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U.S. Sees New Terrorist Threat From N. Africa

Intelligence: Officials, with European aid, learn of the dangers from evidence gathered from informants and the conviction of an Algerian behind LAX bomb plot.

July 08, 2001|CRAIG PYES and JOSH MEYER and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARIS — International investigators say they have evidence of a North African terrorist network loosely federated with Islamic militant Osama bin Laden that poses serious new security problems for the United States.

A clearer view of this North African network, primarily composed of Algerians, emerged in recent months from informants, intercepted communications and evidence seized in a series of foiled attacks, including the 1999 arrest of would-be Los Angeles International Airport bomber Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who lived in Montreal.

U.S. counter-terrorism agencies had been focused on Middle East groups linked to Saudi financier Bin Laden, who is wanted in connection with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. But the chance discovery of the Algerian-led bomb plot targeting LAX galvanized European and North American agencies to move aggressively against suspected North African terror cells. A spate of arrests has followed from Germany to Canada. And more are expected.

Since Ressam's arrest, no plot by any North African cell has succeeded, a record attributed to good luck and terrorist mistakes. A nervous Ressam, for example, was searched during a routine U.S.-Canada border stop and was discovered to be carrying bomb materials.

But "the Algerian terrorist cell network has become . . . particularly aggressive to us right now, and they're becoming more of a threat to the West than was previously thought," said a senior U.S. intelligence official.

Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a top French anti-terrorism coordinator who testified against Ressam in a Los Angeles federal court in April, said that when he visited the U.S. he was "surprised by the low level of public awareness compared to the high level of the threat" Americans face from the Algerian cells.

Testifying in the New York trial of an accused accomplice, Ressam said his colleagues are intent on exporting violence to U.S. soil.

"If one is to carry out an operation, it would be better to hit the biggest enemy. I mean America," he told a federal jury. Ressam also identified a number of other Algerian terrorists who had been part of his original attack team, most of whom remain at large.

Today, counter-terrorism officials are pooling data, decoding seized documents, gathering and translating wiretap recordings and assembling information about the associates of terrorism suspects on at least four continents.

"We are very concerned especially about security" for the Group of 8 economic summit in Genoa later this month, said one Italian diplomatic source.

The cells have proved difficult to monitor because they appear to operate independently despite their various links to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

For example, though many of the Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans and Moroccans have been trained at Bin Laden-run facilities in Afghanistan, once they leave the camps the North Africans are believed to be picking their own targets and carrying out their attacks with little direct assistance.

Many of the groups dissolve after an action or encounters with police, and members form new cells in new locales under new identities, frustrating efforts to track and detect dangerous operatives, authorities concede.

'Always New People, New Targets'

One senior European counter-terrorism official compared the Islamic terrorist groups to the AIDS virus, "mutating all the time. As soon as we understand a situation, in six months' time it's irrelevant. . . . There's always new people, new targets--it's constantly changing."

Evolution of an Algerian-flavored terrorist threat against the U.S. seemed to catch American intelligence officials by surprise. It grew out of the Algerian military's decision in 1992 to cancel elections that a popular Islamic coalition was poised to win. The military coup was scarcely opposed by the previous Bush administration, which was focused on events in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Washington saw Algeria's suspended elections as an internal matter with implications only for the region. Within two years, however, terrorist violence spilled over into France.

Now, as Ressam and others arrested in the LAX bomb plot have testified, radical Muslims of many national origins have come to view the U.S. in the same harsh terms as Bin Laden: as Islam's "greatest enemy."

At a conference of Western intelligence officials a few weeks ago in Algeria, the Ressam case and evidence uncovered by recent arrests in Germany convinced many intelligence officials that the nature of Islamic terrorism has changed, according to a European law enforcement official familiar with the meetings.

Much of the confidential discussions focused on the rise of "informal terrorist cells" of North Africans that appear to have grown out of support networks originally intended to smuggle funds and weapons to insurgents in Algeria, the law enforcement source said.

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