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Al Qaeda Operative Seen as Master of Remote Control

European authorities describe Khalid Shaikh Mohammed plotting a bombing on the run.

March 30, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was on the run in Pakistan, but the Al Qaeda operations chief never lost sight of his target: a historic synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

French and Spanish investigators say that as he changed hide-outs and phones to avoid capture last year, he also managed to put into motion the intricate machinery that he had built to kill by remote control:

A Tunisian named Nizar Nawar cased the target using the cover of a job in Djerba's bustling tourist industry, they say. The unlikely financier was a Spanish businessman. The logistics man in France supplied fake papers and a satellite phone, and relayed calls from the mastermind in Pakistan.

Mohammed spoke with Nawar for the last time on April 11. Investigators have not revealed the contents of that conversation, but Nawar's phone call on the same day to an Islamic extremist in Germany was intercepted by German agents.

"I am the saber," Nawar said, according to investigators.

"What do you need?"

"Only the blessing of Allah."

Hours later, Nawar drove a truck bomb to the doors of the synagogue and immolated himself and 21 victims, mostly German and French tourists. It was the brutally simple execution of a complex plot that spanned at least five countries. French and Spanish investigators have been working to reconstruct it for almost a year.

The investigation gathered momentum when the arrest of Mohammed on March 1 in Pakistan turned up documents and phone numbers connecting him to the Djerba suspects in Europe. The evidence contributed to what investigators call the most detailed picture to date of how Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, orchestrated a terrorist plot.

Despite tension between France and the United States over the war in Iraq, counter-terrorism cooperation still functions smoothly, according to a top French law enforcement official. He said U.S. agents shared leads found in Pakistan, enabling investigators of Spain's paramilitary Guardia Civil to make arrests in Valencia in coordination with French law enforcement.

"We now know that Mohammed piloted the whole affair by telephone," the French law enforcement official said. "It is an important case because we have many elements to show his direct implication in the attack."

The case illustrates Mohammed's relentlessness, the scope of his global network and his daring, hands-on involvement in operational details, authorities say. Although Djerba might be little-known to Americans, it was a target resonant with symbolism that appealed to Mohammed's flair for terror.

Mohammed began planning to attack the Ghriba synagogue before the Sept. 11 attacks, French investigators say. Surrounded by flowers and fruit trees, the temple occupies an oasis of tranquillity. In Greek myth, Odysseus is said to have reached Djerba in his wanderings and named it the island of the lotus-eaters.

The synagogue is built on one of the most ancient Jewish holy sites in the world, a hub of religious pilgrimages. And it remains a fragile refuge of North Africa's oldest surviving Jewish community: about a thousand Sephardic Jews who preserved rituals and traditions dating back 2,000 years and lived in relative harmony with Muslim neighbors.

The Tunisian government, although autocratic in some ways, is moderate in questions of religion. It relies heavily on a tourism sector geared to European vacationers.

"Mohammed's target was tourism and an Arab regime that Al Qaeda considers to be infidel," the French law enforcement official said. "Djerba was also a model of Jewish-Arab integration, another symbolic reason for the attack. And at that time, after the American military action in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda wanted to show they were still strong."

Not only did Mohammed want to make it clear that he could strike anywhere at any time, he hoped to widen the conflict with the West by hitting Europeans, officials say. He had already groomed Nawar, his suicide bomber, at a terrorist train-ing camp in Afghanistan.

Nawar's family lived in Lyon, France, but the troubled 26-year-old had returned to Tunisia after religious pilgrimages to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nawar and his brother Walid, an illegal immigrant to France who has been charged as an accomplice, are typical of the young Tunisians and Algerians who have become Al Qaeda's most active foot soldiers in Europe.

But the profile of the alleged financier in Spain is surprising. The prosperous coastal communities around Valencia reacted with disbelief and indignation to the arrest of Enrique Cerda Ibanez, whose family firm makes and exports designs for decorative tiles and ceramics. The Guardia Civil also rounded up Cerda's sister and two associates, who were questioned and released.

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