2002Explanatory Reporting

MISSED SIGNALS: Terror Cells Slip Through Europe's Grasp

By: 
Steven Erlanger and Chris Hedges
December 28, 2001

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PARIS -- Late last July in Afghanistan, after months of terrorist training, Jamal Beghal, an Algerian-born Frenchman, was summoned to the home of a senior aide to Osama bin Laden.

The time for action had come, said the aide, Abu Zubeida. Mr. Beghal was instructed to return to France via Morocco and Spain and orchestrate a suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Paris. According to a senior French intelligence official, Mr. Beghal shaved his beard, put on Western clothing, and, before leaving, was given three gifts from Mr. bin Laden -- a toothpick, prayer beads and a flask of incense.

On July 28 -- six weeks before Sept. 11 -- in the Dubai airport transit lounge, Mr. Beghal's plan fell apart. With his name on a watch list, he was arrested for a forged visa extension. His lawyer said that he was tossed into a darkened cell, handcuffed to a chair, blindfolded and beaten and that his family was threatened. After some weeks he talked and out poured a wealth of information. Agents in half a dozen countries went to work.

It was a real intelligence break, later recounted in detail by senior French intelligence officials, but it would prove too late to stop the World Trade Center plot. Enough time and work could have led investigators from Mr. Beghal to an address in Hamburg where Mohamed Atta and his cohorts had developed and planned the Sept. 11 attacks. But the hijackers had already slipped into the United States and were within days of carrying out their mission.

Those missed opportunities and the case of Mr. Beghal tell a great deal about the world of Muslim militancy that took root in Europe in the 1990's, its shifting focus and varied structure, as well as the failure, many intelligence officials now acknowledge, of most European governments to understand its gravity, danger and depth.

Terrorist cells formed, carried out specialized tasks, dissolved and then re-formed elsewhere, careful to maintain isolation and disguise their identities.

Mr. Beghal, who lived on the margins of French society and wandered across Europe finding others like himself, typifies the immigrant Muslims who fell under the sway of Al Qaeda in the 1990's.

The mission he was leading was one of three known bin Laden plots being hatched last summer in Europe, including the World Trade Center attack and the assassination of the anti-Taliban leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Mr. Beghal's path crossed that of activists of the other two plots; the way they made plans and built cells explains why Europe became the forward operating base for Islamic terror over the last decade.

European officials now ruefully admit that they were not paying enough attention to these Islamic networks in their midst. Their focus was largely domestic -- the British worried about the militants in Northern Ireland, the Spanish about the Basques, the French about the Algerians. There was not enough cooperation.

Jamal Beghal

Jamal Beghal, an Algerian-born Frenchman who bungled a terror plot, at home with two of his children. (News Team International)

Different countries had different political and legal cultures, different traditions of police power, different levels of concern for individual rights to privacy and protection from the state. The reach and sophistication of Al Qaeda was underestimated.

"The problem was bigger than we thought," a senior British official said.

In Britain and Germany, security and immigration laws are now being changed and toughened, and traditional protections for religion-based communities, including those that preach hatred, are being diluted.

But these laws amount to a belated reaction. By following the path of Mr. Beghal from the time he first came to the attention of French authorities eight years ago until his confession, a picture emerges that helps explain how the tranquillity of the United States was shattered three-and-a-half months ago.

A Radical's Journey: After Immigration, Jihad Offers Meaning

Mr. Beghal's journey is typical of that followed by thousands of Islamic radicals in Europe, who find meaning in jihad after lives of alienation. Born in 1965 in Algeria, Mr. Beghal was brought to a gritty suburb of Paris as a child.

He grew up there in the public housing projects of Corbeil-Essonnes, where his name, until October, was still on the intercom of the first-floor apartment of building C-5. In some ways, Mr. Beghal integrated well. He married a French woman, Sylvie, with whom he has three boys. He speaks flawless French.

But like many immigrants he was stuck on the bottom, drifting between menial jobs in grimy food stalls in an outdoor market near Paris. For a man with intelligence, charisma and a penchant for leadership, it was a frustrating existence.

According to intelligence officials, he began to frequent the mosques in the projects, where he was exhorted to build the new Islamic society and where he heard Western society excoriated for its decadence, selfishness and godlessness.

