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Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists

RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

October 07, 2001|CRAIG PYES and JOSH MEYER and WILLIAM C. REMPEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

French authorities, confused about the motives for the spasm of gang violence, considered it a new phenomenon, calling it "gangster terrorism." Their investigation uncovered what may have been the first terrorism cell exported from Bosnia.

After an investigation of the surviving associate, Caze's electronic organizer and other evidence recovered by French police, the robbery gang was identified as nine militants who attended a local mosque. Most of them had undergone military training at the El Moujahed compound in Bosnia.

The armed robberies were a radical form of fund-raising by Caze and his associates to benefit their "Muslim brothers in Algeria." Their high-powered weapons were smuggled home from the Bosnian war.

Caze's organizer was described by one official as "the address book of the professional terrorist." It contained phone contacts in England, Italy, France and Canada, as well as direct lines to El Maali's Zenica headquarters. It led French authorities to trace travels and phone records and to set up electronic surveillance.

French counter-terrorism officials soon realized they had stumbled upon more than a band of gangsters. Five years before the sophisticated terrorist assault on the U.S., the French were starting to uncover loosely linked violent networks spreading into several countries, all tied together by a common thread: Bosnia.

One of the phone numbers in the dead terrorist's organizer led to a suspect in Canada: Fateh Kamel, 41, who ran a small trinkets shop in Montreal.

French authorities say Canada rejected their initial request to investigate Kamel, calling the dapper Algerian "just a businessman."

But Kamel also was a confidant of El Maali. He spoke frequently to the Bosnia moujahedeen chief over his wife's cell phone. Kamel had gone to Bosnia early in the war, suffered a shrapnel wound in one leg and been treated at the El Moujahed hospital by Caze, the young medic.

Kamel first came to the attention of European intelligence officials in 1994, when Italian agents tracking suspected terrorists stumbled upon him recruiting fighters in Milan for El Maali's brigade.

After the Dayton accord, French police say, Kamel became deeply involved in terrorist logistics. He was "the principal activist of an international network determined to plan assassinations and to procure arms and passports for terrorist acts all over the world," according to a French court document.

In 1996, an Italian surveillance team recorded Kamel discussing a terrorist attack and taped him declaring: "I do not fear death . . . because the jihad is the jihad, and to kill is easy for me."

During the same period, Kamel assisted other North African extremists relocating to Canada, exploiting the country's lax immigration laws and Quebec's eagerness for French-speaking immigrants such as Algerians.

According to French investigators, Kamel was the leader of a terrorist cell in Montreal. Other members included Ressam, Atmani and a third roommate, Mustafa Labsi.

Like Kamel, Atmani had served in Bosnia and was close to El Maali. A U.S. law enforcement official described Atmani as a "crazy warrior with a nose so broken and twisted that he could sniff around corners."

Later, authorities believe, the three roommates went to Afghanistan together to train for a terrorist attack on the United States. They returned to the West after learning that their target would be Los Angeles International Airport. The conspiracy was interrupted when Atmani was deported from Canada to Bosnia.

When Ressam, traveling alone, was captured at the border with explosives in his rental car, U.S. officials tried to track down his former roommate Atmani. Authorities had information that he was traveling between Sarajevo and Istanbul, but Bosnian officials denied even that Atmani had been deported there. Investigators later learned that Atmani had been issued a new Bosnian passport six months earlier.

Atmani was part of the hard-core terrorist group noted in the secret State Department report. He remained beyond the reach of international extradition until this year, when he was arrested and turned over to France by Bosnia's new coalition government. He awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.

Kamel, the alleged ringleader of the group, was arrested in Jordan and was extradited to France, where he is in prison on a terrorism conviction. Ressam and Labsi also have been jailed. All of the members of the former Montreal cell have been convicted of being operatives in a terrorist network that originated in Bosnia.

James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration, said that although the U.S. works closely with countries in the Balkans to deal with "the problem of these cells," the very nature of secret terrorist organizations confounds those efforts.

"It's one thing to [arrest] the people you know [are terrorists], but then the others . . . bury themselves even deeper," he said.

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