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German Seen as Having Key Al Qaeda Role

Christian Ganczarski, now in French custody, was an ideological leader in the terrorist network who helped plot attacks, an official says.

June 12, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A German convert to Islam accused of ties to the Sept. 11 plotters and the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue is a significant figure in Al Qaeda who was allegedly planning a new attack, France's interior minister said Wednesday.

Nicolas Sarkozy told legislators at the National Assembly that Christian Ganczarski "is a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda who has been in contact with Osama bin Laden himself."

Ganczarski was arrested here last week after arriving from Saudi Arabia.

Sarkozy's comments reaffirm those made by investigators in France, Spain and elsewhere that the 36-year-old German stood out among an international roster of converts accused of becoming die-hard Al Qaeda fighters. Non-Arab recruits have become increasingly important to terrorist groups because they are likely to have a better chance of evading the worldwide crackdown on the Al Qaeda network.

The French inquiry adds to questions about Saudi Arabia's decision to give refuge to Ganczarski at a time when his alleged terrorist ties were under investigation in several European countries.

Unlike convicted "shoe bomber" Richard C. Reid of Britain, Ganczarski was not just a useful foot soldier, investigators say. He allegedly rose to the level of an ideological leader with responsibility for plotting terrorist operations.

"The other converts aren't even on the radar screen compared to him," said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counter- terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He is the most interesting convert, hands down. And I think he's one of the most interesting captures."

Another Al Qaeda suspect told French investigators that Ganczarski helped hatch a plot to attack tourists on the island of Reunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean, Sarkozy said. That suspect, a Moroccan named Karim Mehdi, was arrested at Charles de Gaulle Airport here early this month en route from Germany to Reunion.

Mehdi "explained that he was going to Reunion to carry out a reconnaissance trip and referred ... to the possibility of a car-bomb attack," Sarkozy said. He said Mehdi identified Ganczarski "as one of the organizers and the financier of the attack that could have been committed on Reunion."

Mehdi is under investigation for that plot and for allegedly aiding the German cell that launched attacks on New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

French authorities last week arraigned Ganczarski in the truck-bomb attack on a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba in April 2002, and they are examining his potential role in the other cases. He remained silent during questioning, the interior minister said.

The two suspects knew each other from Duisburg, Germany, where both lived until recently. A computer expert who grew up in Poland, Ganczarski is a veteran of Al Qaeda's Afghan training camps and saw combat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to Sarkozy. Ganczarski's alleged contact with Bin Laden is not in itself extraordinary because European converts are prized by Al Qaeda for their ability to carry out clandestine operations -- and as symbols of the evangelical power of the so-called holy war.

But Ganczarski became something of an ideological leader, surpassing converts who have often been ex-convicts or former drug addicts and sometimes do not even learn Arabic properly, investigators say. He allegedly crossed paths with extremist Saudi clerics and with Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan convicted this year as a Hamburg accomplice of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The German also drew widespread attention because he was one of just two men who was phoned by the Tunisian suicide bomber -- a conversation intercepted by German police -- on the day of the Djerba attack. The other call went to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused operational chief of Al Qaeda at the time, who was captured in Pakistan in March this year.

Despite published accounts about the wiretapped call and a subsequent German investigation, Saudi authorities granted hard-to-obtain visas to Ganczarski and his family last month. The move mystified some investigators in Europe.

"It wasn't hard for him" to go to Saudi Arabia, a senior French law enforcement official said. "He had contacts."

The decision by Saudi Arabia exemplifies the nation's sometimes troubling resistance to cooperating with the West in the campaign against Al Qaeda, experts said.

The French official said the Saudis expelled Ganczarski last week largely in response to pressure after the recent car-bomb attacks on expatriate housing compounds in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. If the assaults had not taken place, it is less likely Ganczarski would have been sent to France, Levitt agreed.

"It was a poor decision to let him in," Levitt said. "It's telling. If there had not been the attacks in Riyadh, I don't think there would have been the pressure, and they probably wouldn't have done it."

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