Authorities in Europe shut down Islamic militant network

Friday, December 19, 2003

MILAN, Italy -- Authorities in Europe have shut down a network that recruited at least 200 Islamic militants to carry out attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Italian investigators told The Associated Press.

The volunteers were Muslim youths living on the fringes of society in Western Europe, with loose connections to al-Qaida and Ansar al-Islam, a militant group in northern Iraq.

One recruit from Italy may have been involved in a rocket attack on the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad in October, officials told AP.

There are also suspicions that some of the Muslim militants have been involved in suicide attacks in Iraq, although there was no hard evidence, a senior official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Italian investigators said they believe they shut down the recruiting network in Western Europe with a dozen recent arrests of the ringleader, his aides and others in Italy and Germany who played peripheral roles.

Western European officials can't rule out that the operation moved east, however, sending volunteers to the Middle East from Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the senior Italian official told AP.

Authorities identified the key suspect as Abderrazak Mahdjoub, a 30-year-old Algerian. He was arrested Nov. 28 in Hamburg, Germany -- the same day the Italians arrested two North Africans in Milan. Italian authorities on Wednesday formally asked for Mahdjoub's extradition.

Two suspects remain at large: a Tunisian woman, Betinwaa Farida Ben Bechir, and an Iraqi man, Muhamad Majid, also known as Mullah Fouad, Milan anti-terror police said. The woman is believed to have returned to Tunisia and the Iraqi man is believed to have fled to Syria.

All the suspects were charged with "association with the aim of international terrorism" -- a charge introduced in Italy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are believed to have provided false passports and money for recruits.

Italian investigators said the volunteers were mainly recruited in Italy, Germany and Britain, and they were mainly Tunisians and Algerians.

Investigators told AP they believe Syria is one of the points of entry into Iraq. The cell furnished false travel documents, enabling the volunteers to move across Europe.

"We are talking about no fewer than 200 people, 70 of them from Italy," the top Italian official said.

Europe has a large Muslim population, including some extremists, and is seen as a potential breeding ground for terrorism. The Italian probe is believed to be first to have traced the movements to the attacks against American targets since the United States invaded Iraq.

August Hanning, head of Germany's foreign spy agency, has cited evidence that Islamic extremists have left Britain, Bosnia and Germany to fight in Iraq.

"We know of holy warriors who have gone to Iraq to fight the 'infidels,"' Hanning told reporters last month. He refused to give details, but said the number was "relatively small."

Mahdjoub, the Algerian held in Germany, apparently tried to get into Iraq in March along with four others from Germany but was detained in Syria. They returned to Germany, according to German investigators who have been tracking his movements since the start of the year.

"If he said, 'I'm going to Iraq to kill nonbelievers,' we would have arrested him, but if he says he's going to support his brothers, we can do nothing," said Heino Vahldieck, head of the Hamburg office in charge of tracking extremists.

Another German official, Manfred Murck, told AP there are those "who are willing to take an active role in the Iraq conflict, whatever that means."

"I don't know whether they wanted to fight by themselves by shooting or bombing," Murck said. He added, "As far as I know from the Italian investigation, they think he (Mahdjoub) took an active role in recruiting and looking for papers, more of a logistical role."

Officials offered no hard evidence that Islamic recruiters have moved east, but there have been unsubstantiated reports of Islamic fighters training in Bosnia.

In October, Polish authorities arrested an Algerian terrorist suspect who was carrying a British passport when he was stopped at Krakow's airport. Authorities were looking for possible contacts in Poland while seeking details from foreign intelligence services.

Associated Press writer David Rising contributed to this report from Germany.

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