He learned about Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Iraq. As an Algerian he was also painfully aware of the annulment of the Algerian elections in 1991 when Islamic parties swept to victory only to be denied power. France played a pivotal role in backing the military government that broke the Islamic insurgency.

"In the suburbs many people belong to the Algerian network although they are French nationals," said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, the French magistrate-prosecutor who specializes in investigating terrorist organizations. "They have no job. They have no information, no hope for the future. One day they meet a guy who is interesting, who has good knowledge of Islam. They tell him, `I can give you something, a task for you, for the future.' They explain Islam. They bring a global conception of their life, teach them a skill and they say, `We have a goal for you in the future.' They say, `You can continue to deceive, continue to forge papers, but now you do it as a sign of the measure of God, for Allah.' "

In 1994, Mr. Beghal was picked up in a police sweep of Algerian Islamic radicals who were waging a terrorist campaign inside France. It is not clear whether he was imprisoned.

Many Islamic radicals in France have prison records. The French refuse to release figures on those of North African descent in the prison system, but social workers estimate that it runs as high as 70 percent. The prisons have become more efficient recruiting grounds than the mosques.

"Prison is a good indoctrination center for the Islamic radicals, much better than the outside," said a French Interior Ministry official. "There are about 300 Islamic radicals in prisons in Paris, and they spend a lot of time converting the criminals to Islam."

After his first encounter with the French police, Mr. Beghal threw himself into work on behalf of militant Islam. He began to speak in small storefront mosques and Islamic centers. He raised money for Muslims fighting in Chechnya and Bosnia. Then, one night in 1997, he packed his wife and children in a car and left for London.

A Terrorist Vortex: Radicals' Plots Hatched in London

It was a trajectory similar to that of several leaders of Islamic networks in Europe. London is filled with Arab dissident groups, many of which fled there from Beirut during the 1975-1991 civil war in Lebanon. Others had fled the repression in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Many of the Muslim terrorist plots that have plagued Europe and the United States have had crucial ties with clerics in Britain. The perpetrators of three plots -- the failed attempt to blow up the American Embassy in Paris, the World Trade Center attack and the assassination of Mr. Massoud -- all had London in common. Several of the people involved had met there, forging ties that would be cemented in Afghan camps.

In London, Mr. Beghal met another French child of immigrants, Zacarias Moussaoui, according to British intelligence officials and members of two London mosques. While there is no evidence that Mr. Beghal had any direct ties with the September attacks, Mr. Moussaoui had a connection to the Hamburg cell of Mr. Atta.

Now under arrest in the United States, Mr. Moussaoui is believed by investigators to have been selected to be the 20th hijacker.

It was from London that Mr. Beghal made frequent trips to Europe, including Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. He built up a coterie of followers, several of whom would go with him to Afghanistan to train. While he was in France in 1999, French authorities picked him up and questioned him about his activities.

When he was in Britain, the French received reports from British intelligence about his activities. Mr. Beghal, like Mr. Moussaoui, frequented the mosque of Abu Qatada, a 41-year-old Palestinian from Jordan, sentenced to life imprisonment there for involvement in bombings. The cleric fought in Afghanistan and was granted political asylum in Britain in 1994.

Abu Qatada, born Omar Mohamed Othman, is described as Al Qaeda's "spiritual guide." Videotapes of some of his sermons were found in Mr. Atta's apartment.

Mr. Beghal and Mr. Moussaoui also attended the Finsbury Park mosque, in north London, where Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri preaches jihad and the overthrow of the impure governments of Islamic states like Saudi Arabia, whose leaders they view as betrayers of Islam because they have allowed American troops to be stationed on Saudi soil.

Mr. Beghal was often seen with Abu Walid, the right-hand man of Mr. Qatada, intelligence officials said. He became part of a circle with Mr. Moussaoui and Kamel Daoudi, another Algerian-born Frenchman whom Mr. Beghal later recruited for his plot to blow up the American Embassy in Paris.

Mr. Beghal and Mr. Daoudi were friends with Jerome Courtailler, a French convert to Islam, who lived in London as Mr. Moussaoui's roommate. Another friend of Mr. Moussaoui, Xavier Djaffo, another French Arab, died fighting in Chechnya in 1998.

