Radical Islam's rising war on Europe

EU investigators say that terrorists operate in small, flexible groups, making it almost impossible to catch them -- and that the Iraq war has made their task infinitely harder.

Published July 12, 2005 9:32PM (EDT)

It was a perfidious plan, filled with dark, hateful tirades. And, it was also planned down to the last detail. Part of it involved blowing up trains. The goal was simple: an enormous massacre of infidels.

Investigators discovered the plan in a file on a laptop hard drive. It was allegedly written by a British citizen with South Asian roots: Abu Issa Al-Hindi, a man with excellent connections to the top echelons of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization. Al-Hindi's résumé reads like the biography of a model jihadist. At 20, he converted from Hinduism to Islam, then learned the fundamentals of hate in London's radical mosques and went to the Kashmir region and Afghanistan to fight. On August 3, 2004, British authorities arrested Al-Hindi near London.

The plans found on his hard drive, though interspersed with gruesome fantasy, revealed a highly refined command of technology.

Al-Hindi's fellow Muslim extremists had even measured the normal wind pressure on building façades to determine their weakest points, locations likely to suffer the greatest damage in an attack.

The scenario on Al-Hindi's hard drive is reminiscent of the July 7 bomb attacks on the London Tube and a double-decker bus. By last Sunday, it was still unclear who had detonated the bombs but the attacks, say British security experts, bear the handwriting of Islamic terrorists.

Perhaps as frightening as the bombs themselves is the fact that intelligence agents and investigators in Great Britain and throughout Europe had no idea an attack was imminent -- and this despite the fact that they have spent years trying to infiltrate the Islamic extremist network in Europe. Indeed, one month before the attacks, Scotland Yard lowered its terrorism alert level for the British capital by a notch.

But al-Qaida in Europe is not an organization that readily lends itself to infiltration or wire-tapping. That's because al-Qaida is not a fixed structure, but rather an ideology that has managed to fascinate young Islamists from Gibraltar to Scandinavia. These young terrorists may know each other and even cooperate when it comes to logistics, but they operate in small, flexible independent groups, making them almost impossible to catch.

It has long been clear that Europeans, especially Britons, could be attacked at any time. The attacks in Istanbul in November 2003 (57 dead) and the train bombings in the Madrid suburbs on March 11, 2004 (191 dead) were only the beginning. "No country," says EU counterterrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries, "can nurture false hopes of being safe." German Interior Minister Otto Schily, who flew to London on Friday to meet with his British counterpart, warns that "radical Islamists have also explicitly named Germany as an enemy."

The Old Continent, once a place for Muslim extremists to withdraw and recuperate, has turned into a battlefield. Gilles Kepel, a French expert on Islam, is already referring to the current situation as a "fight for Europe."

For most experts, it was only a matter of time before Islamic militants would attack again. In Germany, national security officials have become so used to falling into "terror mode" that they can almost respond by rote. This time, by 2 p.m. last Thursday, they held a teleconference to discuss the consequences of the day's attacks. "It was virtually certain than London would be attacked at some point," says a high-ranking German security official. Britain's massive deployment in Iraq makes it a prime target. "The same thing could happen here," says the expert. After all, he adds, there are German troops in Afghanistan.

Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert working in the office of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, summed up the situation with these words: "Terrorism is coming home." And it's coming home to those countries whose governments may have believed they were immune from terror because for years they have provided safe haven to notorious Islamic extremists.

The profile of a potential bomber

The biggest challenges European countries will now face are two-fold: how to deal with the young offspring of immigrants living in Europe who have become captivated by the idea of global jihad, and how to deal with their own, self-imposed restrictions. Investigators are hampered in their efforts to pursue Islamic terrorists by Europe's open borders, by a lack of effective communication among intelligence agencies and, finally, by a lack of uniformity in counterterrorism strategies.

