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Detentions Signal Fear in Europe

November 19, 2002|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- With police across Europe on guard against a heightened threat of attack, a British court Monday ordered three Algerians, including an alleged senior Al Qaeda figure, held on suspicion of terrorist activity. French police made three more arrests in a separate case.

Authorities say their security forces have stepped up activity because of indications that Al Qaeda intends to strike in Europe, where it has recruited fighters and planned operations -- but has not successfully carried out an attack. Recent warnings, some concrete and others vague, have generated fear of a major attack in Britain, France or another nation.

"I think the threat in Europe is the highest it has been since Sept. 11," a top French law enforcement official said Monday.

British authorities gave few details about the case against the Algerians, whom a judge ordered held for a month without bail pending investigation of suspected "preparation, instigation or commission of terrorism."

But officials denied media reports that the three had been planning a poison gas attack on London's subway system.

"It doesn't appear to be that there is any evidence whatsoever there was going to be a gas attack or indeed use of bombs regarding the three people who have been arrested," Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said in an interview with the BBC.

One of the suspects, Rabah Kadre, is a heavyweight in Europe-wide Al Qaeda groups based in London, according to French and Belgian investigators. Kadre, 35, was a close associate of Abu Doha, the alleged leader of an Algerian-dominated network and accused mastermind of a failed attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, investigators say.

Kadre also was an active recruiter sending French Muslims to Afghan training camps, according to authorities.

British police arrested Abu Doha and Kadre in February 2001 as they attempted to leave London for Saudi Arabia, according to Italian court documents. Abu Doha was held on terrorism charges. Kadre, who was suspected of an immigration violation, was released, according to authorities.

Kadre allegedly assumed Abu Doha's duties as a leading figure in the mostly Algerian and Tunisian networks that are trying to regroup despite a police crackdown since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, investigators say.

British police arrested Kadre again Nov. 9 along with Rabah Chehaj-Bias, 21, and Karim Kadouri, 33, both described as unemployed Algerians living in London. After spending time in Slovakia with a fraudulent French passport, Kadre returned to Britain a few days before his arrest, according to Slovak authorities and media reports.

Official silence contributed to a climate of confusion in London, where authorities were trying to strike a balance between alerting the public and preventing panic.

Commuters were greeted by tabloid headlines about an aborted chemical attack on the sprawling underground transit system, known popularly as the tube, but officials said the stories were groundless. Defense lawyers said their clients had not even been questioned about a possible subway plot.

Investigations in Afghanistan and elsewhere have demonstrated that Al Qaeda has experimented with primitive chemical weapons, a recurring topic in wiretaps and intelligence reports.

"Afghanistan showed they have the capability to use amateurish devices," said private investigator Jean-Charles Brisard, who investigated Al Qaeda for a French intelligence service and now works for families of Sept. 11 victims who have sued Saudi Arabian officials and companies for allegedly supporting terror.

"We don't know if they are able to use complex devices in terms of chemical weapons," Brisard said. "We have seen primitive but dangerous weapons."

The uncertainty and fear in Britain were exacerbated during the last two weeks. In an interview with a French newspaper earlier this month, the secretary-general of Interpol warned that Al Qaeda was preparing major simultaneous attacks in several countries.

French and Dutch intelligence services have reported picking up intelligence about possible terrorist plans to hit a British port with an explosives-laden truck on a ferryboat.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his home secretary, David Blunkett, warned last week of an intensified Al Qaeda menace.

"Barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence coming via our security services about a threat to U.K. interests," Blair said.

The Home Office released a report last week warning that Al Qaeda might attempt to use poison gas or a radioactive "dirty bomb." But shortly afterward, British officials substituted for that alert a report containing milder, more generic language.

Europeans have been further distressed by threats made in an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden that surfaced last week.

The voice on the tape hailed recent attacks by Islamic extremists in Yemen, Bali and Moscow and went on to single out Britain, France, Germany and Italy as enemies.

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