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THE HUNT FOR AL QAEDA | SUNDAY REPORT

Extremists Find Fertile Soil in Europe

Threat of war in Iraq is adding to the pool of potential recruits for Al Qaeda and others.

March 02, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Karim Bourti recruited the Algerian journalist last October in the Palace of Justice, a 14th century citadel swept by cold winds rising off the Seine.

In his Pakistani-style robes and full beard, the recruiter was short, round-faced, dumpy. But his stare commanded respect. And he was smooth: You are a journalist, he told Mohamed Sifaoui, but you are Algerian. We are brothers. We endure racism, the abuse of the French, the Americans. If you come back to your roots in Islam, everyone will respect you. You have a great future with us.

The journalist followed Bourti into "l'Islam des caves": the "Islam of the cellars," where holy warriors are bred. Bourti prowled mosques, dank prayer halls, hospitals and prisons looking for young men adrift. His acolytes hovered: college students, an airport maintenance worker, a hulking Sicilian Lebanese ex-convict.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Bourti had allegedly sent recruits to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan via London. Now, he said, he wanted to dispatch Sifaoui to train in Russia's separatist republic of Chechnya for holy war.

As Christmas approached, Bourti talked to Sifaoui about conducting reconnaissance on Algerian leaders in France and other targets, Sifaoui says, and he alluded to a terrorist spectacular in the works -- seven attacks in seven countries on the same day. But police arrested Bourti. Sifaoui ended a three-month masquerade: He had posed as an extremist to infiltrate Bourti's cell with a hidden camera.

The journalist's story illustrates how Al Qaeda has adjusted and cranked up efforts to recruit terrorists in Europe. The aftermath of Sept. 11 and the prospect of war in Iraq have increased the numbers of angry anti-American young men who have been pushed into the embrace of Islamic extremism, according to counter-terrorism officials. Extremists are muscling into European mosques, creating new places of worship and winning converts.

"The influence of the extremist networks grows stronger every day," said a French intelligence official. "What the recruiters do is not illegal at first. Neither the republic nor the families of the recruits have found a way to stop them. We have more and more converts, young French with family problems, adolescent crises. Young girls too. For the Islamists, each convert is a great victory."

Recruitment is a slow-burning fire; Iraq could supply the fuel that sets it raging. The threat of terrorist attacks in the West will spike if and when the first shots are fired in the Persian Gulf, according to European and U.S. law enforcement officials.

Although Osama bin Laden and many of his top deputies remain at large, arrests and heightened vigilance have weakened the Al Qaeda terrorist network. It has lost the Afghan sanctuary whose training camps churned out a clandestine diaspora of tens of thousands of aspiring terrorists. Yet the organization can survive blows such as the capture Saturday of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because of a fluid structure that has allowed it to evolve into a more diffuse and elusive enemy: a swarm of semiautonomous threats.

Investigators say Al Qaeda has compensated for the loss of Afghanistan with training in lawless regions where armed Islamic movements operate: in Chechnya, Georgia, Pakistan. During the time Sifaoui spent undercover, he met Mirwani ben Ahmed, an Algerian who allegedly received chemical weapons training in Chechnya last summer. Police arrested Ben Ahmed on charges that his Al Qaeda cell plotted bombings and cyanide gas attacks against targets that included the Russian Embassy here.

"There has been a change of sanctuary and a change of strategy," said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorist judge. "We know that some of the suspects were trained with chemicals in Georgia and Chechnya. The Chechens are experts in chemical warfare. And Chechnya is closer to Europe than Afghanistan."

Border guards on the lookout for young Muslims have made travel difficult, however. So some recruiters provide improvised training elsewhere in Europe and act as de facto field commanders.

"There is a real chance they will also start getting more impact on the decision of who may execute the terrorist attack, what such attacks will target and how the attack should be carried out," said a Dutch intelligence report prepared in December.

A war in Iraq could turn many moderate Muslims into extremists and drive many extremists over the line between malicious intent and action, experts say.

"The strategy of the terrorists is to create a clash of civilizations," Bruguiere said. "And they will use the war to incite violence against the West. A war will have a direct impact on the level of recruitment."

Sifaoui says Bourti predicted that combat in the Persian Gulf could bring Islamic violence to Europe.

"The Americans are about to do the stupidest thing imaginable," Sifaoui said. "An attack on Iraq will nourish terrorism."

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