Their adversaries, on the other hand, are highly mobile, networked across the entire continent, supported by sympathizers and powerful financiers, but also able to operate independently. This new generation of holy warriors has already established sufficiently deep roots in Europe to be able to move about freely and without attracting attention. Many have German, Spanish, British or French passports. They often speak several languages, are employed, and develop their attack plans in their free time. Security officials are dealing with fewer and fewer Islamic extremists who have just arrived from abroad -- with the exception of globe-trotting preachers of hatred.

Dutch authorities, for example, were aware that Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan origin, was a member of an Islamic group. But they didn't consider Bouyeri to be a particularly important figure -- that is, until Bouyeri, wearing a white, floor-length shirt, tracked down filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November 2 on an Amsterdam street. He shot van Gogh several times, slit his throat with a butcher knife, and then used another knife to pin a threat to kill politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali onto van Gogh's body.

What may at first have seemed to be an act committed by a lone madman was probably part of a larger plan -- and the doing of an entire group. Although the plan the group executed may have been what one Dutch intelligence official calls "a Dutch plan," it was acting in the spirit of Osama bin Laden.

The case illustrates how a trace can lead from one Islamic extremist cell to another. In June of last year, months before the Amsterdam murder, the Portuguese police arrested several suspected terrorists who were apparently planning to murder Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, then the European Union Commission's president-designate. One of the main suspects had apparently shared an apartment in Amsterdam with Bouyeri, 27. Moreover, the men were traveling in a VW Golf that apparently belonged to Bouyeri.

Only after wiretapping an important telephone conversation did the police discover that the so-called Hofstad group was probably responsible for planning van Gogh's murder. It appears that at least 12 members of this group were involved in the preparations for the murder. The group has contacts in Belgium and Spain. Investigators also assume that there are links between the Hofstad group and a terrorism suspect involved in the 2003 suicide attacks in Casablanca.

And the investigations continue. A little more than a month ago, counterterrorism investigators arrested a Russian in the central French city of Tours who was being sought in the Netherlands for his alleged involvement in the van Gogh murder. The man had excellent contacts to Islamic extremists in Chechnya.

From community worker to radical Muslim killer

Bouyeri himself also typifies the new Euro-Islamists. He seemed to be an extremely well-integrated Muslim -- that is, until he suddenly drifted off into the world of Islamic extremism. His parents arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, and he was born there. He held Dutch and Moroccan citizenship, finished high school with good grades, and went on to study computer science at a Dutch university. His only noticeable tics were the American gangster cap he wore and his involvement in community work. But he changed drastically in the fall of 2003.

He suddenly began adding verses from the Koran to articles he wrote for a community newspaper. He traded in his jeans and tennis shoes for a floor-length robe. Soon he was surviving on welfare and spending time at the Tawhid mosque, which was being observed by Dutch intelligence agents, who noticed that Bouyeri was becoming increasingly radical. But there were plenty of other "potentially dangerous men" who Dutch officials believed were more capable of violence than Bouyeri, whose trial began on Monday.

Spanish investigative judge and extremism expert Baltasar Garzon has identified a virtual "galaxy of small groups" in Europe. Garzon believes that the radicalization phase often lasts no more than a few weeks or months, adding that "the younger these people are, the more brutal they can be." Al-Qaida, says Garzon, is now nothing but an "ideological reference" for these people.

German Interior Minister Schily complains that this "metastasizing" makes it incredibly difficult to combat Islamic extremists. He says that his agents are no longer dealing with a "hierarchical organization acting in a closed manner," but rather with groups "that hardly act within a logistically linked network at all anymore. Our goal now is to isolate them within the Muslim milieu."

Travel agents for young jihadists

The explosives in Madrid were not ignited remotely by attackers in the Hindukush region, but by immigrants who, at first glance, would have seemed unlikely to commit such acts of terror -- immigrants who lived in a mental black box, shut off from Western values, but nevertheless in the heart of Europe. However, the French intelligence service, DST, believes these groups are supported by an international logistical network. After all, the pilots who flew the September 11 planes lived in Hamburg, but met in Spain to make their final preparations.

