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Chilling 'Chatter' of Jihad

Wiretaps of an Al Qaeda cell in Italy reveal not only possible missed signals of attacks but a glimpse at a world of angry, adrift extremists.

September 23, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILAN, Italy — They knew the police were spying on them, but they needed to talk. So the members of the Al Qaeda cell often met in a car. They thought the police were unlikely to bug the car.

They were wrong.

The Citroen sedan rolled over trolley tracks and under viaducts on the graffiti-smeared outskirts of Milan. It cruised past old trattorias and new Islamic butcher shops, past wavy-haired Italians on motorcycles and hooded immigrant women lugging groceries.

At the wheel was the top Al Qaeda operative in Italy, Abdelkader Mahmoud Es Sayed, whose car served as a headquarters, a refuge, a kind of confessional for aspiring holy warriors.

"Sheik, if someone wants to go fight, why don't you let him?" a tormented 31-year-old Tunisian named Adel ben Soltane asked while riding in the Citroen on Dec. 7, 2000, according to transcripts of intercepts by Italian police.

"The important thing is that you dream about it," Es Sayed answered paternally. "When the moment comes, you never know if you'll be a martyr in Algeria, Tunisia, America or in Central Asia. You won't know."

"I want to eliminate these pigs, these swine," Ben Soltane said. He told Es Sayed that he despised everything about Italy: "I hate the people, I hate the documents .... I want to go anywhere else."

In countless hours of wiretaps over two years, members of the Milan cell schemed, threatened and told war stories, their voices full of hate and despair. Many were extremists from North African countries who fled to Italy to escape prosecution. But they were alienated in their adopted land as well; they sounded like men who felt permanently and dangerously adrift.

The law enforcement slang for such intercepted conversations is "chatter," a term that has become widely used in U.S. media and public discussion of terrorism. The main significance of chatter has been in detecting future attacks, reconstructing past ones and mapping Al Qaeda's far-flung networks.

There has been great scrutiny of scraps of dialogue intercepted around the world before the Sept. 11 attacks, comments that now seem portentous, possible missed signs. Italian and U.S. agents, for instance, are investigating a fugitive Yemeni who visited the suspects in Italy in August 2000 and talked about plans for a big attack involving airplanes and airports, indicating he may have had knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.

But chatter also helps investigators understand the motives and personalities of Islamic extremists. Although Al Qaeda has been hurt by an international crackdown, the events of the last year have left an angry new generation of extremists eager for action, according to law enforcement experts in Italy, France and elsewhere.

"The young men are agitated," an Italian investigator said. "They want to go out and do something. The imams have to calm them down."

The reality of Al Qaeda is elusive because of the organization's stealth and anarchic culture. More than court testimony or confessions, the chatter on wiretaps comes close to capturing the truth.

Of course, barriers of culture and language still interfere. Defendants in Milan have complained about the quality of official interpreters. In an Al Qaeda case in Madrid, defense lawyers accused police of mistaking innocent references to buying fruit and vegetables as code words for terrorist activities.

The Milan transcripts contain a fly-on-the-wall account of the daily life of these men, building on wiretaps of the Citroen, phones, apartments and a mosque. The documents became public in court cases; some suspects have been convicted, others are on trial, and at least one is presumed dead.

The suspects spent much of their time discussing fraudulent documents, devoting such energy and secrecy to the deals that at first police thought they were talking about explosives. The intercepts also recorded strategy sessions, furtive trips, and monologues praising Osama bin Laden and radical clerics.

The young men saw themselves as warrior-monks assailed by the temptations of a prosperous, fun-loving society.

The way other men might watch pornography, they sat in a seedy apartment chortling at videos of moujahedeen slaughtering Russian soldiers in the snows of Chechnya.

"Look, look how they cut his throat," a suspect named Khaled exclaimed, according to the transcript of an intercept March 22, 2001, in an apartment in suburban Gallarate.

"Why's the other one alive?" a man named Farid said as gunfire from the television echoed in the background.

"Now they are getting ready to burn," Khaled said. He started reminiscing about his own combat experiences in Chechnya.

"When the order from the emir came, it was beautiful," he recalled, "because first we studied the structure and then, with the plastic [explosive], boom! ... And right afterward the building collapsed and then dust.... And then a fire started, and this way the enemies of God were buried and burned."

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