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France Interrogating 2 Al Qaeda Suspects

June 07, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — French counter-terrorism investigators Friday were questioning a German suspected of taking part in the Al Qaeda bombing of a Tunisian synagogue last year and of having ties to the Hamburg cell that plotted the Sept. 11 attacks.

The arrest Monday of Christian Ganczarski, a 36-year-old convert to Islam, was part of a French operation this week targeting potentially dangerous extremists who have eluded capture although they were known associates of the 9/11 plotters.

The day before Ganczarski's capture at Charles de Gaulle Airport, French police at the airport arrested Karim Mehdi, a 34-year-old Moroccan living in Germany. Mehdi had arrived from Germany and planned to catch a flight to Reunion Island, a French territory and vacation spot in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. He allegedly planned to take part in terrorist attacks there, according to Laurent Gerard of the French Interior Ministry.

Mehdi knew some of the Sept. 11 hijackers and their Hamburg accomplices, authorities said. He was arraigned Thursday night in a separate French investigation of the attacks, which was opened on behalf of four French victims who died in the World Trade Center, according to a senior French law enforcement official.

"He is definitely Al Qaeda," the senior French law enforcement official said. "He had direct ties to the Hamburg group. We believe he was an operational accomplice."

The two cases highlight a challenge to fighting terrorism in Europe, investigators said. Weak laws and limited evidence have enabled a number of Al Qaeda operatives to remain free months after they were identified and investigated. Their fanaticism makes them capable of participating in terrorist violence, authorities say, even though they realize that they are under police surveillance.

"If Mehdi had not been arrested, I think we would have had an attack on Reunion Island, something like the Bali attack, within a few months," the senior official said. French prosecutors have opened an investigation of that alleged plot.

Mehdi and Ganczarski know each other from the German city of Duisburg, where both lived, investigators said.

Like a number of converts involved in Al Qaeda, the German was ferociously militant and his ethnicity made him especially valuable as a clandestine operative, investigators say.

On April 11, 2002, a German wiretap recorded a phone conversation in which Ganczarski said goodbye from Germany to a suicide bomber in Tunisia shortly before a truck bomb exploded at a synagogue in Djerba, killing 21 people.

"What do you need?" Ganczarski asked the suicide bomber, a Tunisian named Nizar Nawar, according to investigators.

"Only the blessing of Allah," Nawar replied by satellite phone.

It was apparently easier for French police to arrest Ganczarski as a suspected accomplice in the Djerba case because of France's tougher, more centralized terrorism laws and the power of counter-terrorism magistrates such as Jean-Louis Bruguiere, the judge overseeing the investigations of both suspects.

In contrast, the German system is decentralized and places a greater burden of proof on investigators. Despite his alleged connections to Nawar and other Al Qaeda operatives, German prosecutors sought an arrest warrant for Ganczarski last month only on a charge of failing to report a crime in progress. They argued that he did nothing to prevent the Djerba bombing even though he knew it was going to happen. But a German judge rejected the warrant, and the decision is being appealed.

About a month ago, Ganczarski and his family traveled to Saudi Arabia -- an odd destination given that he was publicly known as a suspected extremist and travel by Westerners is carefully regulated by Saudi authorities. European investigators were initially disgruntled by the Saudis' seeming tolerance of his presence, but last weekend he was "more or less expelled" by Saudi authorities to France, where police were waiting for him at the airport Monday night, the French official said.

The circumstances suggest that Saudi security services are cooperating more closely with European counterparts as a result of last month's suicide attacks in Riyadh.

Mehdi, meanwhile, was an alleged associate of Sept. 11 plotter Ramzi Binalshib, who is now in U.S. custody, according to testimony in Germany last year.

During questioning on June 5, 2002, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden told German police that he recognized photos of Mehdi taken at an Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, according to a French investigator. The former bodyguard told police that Mehdi was a supporter of Al Qaeda who had contact with Binalshib, according to the investigator.

German prosecutors did not charge Mehdi, and he remained free in Germany. He is one of several dozen Muslim men in Germany -- mainly young North Africans and middle-aged Syrians -- who have come under scrutiny because they associated with the Sept. 11 hijackers and their accomplices. Some have been charged with crimes, many have been questioned, and most are under surveillance, European investigators say.

Nonetheless, some of the men have persisted with their secret war, according to police. In March, two former associates of the Hamburg plotters turned up in an Italian investigation of an Al Qaeda recruitment network that allegedly sent extremists to train at camps in northern Iraq.

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