Alleged al-Qaida terrorist Abu Dahdah -- who, together with 23 other suspects, is currently on trial in Spain for the Madrid bombings -- is believed to have arranged the meeting. One thing is clear, though: Abu Dahdah maintained constant contact with fellow Muslims throughout Europe.

Spanish authorities would have liked to see a Syrian-born German citizen added to the list of defendants in the Madrid trial. His name is Mamoun Darkazanli, and he is a Hamburg businessman who is currently in detention in Germany pending extradition. Germany's Federal Constitutional Court will soon decide whether German law permits Darkazanli to be extradited to Spain.

The travels of young men to fight in Iraq demonstrate just how well networked the extremist environment is. European Muslims, especially from France, Great Britain and Germany, are going to war. In almost every European country there are what amount to travel agencies for those interested in fighting in Iraq. Middlemen like Lokman Mohammed in Munich, Mohammed M. in Milan, and Ata R. in Stuttgart arrange for young jihadists to travel to Baghdad or Mosul and, more ominously, back to Europe. When they return from the death zone, these Muslim extremists are equipped with fresh combat experience and filled with ideological indoctrination. It is these men who are considered particularly dangerous.

"Iraq," says Paris investigative judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, "is problem number one." The German and French intelligence agencies are both observing several dozen returnees, while the British and French authorities believe they have about 40 in each of their countries. But what about those who are under the radar? Those who have returned without being noticed and who know how to assemble and detonate explosives? Did the terrorists responsible for the London attack benefit from their knowledge?

Bin Laden orders more attacks in the West

Security officials currently see the Iraq connection as their most urgent problem. Investigators throughout Europe plan to convene soon to exchange information, and the German government has even set up a team at Berlin's counterterrorism center to deal specifically with this issue. One of the objectives of the effort will be to assess the risk of terrorism throughout Europe -- perhaps even to come up with an entirely new prognosis. There are growing indications that Middle Eastern militant organizations, such as the network headed by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, are beefing up their presence in Europe. Bin Laden himself has allegedly urged Zarqawi, the man responsible for much of the terrorist activity in Iraq, to prepare fighters for attacks in the West -- a request that's unlikely to pose much of a problem for the Jordanian sheik.

Indeed, the European recruits are considered something of a burden in Iraq. Local fighters see them as soft and ineffective. For months, intelligence agencies have come across indications that Zarqawi may have already sent several of his closest associates to Europe.

Videos of Zarqawi's infamous achievements are already making the rounds among radical Muslims in Europe. Politicians and police officials, initially stunned, are now observing this dangerous trend with consternation. After all, anything that provokes fear or anger in the West is attractive to radical Muslims. The French domestic intelligence service, for example, has observed a consistently large number of fanatical Salafi preachers in Europe who incite their audiences to violence, and who treat attackers as heroes of Islam.

Germany as fund-raiser for terrorists, Bosnia as their melting pot

The case of Ali al-Fadhil, the presumed explosives expert of the Iraqi underground organization Ansar al-Islam, demonstrates just how effectively the connections between Iraq and Europe work. In September 2003, a young Turkmen using the alias "Resgar" contacted fellow Muslims in Munich, asking for logistical assistance. It appeared that al-Fadhil had blown off both of his hands, probably while handling a land mine, and was urgently in need of medical attention.

Al-Fadhil was ultimately smuggled via Milan and France -- without a hitch -- and into Great Britain, where he went underground. The middleman who made the journey possible was Munich-based Kurd Lokman Mohammed.

In terms of logistics, Germany plays an important role for would-be terrorists. For instance, Ata R., an unemployed window washer, was contacted via e-mail by anonymous individuals, who are presumed to be leading Ansar activists from northern Iraq. They then asked for Ata R.'s assistance. In a letter written in October 2004, allegedly mailed by the deputy chief of Ansar al-Islam himself, Ata R. was told: "The company's situation is making headway, and great profits are on the way, God willing. Perhaps you will hear about this on television." The letter ends with an appeal to donate more: "However, we will need a lot of capital, especially this month."