Borderless Rebels: Autonomous Cells Re-Form With Ease

The capture of Mr. Beghal in July was no accident. He had been under surveillance for two years. The French intelligence services, after a wave of bombings and attacks by Islamic radicals in France in the early 1990's, were better equipped than most to follow potential terrorists like Mr. Beghal. Their prosecuting judges have enormous authority to order surveillance on suspects. While American agencies have too few Arabic speakers to translate intercepted conversations, the French have separate translating units for the 20 Algerian dialects alone.

But even as the French broke the Algerians terrorist groups, they and officials in other countries began to face a far deadlier, multinational terrorist mutation.

As efforts in the 1980's and early 1990's to overthrow the governments in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia stumbled, the focus of many Islamic rebel groups shifted away from their home countries toward a transnational war against the West, especially the United States.

Pan-Islamists groups gravitated toward each other. They were inspired by the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan to the mujahedeen or Islamic holy warriors. They were also encouraged by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Meanwhile, Western economic sanctions against Iraq, the Russian war in Chechnya and the growing acceptance and power of Israel fueled their anger.

But no longer did they meet only in mosques or Islamic centers or stay within structured groups, all habits that made them easier to track and destroy. Rather, they broke into autonomous cells that, to mask their activities, did not show outward signs of traditional Muslim piety and had only loose connections to one another.

Many even adopted the outward habits of the West, drinking and dating in the belief that jihad required such deception. The new terrorist cells became a huge intelligence headache, since many carried out one attack, dissolved and re-formed with new members across the porous European borders.

"For these groups, there are no borders," said Judge Bruguière. "They may consider it better or easier to have explosive materials in some countries and support bases in other countries, electronic matters in others, and financial support -- forged papers, or forged credit cards and so on -- in still others."

Most of those in the European cells were equipped with European passports, some of them false, making movement between states easy. Various responsibilities were divided among different parts of Europe, with many cells specializing in narrow and specific tasks, French and Spanish intelligence officials said.

The centers for forged documents were in Spain and Belgium. Spain also seemed to be a frequent meeting point for operatives and a source of funds through petty crime and credit card fraud. (In apartment raids, equipment was seized that is used to alter the magnetic strips on the cards.)

A card stolen anywhere in Europe could be shipped overnight, copied 10 times and given to members who could run up several thousand dollars in bills before the number was reported stolen, intelligence officials said. Usually the men bought electronic gear or gasoline, which could be resold for cash.

The leader of the Al Qaeda cell arrested in Madrid in November, Eddin Barakat Yarkas, known as Abu Dahdah, was said by Spanish authorities to be the chief bin Laden aide in Europe. He was known to have made dozens of trips across the continent, including 20 to London. His number was found in Mr. Atta's papers and in the diary of Said Bahaji, one of his Hamburg roommates.

Phone conversations to Abu Dahdah had been taped, including one on Aug. 27 that picked up a phrase used by a North African named Shakur. He said, "In our lessons we have entered the field of aviation and we have cut the bird's throat." The police believe now that this was a reference to the World Trade Center plot. Other clues found among the Madrid cell's apartments were videotapes on airplanes and a CD-ROM on the infrastructure of an American airport.

Britain was generally used as a way station for those sent to Afghanistan. France was more often the home of the foot soldiers who carried out the attacks.

A cell uncovered in Milan, where Italian authorities recorded conversations by a Tunisian, Essid Sami Ben Khemais who trained in Afghanistan, showed that some operatives were little more than Osama bin Laden hopefuls, aspiring radicals who had never had direct contact with Al Qaeda but who reached out to fight on its behalf anyway. They contacted radical groups in Germany, Britain and Spain in the hope of being brought into the network. Mr. Khemais was arrested in April.

The cells also mutated, changing their style frequently, intelligence officials say.

"We may have a grasp of some cells, what they did, but we can't use this knowledge for the future," Judge Bruguière said. "Everything changes. If you have good knowledge of the network today, it's not operational tomorrow. I compare these networks to AIDS. It's a virus. It's a moving shape. It's impossible to grasp it and to destroy it."

Certainly, Germany missed some important clues. Mr. Atta, a leader of the Sept. 11 plot was registered in Germany with three different passports and no one noticed.

With no global ambitions outside Europe and careful of their own business interests in the Middle East, the Germans tended to be more worried about domestic terrorism and neo-Nazis. Given Germany's Nazi past and its strict laws protecting privacy, the German prosecutor was more meticulous than his French counterpart about requiring substantial evidence before authorizing arrests and investigations.

