Terrorism: December 31, 2001

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Europe Discovers That It Has A Terrorist Problem- The Aftermath of the 11 September attacks has shown Europe what it did not want to admit to itself, that it has a serious problem with Islamic radicals operating terrorist cells and infrastructure in most of its countries and major cities.

Jamal Beghal, a French citizen born in Algeria, had taken terrorist training in Afghanistan and was assigned to conduct a suicide bombing against the US embassy in Paris to coincide with the 11 September attacks. He was arrested in Dubai on 28 July because of a forged visa. Questioned, or perhaps tortured, by French intelligence, he eventually told them about numerous other terrorists, including Mohamed Atta, who had already left for the US to conduct the 11 September attacks. Beghal told of passing through several safe houses as he moved around Europe to recruit more Islamic radicals among those who had already immigrated to Europe.

European police and security officials have been shocked to realize just how deeply rooted Islamic terrorist groups are in their societies. These dangerous groups have surprising depth, with martyrs on standby for attack orders they will be given at the last minute, and networks of safe houses and money-raising schemes. The terrorists have shown remarkable tradecraft, being able to disguise their identities and move about freely. 

Many adopted Western habits (including drinking, dating, and prostitutes) to provide cover for their fundamentalist beliefs. After each attack, those who were not scheduled for suicide attacks dissolved their groups and disappeared, only to link up later in other combinations under new identities. European police have admitted (most importantly, to themselves) that they never paid enough attention to these radical groups and the terrorists who move among them selecting recruits and conducting attacks. Each country focused on its own problems. The British were more concerned about the IRA than Islamic groups, just as the French were so concerned about Algerian terrorists that they never noted their connections to broader Islamic groups. The Spanish were so concerned over the Basques that they ignored Islamic radicals passing through their country from Morocco en route to other countries, as well as those Islamic groups running credit card fraud operations to fund terrorist groups in other countries. German police never noted that Mohammad Atta came and went frequently using three different passports, and in fact stopped watching the apartment where he planned the September 11th attacks out of concerns for his rights of privacy under the German constitution. Spain and Belgium have become the centers for forged documents used by Islamic radicals, a problem the local police assigned a low priority as it did not threaten their local security. There was virtually no cooperation tracking the Islamic groups as there were few specific threats to European targets. Atta and his group did the planning for the 11 September attacks under the noses of European police. 

The Beghal case has been an eye opener. French police knew he was a radical with dangerous connections eight years ago, and had placed his name on a special list of people to check closely as they entered the country. (The French did not want to arrest Beghal, only to follow him, but arrested him because of pressure from the CIA. The CIA already knew that some big attack was coming, but knew none of the details, and hoped Beghal could provide them.) Beghal had been brought to France as a child, and grew up resenting the decadence of Western European society. Disaffected Islamic immigrants like Beghal have been a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. Searching for meaning and purpose, Beghal eventually attended a mosque where radical preachers preached hate for the Western world that had caused his personal misery. The politically-active mosques told the stories of other Moslems who had suffered in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Palestine, and of how the 1991 Algerian elections had been stolen from radical Islamic parties by the Army. Beghal was arrested as a radical and found that French prisons (packed with Algerians) were as good a recruiting ground for Islamic fundamentalism in general and al Qaeda in particular as the radical religious schools operating from the mosques. French police had ignored the problem of Islamic radicals in their prison system who were recruiting other radicals from the disaffected Algerian immigrants who were jailed for various crimes or political activities. After his experience with the French police, Beghal (typical of many Islamic radicals and many Islamic terrorists) went to London, home to the Arab dissident groups forced out of Lebanon between 1975 and 1991, and radicals who fled from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to avoid going to prison. The World Trade Center attacks, the assassination of Afghan Northern Alliance General Massoud, and Beghal's failed plan to bomb the US embassy in Paris all had connections to the radical groups in London. Those radical groups were the next step in a path that led young Moslem radicals on to al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Beghal is known to have met Zacarias Moussaoui (the 20th hijacker) while in London. While based in London, Beghal traveled to other European countries to gather recruits who went with him to Afghanistan. Beghal and Moussaoui frequented the mosque run by Abu Qatada, a Palestinian firebrand now serving a live sentence in prison for involvement in several terrorist attacks. A veteran of al Qaeda brigades that fought in Afghanistan, Abu Qatada has been described as the "spiritual guide of al Qaeda". Beghal and Moussaoui also frequented the mosque run by Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri, who preaches jihad against the impure governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab countries.

Beghal's plan was to buy a van, set up a phony business as a cover, and load the van with explosives being gathered by al Qaeda operatives in Belgium. Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian and former professional soccer player, was assigned to actually drive the bomb-laden van into the US embassy courtyard. Beghal was to use an   internet cafe to receive coded instructions directly from Afghanistan; they were to be hidden in photographs sent by Email. Beghal signed complete confessions while in Abu Dhabi, but when officially handed over to French police on 23 September, he quickly hired a lawyer and declared the confessions to be false ones made under torture.

Islamic radicalism has been fueled by many factors besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Increasing Western influence in Arab countries has upset the most faithful sects. Crackdowns by Arab governments (Egypt and Saudi Arabia particularly) which refuse to be overthrown by radicals has forced them to seek other targets. The defeat of Russia in Afghanistan emboldened the radicals to think that the US could also be defeated, and the Russian war in Chechnya infuriated the radicals. US-imposed sanctions on Iraq have doubled the constant pressure from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The breaking of the al Qaeda cell in Madrid has been of particular interest. Its leader, Eddin Barakat Yarkas, known as Abu Dahdah, is now under arrest. His phone number was found in the German apartment of Mohammad Atta. A recording of a telephone conversation involving Abu Dahdah on 27 Aug made what appear to be coded references to the airline hijackings two weeks later in the US. Documents and computer disks taken from the Madrid cell's hideouts include data on how to fly an airliner and how airport security works in the US. 

Records captured when Italian police raided the cell run by Tunisian radical Essid Sami Ben Khemais showed that Islamic radicals all over Europe were begging to be brought into the al Qaeda network and were planning independent terrorist operations to show themselves worthy.

Things are, finally, changing. Britain and Germany have weakened laws that gave protection to religious groups even if they preached hatred, and have toughened laws requiring foreigners to be tracked. French police units (staffed with translators for all 20 Algerian dialects) have intensified their efforts to find the connections between Algerian radicals and those from other countries. --Stephen V Cole

 

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