And the money did materialize. In fact, close to $18,000 was sent, through a so-called Hawala transfer that went from Kuwait to Stuttgart and then from Stuttgart to Iraq. And Muslim brothers in German mosques continued to ask for more donations.

The Madrid bombings and the murder of Theo van Gogh helped overturn an old theory: that immigrants would never spit into the soup they eat themselves, that is, that they would not attack in those countries that have offered them a home.

In the past, many immigrants were only interested in conflicts in their native countries. Backed with Saudi money, they began spouting propaganda against the regimes in Morocco, Libya, Algeria and Egypt. But some soon became involved in an international jihad, traveling as mujahedeen to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.

Since the 1990s, Bosnia has been considered a melting pot for international terrorism. It is believed that 5,000 foreign Muslims traveled there to fight in the war. If the Europeans fail in the Balkans, a dangerous new generation of Islamic extremists could develop there.

Some Saudis are also pumping dollars into the former war zone. Whenever the authorities ban one of their dubious charitable organizations, such as the Haramain Foundation, new organizations suddenly pop up and continue distributing funds from the same sources. The charities, says one terrorism expert, operate like a "bypass for a heart patient."

Will Europe have to get used to bombs and death?

All over Europe mosques are being built, grandiose structures incorporating glass, marble and tall minarets, even in the most remote villages. Young Muslims learn the values of extremist Wahhabism in brand-new training centers. Western intelligence agencies believe that 3,000 Muslims have already been radicalized in such places. In many cases, returnees from war zones, who have come to trust one another after having fought side-by-side, form the framework for al-Qaida in their European home countries. Clusters of young radicals then form around these mujahedeen who have fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq. Terrorism experts largely concur that the numbers of hard-core jihad sympathizers are high in almost all Western European countries. The range goes from about 300 in Germany to an estimated 1,000 in Great Britain.

Investigators seem to have a fairly good grip on the Muslim extremist scene. Or at least enough to have relatively accurate information on which groups are only verbally radical and which are or could turn violent. But investigators know far too little about their plans and about who they are recruiting. For example, no one expected that someone like Serhane Ben Abdelmayid Farkhet would become radicalized. The 36-year-old Tunisian studied business administration in Madrid, was married to a Moroccan, and seemed, for all intents and purposes, headed for success in the West. In fact, Farkhet was, for a while, his real estate company's top-selling agent.

But under the influence of a radical friend, Farkhet transformed himself into an agent of death. He secretly met with al-Qaida agents in Istanbul and, in Spain, helped assemble the March 11 group of attackers. On April 3, 2004, the Spanish police attempted to storm a Madrid apartment building where Farkhet and six accomplices were hiding. Before the police could apprehend them, the seven men blew themselves up.

The television images of the devastated building depict scenes that Europeans had been more accustomed to seeing in the Middle East. Are these images that Europeans will now find themselves forced to become accustomed to?

Speaking the language of "sword and blood"

Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of the British domestic intelligence service, MI5, disclosed several months ago that authorities had thwarted a number of attacks in Great Britain alone. Her predecessor, Sir John Stevens, who was previously the head of Scotland Yard, estimated that about half a dozen attacks had been prevented, adding that one of the foiled plots could have led to an attack of the same magnitude as the Madrid bombings.

The British capital, derisively referred to by some as "Londonistan," has always been filled with Islamic extremists from all over the world. The two best-known preachers of hatred are Abu Hamsa, who has a memorable prosthetic hook hand, and Abu Qatada, who has been arrested several times and whose videotaped sermons are popular among fans in Germany. On one of his videotapes, discovered in the apartment of a Hamburg Islamic extremist, Abu Qatada says that the only language "the infidels" understand is the language "of sword and blood."

The Muslim Brotherhood and the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Interior Minister Schily banned in Germany after the attacks of September 11, also maintain a strong presence in London. In addition, many radical Islamic publications -- foreign issues of Saudi Arabian newspapers, for example -- are printed in the city on the Thames. Hate sermons by radical sheiks are also posted onto the Internet in London. And despite crackdowns by the British police in recent months, radical Islamic propaganda continues unabated.