The German police, in 2000, did smash a terrorist cell in Frankfurt plotting an attack on Strasbourg, France. But officials earlier that same year dropped an inquiry into the group in Hamburg that was busy planning the Sept. 11 attacks. The federal prosecutor felt there was insufficient evidence to continue surveillance on the apartment where Mr. Atta and at least four other plotters lived. Mr. Moussaoui was apparently not on any American watch list; nor was Mr. Atta.

A Transnational Mix: Sleeper Cells Bond and Wait to Strike

In November 2000, Mr. Beghal left London for Afghanistan, intelligence officials said, shortly after Al Qaeda operatives bombed the destroyer Cole off the Yemeni coast, killing 17 American sailors. The 1998 attacks on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were considered resounding successes and the American responses tepid.

Mr. Beghal was already the leader of an eclectic group of followers, most of whom appeared to move easily in European society. The transnational mix included French converts to Islam nicknamed the "Gauls" or "the white moors," along with students, petty criminals, computer specialists. All looked to Mr. Beghal. He would soon be anointed to lead what would have been an audacious strike in the heart of Paris.

"He oversaw a group of mixed nationalities, although there were a fair number of Tunisians, who are some of the most zealous militants," said the French Interior Ministry official. "These people had time in Afghanistan to get to know each other and plan activities. They ate the same food. They lived in the same conditions. It is like the bonding that comes from military service. Once these groups return to Europe their loyalty is to the cell, even if members come from different countries. They forget their past, their origins."

After he departed for Afghanistan, French intelligence officials lost track of Mr. Beghal. They put out a watch for him, but while they wanted him stopped, they did not want him arrested because they hoped to follow him.

As it turned out, he headed last July to Morocco, where he was to pick up $50,000 to carry out the Paris attack, and move on through Spain. But the Central Intelligence Agency, which had put out a warning of a possible terrorist attack against American interests a month before, insisted he be held and questioned.

Mr. Beghal's lawyer, Fabrice Dubest, said that after his arrest in Dubai, he was repeatedly interrogated about strikes against American targets.

According to French intelligence transcripts of his interrogation, Mr. Beghal said he planned to buy a van at the Salon de l'Auto car fair in Paris. A former soccer player, Nizar Trabelsi, born in Tunisia and living in Brussels, would drive the van into the embassy compound and blow it up in a suicide mission.

Operatives in Brussels had already begun to collect chemicals for transport to Paris, French intelligence officials said. In the final weeks before the planned attack, Mr. Beghal intended to rent a house, start a business as a cover for the activities of the group and open a small cybercafe so he could communicate in code with Mr. bin Laden's operatives in Afghanistan. Most codes, French intelligence officials said, were hidden in pictures transmitted over the Internet. The final approval to strike, they said, was to come from Afghanistan.

"Beghal did not give us the names of the other Islamic terrorists in Europe he was working with, but he gave us addresses and physical descriptions," said a French official. "All of them used pseudonyms."

Mr. Beghal was known as Abu Hamza and Mr. Trabelsi was known as "le Noir," French intelligence officials said.

"We checked our files and matched his descriptions to those we suspected of involvement in terrorist activities," said a French intelligence official. "It was a perfect fit. Then we began to follow everyone."

On Sept. 23, shortly before he was turned over to the French, Mr. Beghal signed 32 documents in Arabic with 16 questions that summarized his confessions. Once in France, Mr. Beghal retracted his confession, telling his lawyer that he was forced to sign the papers, which he had not been allowed to read, after being tortured.

Some European officials say that after the arrests in Europe and the collapse of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the group has been crippled for now. A Spanish police commander estimated recently that "probably 50" members of Al Qaeda had been jailed in the European sweeps. He expressed confidence that many others "fled and are now fearful because of the information we have." He is convinced, he said, that "the hard core has been jailed, and I don't believe there are other cells."

But others say they are bracing for a new wave of attacks. The nature of sleeper cells -- people apparently integrated into society -- makes it hard to know.

French officials estimate that as many as 100 French Muslims of North African descent were fighting alongside Mr. bin Laden. They say that after escaping to Pakistan they are working their way back to France.

"These fighters did not cross into Pakistan and head for the mosques," said a senior French intelligence official. "They are headed back here to set off bombs."