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AFTER THE WAR / TERRORISM'S REACH

A Road to Ansar Began in Italy

Wiretaps are said to show how Al Qaeda sought to create in northern Iraq a substitute for training camps in Afghanistan.

April 28, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

CREMONA, Italy — Days before the fall of the Ansar al Islam terrorist group in northern Iraq last month, an alleged Ansar militant named Noureddine Drissi got an urgent call on his satellite phone from his imam.

The call came from an unlikely place: this comfortable northern Italian town of 70,000 known for its 13th century bell tower, Christmas sweets and violin-making workshops that preserve the delicate artistry of Antonio Stradivari.

But on the clandestine map of Islamic terrorist networks, Cremona was closer than it seemed to the Iraqi village of Kurmal in Ansar's mountain stronghold. Drissi, a Tunisian immigrant, had left his job as the librarian of a mosque in Cremona three months earlier and made the journey to a terrorist training camp near Kurmal, authorities say. Italian police wiretapped his long-distance conversations with the religious leader in Cremona who had allegedly sent Drissi and other recruits to join Ansar's holy war.

During the March 18 call, Drissi sounded defiant but edgy on the eve of battle, according to wiretap transcripts. His voice straining over a weak connection, he asked the imam to attend to his family if anything happened to him.

"If you hear that Ansar al Islam has been hit you'll know it's us

"When he gets here we'll see.... May God help him.... You should call me before sending," Drissi said.

"Fine! But he's good!" said the imam, identified by authorities as a Tunisian named Mourad Trabelsi.

"May God pray for us!" Drissi said.

It is not known whether Drissi survived the combat that erupted soon afterward. Kurdish and U.S. troops routed Ansar on March 28, invading its bases and leaving hundreds of its fighters dead, captured or on the run in the borderlands where Iraq meets Iran.

Three days later, Italian anti-terrorist police carried out a related offensive in Cremona, Parma and Milan. They arrested Trabelsi and six other alleged members of a network that supplied Ansar with fighters recruited among North African and Kurdish immigrants in northern Italy.

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Replacement Camps

Investigators say the case offers a picture of how Al Qaeda sought to transform Ansar's Iraqi stronghold into a substitute, on a smaller scale, for the Afghan camps to which the terrorist network had sent aspiring holy warriors before the U.S. defeated the Taliban in late 2001. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, members of a network commanded by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a top Al Qaeda figure, fled to the Russian republic of Chechnya and northeastern Iraq. U.S. and European investigators say Zarqawi's specialists used a camp in the village of Sargat, near Kurmal, to experiment with cyanide poisons, toxic gas and ricin, a castor bean extract that can be used as a biological weapon.

The network allegedly plotted attacks in Europe that were assigned to different ethnic cells -- Algerians in Britain and France, Jordanians and Palestinians in Germany -- but were ultimately dismantled by police.

As the prospect of a U.S. military operation in the Persian Gulf grew, the network's recruiters in Italy sent at least 40 fighters for terrorist training in Ansar camps and to help fight Kurdish forces, prosecutors say. Alleged ties between Al Qaeda and Ansar became a prime exhibit in the U.S. government's case for war when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his presentation to the United Nations in February, accused the Baghdad regime of protecting Zarqawi and his men.

Italian investigators say they found no evidence tying Al Qaeda and Ansar to the Iraqi regime, which did not control the region where the camps were located. In a wiretapped conversation in Trabelsi's Renault sedan March 18, the Cremona imam and a Kurdish recruiter described Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as an infidel tyrant for whom it was not worth fighting, according to Italian court documents.

"He who has fought beneath the flag of a blind man is ignorant," Trabelsi is alleged to have said, reciting a Koranic verse in reference to Hussein. "That has been said about only a blind man's flag, imagine beneath an infidel flag."

The investigation is said to have revealed an active role in Ansar plotting by suspected terrorists based in Syria and Iran -- countries seen as potential targets in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

Syria was a hub for recruits moving between Europe and Ansar's Iraqi stronghold, according to court documents. Overseers in the Damascus area apparently coordinated the flow of recruits and gave orders by phone to operatives in Europe. The suspected bosses in Syria include fugitives with ties to the Hamburg, Germany, cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, as well as to the car-bomb attack on Israelis in Kenya in November, Italian authorities say.

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