The London scene has long acted as a magnet for potential jihadists from all over Europe. It also attracted a German convert to Islam, Dennis J., who in 2001, at the age of 19, traveled from his home in the German state of Hesse to Afghanistan. After the September 11 attacks, he was arrested and sent back to Germany. He didn't stay long. Instead, he went to London and began spending time in Abu Hamsa's mosque.

Algerian Yacine Aknouche, 31, also traveled to England because he was fascinated by the radical imams. At first, Aknouche looked for a job in a cafe, but soon he was running a credit card counterfeiting operation. When he was later questioned by authorities, Aknouche said that the preachers at the Finsbury Park mosque had, "confirmed the religious value of this type of activity."

Aknouche began traveling back and forth between Paris and London, met with underground activists in Berlin, and lent a Muslim brother a forged passport in Frankfurt. Finally he obtained a forged French passport and other papers in London and used them to travel to an al-Qaida training camp in the Hindukush region. Aknouche was later arrested in France.

A man from Germany is also believed to be a key player on the business end of radical Islam in London. He is a Tunisian named Abderrazak A., who lived in Karlsruhe in the late 1990s and, as early as 1995, was suspected of having arranged for recruits to travel to Afghanistan for the "holy war."

Loads of foiled attacks

Although the Islamic extremists in Great Britain seem to be more active than those in Germany, German investigators have also reported a number of foiled attacks by local militants. In Frankfurt, for example, a group of Islamic extremists were convicted in 2003 for having attempted to detonate explosives at the Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg. Members of the Al-Tawhid group are currently on trial in Duesseldorf for allegedly planning to launch attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets. In Berlin, three Islamic extremists are believed to have planned to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister when he was visiting the German capital last December.

The situation is similar in other EU countries. In 2002, French authorities thwarted plans to attack Russian installations in Paris by an organization known as the "Chechnya Group." In the summer of 2001, French investigators broke up a network run by Algerian-born Frenchman Djamel Beghal and consisting mainly of Afghanistan veterans. Beghal had allegedly planned an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris. And in Spain, several Islamic extremists were arrested in October 2004 for having planned to blow up several buildings, including the national court building, with 500 kilograms of explosives.

What has changed in Europe as a result of such horror scenarios? Have the continent's security agencies, spurred to action by the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Madrid, truly become more agile? Or is the joint battle against terrorism hampered by the same kind of routine thinking that has plagued Europeans in other legislative endeavors?

So far, the results of Europe's efforts to fight terrorism have been sobering. National governments have been slow to implement resolutions adopted in Brussels. And although information gleaned by investigators reaches Europe's joint police agency, Europol, far more quickly these days, the volume of data remains sparse. In many cases, agencies are still dragging their feet when it comes to exchanging information. But there is one thing that no country in Western Europe seems to lack: the heartfelt words of politicians claiming to want fundamental change.

Europe's open borders and tangled bureaucracy help terrorists

If only investigators had cooperated more effectively, perhaps they would even have uncovered the plans of "Mohammed the Egyptian," a presumed co-conspirator in the attacks on Madrid. German authorities had already noticed Rabei Osman Ahmed -- his real name -- as a vocal lay preacher. Although he was investigated, German authorities concluded that he was not particularly dangerous. After the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, when German officials decided to take a closer look at Ahmed's old file, they discovered that he had just left the country for Spain. They documented him as "trace 59."

German and Spanish authorities exchanged a small amount of information in the ensuing months. But it was not until February 2003 that the Spaniards proposed a systematic exchange of information relating to "trace 59." Meanwhile, however, Ahmed had already established contacts in several European countries. He traveled to Paris in the same month. But then his trail went cold again, somewhere in the maze of the big city and in the tangle of the conflicting jurisdictions of European investigators. The explosives in Madrid were detonated one year later.

The Ahmed case, writes the Washington Post, reveals Europe's greatest weakness in the fight against terrorism: its wide-open borders, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, its legal impediments and bureaucratic procedures, which prevented investigators from cooperating more closely.

