atta, who is suspected of being the ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers. A senior German intelligence official said in an interview that the connections are still tentative. British, Italian and German sources said, however, that it is likely that Atta and his associates operated autonomously, without relying on other cells, even if, as the authorities now believe, the leaders of all these groups were trained in Afghanistan and sponsored upon their return to Europe by bin Laden.

The records from Milan suggest that the smashing of a terrorist cell in Frankfurt in December 2000 averted some kind of chemical attack that was being planned, as well as a bombing at a marketplace in Strasbourg, France.

In a conversation bugged on March 13, Khemais and three others spoke of "an extremely efficient liquid that suffocates people." And they suggested it could be secretly placed in tomato cans and would be dispersed when the cans were opened. The investigators said they do not know what kind of chemical was being discussed.

"You want to try it," asked Heni. "Where? In France?"

"Yes," replied Khemais.

Heni then asked if it was "better" than another product held by someone called Mohamed. The leader of the Frankfurt cell was Mohamed Bensakhria, and he and the Milan group were in regular contact, according to officials here and court documents.

"It's better than that product and more efficient because as soon as you open this liquid, it suffocates people," Khemais said.

Accompanying notes by the Italian police state that when the German police broke up the Frankfurt cell three months earlier, they "found detailed handwritten instructions on how to make and use the handmade products which were of high, explosive worth and how to use toxic substances in lethal doses."

And Khemais, apparently referring to the Frankfurt raid, said, "They arrested them while they were preparing the gas."

There are links among all of the groups, officials said. Khemais, the head of the Milan cell, for instance, visited and phoned suspected terrorists in Spain. And he and his lieutenant in the Milan cell, Mehdi Khammoun, called two of the alleged point men in the terrorist umbrella network, Doha in Britain and Bensakhria in Germany, shortly before the Frankfurt raid, according to the Italian court documents.

In another example of the links among the various groups, Khemais called Maaroufi in Belgium on a cell phone after the Frankfurt raid to warn him that "they have arrested our brothers . . . half the group." He told Maaroufi, "You need to cover yourself." Khemais had "constant and intense links with Maaroufi," according to the Italian documents.

Khemais visited Maaroufi in Brussels on Feb. 10, 2000, where they also met another Tunisian extremist, Essoussi Laaroussi, who had served jail time in Belgium. Maaroufi has repeatedly denied any involvement with terrorism, including in an interview with a journalist from the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in February.

After the interview, Maaroufi and Khemais spoke in a conversation recorded by authorities. "I said to him I only know poor people," Maaroufi said of the journalist. The two then broke into laughter.

The Milan cell documents reveal constant paranoia about the possibility that its members were being recorded. "The fault is all in the telephones," said Khemais, not suspecting his apartment was also bugged. "You have to be like wolves -- clever. In different cases, those who discovered those people, even if they didn't find major things, were the American secret services." At another moment, Khemais warned others in the Milan cell to be careful to not write to contacts in Europe because they could be detected.

Most of those in the Frankfurt and Milan cells, including Khemais and Bensakhria, are now in custody, but the Italian documents make clear that the European terrorist ranks are easily replenished with recruits.

According to the Digos report, the European cells send their members to Afghanistan. The recruits assemble in Geneva, and using false Italian documents, fly to Pakistan, where they are escorted into Afghanistan. "To finance all this, evidence suggests that it is Khemais who takes care of it by means of drug-trafficking, counterfeiting money and documents, recycling dirty money," the Digos report said. "Groups who are versed in the use of explosives are sent to Europe to fill in the losses from various police roundups."

"The moment to strike has arrived because they're arresting everyone," Heni said in a recorded conversation with Khemais after the Frankfurt arrests. "We have to show them we are here. We have to show them who the mujaheddin really are.

But he continued, "We have to await the orders" of bin Laden.

While waiting, they sat around in seedy apartments, such as the one outside Milan where the conversations were recorded, speaking of their heroics in Chechnya and watching gory video footage from various holy wars.

In March, for instance, Khemais's lieutenant, Khammoun, in a bugged conversation, boasted of his experience in Chechnya. "When the order came from the emir . . . it was very nice," he said, "because first we studied the structure and after with the plastic [explosive] boom!

"The building collapsed and then there was dust," Khammoun said. "And then a fire broke out and that way the enemies of God were buried and burned."

Everyone in the room laughed, according to the Italian transcript.

Later that evening, commenting on a videocassette apparently of action in Chechnya, another man, Moktar Farid-Bouchoucha, said: "This cassette is really scary. If the commandos see it they'll know what it means to have your throat slit by real soldiers -- the best commandos in the world. If they see this video, they'll tremble. It's really nasty stuff. They end up like sheep."

The terrorists also have a wide range of targets. "Our enemy is not just the Americans or the Israelis or all the enemies of God," said Heni. "We have the enemy in our own home because these are negotiating with them." He mentioned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Tunisian president.

And throughout the Italian transcripts there is constant reverence for bin Laden's power and reach.

Bin Laden "is also a state," Heni said, "because he has those who take care of movements for him, of projects, of finance, of studies. For them and for the sheik [bin Laden], every attack must be studied well and it must succeed well."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 22, 2001

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