Ahmed's odyssey through Europe finally took him to Italy. Investigators questioned him in Milan, where he was arrested last June. Although portions of the recorded interrogations were leaked to Italian journalists, German investigators were the last to receive copies. At one point, a German security official complained that "I first read about the details of the telephone conversations in Corriere della Sera."

On March 25, 2004, shortly after the Madrid attacks, the heads of state of the EU countries issued a joint statement in which they vowed to do "everything within our powers to combat all forms of terrorism." They also promised to amend and strengthen their laws on terrorism.

Is terror on holiday? Or just Europe?

Similar promises were almost made after September 11, 2001. The next year, the European Commission asked states to report on how they had implemented the resolutions adopted a year earlier in their domestic laws. But only five member states complied with the request, including Germany, and of those, only two submitted the requested material in its entirety. A disappointed EU Commission concluded that "a document prepared on this basis would have been practically meaningless."

In a memo written in mid-June, the EU's counterterrorism coordinator complained that "a number of details," including those relating to projects from 2001, had not been observed by all states. Commenting on the hesitant EU during Europe's traditional summer vacation period, Newsweek derisively asked if terror was on holiday. "If there's been a wake-up call in Europe, then many of its officials are taking it under a beach umbrella," the weekly said.

From the U.S. perspective, it seems hard to believe that the top post at Europol was vacant for months, especially in light of the current threat. As the EU's central police agency, Europol provides massive amounts of data and analyses, and acts as an interface among the member states' security agencies.

German Europol director Juergen Storbeck left office in late July 2004. The Spaniards, Italians, Germans and French each proposed their own candidate, leading to a prolonged dispute over the best solution. It was only in late February of this year that they managed to agree on Max-Peter Ratzel, an official at Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.

Despite these difficulties, Europol now obtains vastly more data on Islamic extremists than before the attacks in the United States. "The trend is pointing upward," says de Vries, although he warns that the situation is "still not satisfactory."

Islamic extremists like Andrew Rowe, 33, are taking advantage of the elimination of borders within the EU to further their own ends. Rowe, a convert with a British passport, traveled all over Europe for years to meet with fellow Muslims. Investigators have reconstructed his travels across Germany, England and Turkey. They believe he was a courier traveling among militant cells, and he has also been traced to the group implicated in the Casablanca attacks.

Rowe is a presumed mid-ranking member of al-Qaida, where he is known by his nickname, "Yussuf the Jamaican." About a year and a half ago, Rowe spent several days in a hotel in Frankfurt. When he tried to travel to England through the Eurotunnel, British authorities arrested him at the border and he is now behind bars.

Investigators have been looking into the case ever since. An analysis of the devout Muslim's clothing revealed traces of nitroglycerin on his socks. Investigators believe that he may have been working on a miniature bomb similar to that which "shoe bomber" Richard Reid planned to detonate on board a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001. They also suspect that Rowe may have traveled to Germany to purchase additional materials. Rowe himself has been uncooperative and unwilling to talk to officials.

By now everyone has recognized the dangers posed by someone like Rowe. Both left-wing and right-wing governments in Europe have sharpened their approaches to Islamic extremists. Spanish officials arrested 130 extremists last year, Great Britain has arrested 700 suspected terrorists since September 11, and German police have been staging major, nationwide raids on almost a monthly basis.

But Europe's laws complicate the task of combating terrorism. No matter how suspiciously Islamic extremists behave and how shady their contacts may be, the intent to commit acts of terror is often difficult to prove.

A recent ruling by a Milan court is symptomatic of the problem. In late January, an Italian judge acquitted five suspects accused of having recruited suicide bombers for Iraq in 2003 and handed down lesser sentences. The judge held that the men saw themselves as guerrilla fighters, and that it could not be proved that they had planned to attack civilian targets.

One of the defendants, together with Mohammed D., was once part of the group of Hamburg Islamic extremists associated with the pilots who attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. He was released from detention in early February.

Thus, Europe, insists de Vries, "remains vulnerable."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at http://www.spiegel.de/international or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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