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Al Qaeda's Stealth Weapons

Muslim converts who are drawn to fanaticism pose special dangers well beyond their symbolic impact. 'The blue-eyed emir' is one example.

September 20, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

CHAMBLES, France — The convicted terrorist has a hard-core moniker: "the blue-eyed emir of Tangier."

But Pierre Richard Robert was once a French country boy, an athletic blond teenager living in a house built by his father among pastures here in the Loire region.

Robert liked drinking and fast bikes more than school. He got interested in Islam when he played soccer at the Turkish cultural center in a neighboring industrial town. He said he wanted to convert because Allah watched over him as he sped downhill into town on his bicycle.

"I told him it's not like changing shirts," said Ibrahim Tekeli, a leader of the Turkish community. "The imam told him, 'I want you to reflect and talk to your family first.' But Richard said: 'I've already reflected.... For months before I made my decision, I would run the red light on the big hill every day going real fast. I would always pray to Allah to protect me. And I never got hit by a car.' "

Fourteen years later, though, Robert has hit bottom. A Moroccan court sentenced him to life in prison Thursday after convicting him of recruiting and training Moroccan extremists for a terrorist campaign.

He joins an unlikely group of men with non-Muslim backgrounds that includes Richard Reid, the British "shoe bomber" convicted of trying to blow up an airliner; American Jose Padilla, an alleged Al Qaeda operative being held as an enemy combatant; and Christian Ganczarski, a German convert arrested in June by French police.

Robert and Ganczarski were not just foot soldiers, investigators say. They represent a dangerous trend as police chop away at Islamic networks two years after the Sept. 11 attacks: converts who assume front-line roles as recruiters and plotters.

The number of converts has grown as Islamic militants have struck a chord with young Europeans from non-Muslim backgrounds. These "protest conversions," as scholar Olivier Roy calls them, have less to do with theology than with a revolutionary zeal dating to Europe's ultra-left terrorist groups of the 1970s and '80s.

"The young people in working-class urban areas are against the system, and converting to Islam is the ultimate way to challenge the system," said Roy, a director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "They convert to stick it to their parents, to their principal.... They convert in the same way people in the 1970s went to Bolivia or Vietnam. I see a very European tradition of identifying with a Third World cause."

As demographics and immigration propel Islam's spread in Europe, the number of French converts -- the vast majority of them law-abiding -- has increased steadily to about 100,000, Roy said.

Extremists of European descent worry police for the same reasons that Al Qaeda prizes them: their symbolic value, their Western passports and their fanaticism.

"Converts are the most important work for us right now," a French intelligence official said. "They want to show other Muslims their worth. They want to go further than anyone else. They are full of rage and they want to prove themselves."

The rise of the converts actually may be a sign of Al Qaeda's weakness, a need to fill a vacuum as leaders are hunted down. The limited hierarchy of Islamic networks can make leadership a question of circumstance and initiative. A Spanish investigator said Al Qaeda has "many soldiers, some sergeants and the generals."

Ganczarski and Robert were no generals, but they allegedly stepped up to plot attacks and recruit. And investigators say Ganczarski, 36, became a pivotal figure in Europe during the post-Sept. 11 period because of his alleged ties to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's now-imprisoned operational boss, who turned increasingly to converts while on the run.

Ganczarski is being held in a French jail as a suspected conspirator in the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that killed 21 people, including French tourists, in April 2002.

Investigators say Mohammed controlled the plot from Pakistan despite the vigilance of U.S. spy satellites that intercepted some of his coded conversations with accomplices. To elude detection, he used non-Arabs in Europe to support the Tunisian suicide bomber, Nizar Nawar, police say.

On the day Nawar blew himself up in a truck-bomb at the historic synagogue on the island of Djerba, he called Mohammed in Pakistan, investigators say, and Ganczarski's home in Duisburg, Germany. A German wiretap recorded the latter call: As if addressing a mentor, Nawar asked Ganczarski for a blessing, investigators say.

Although the Germans lacked proof to arrest Ganczarski, who denied involvement in the attack, the widening investigation soon involved French, Spanish and Swiss police. It revealed Ganczarski's access to Al Qaeda's "hard core," in the words of a Swiss intelligence report dated last December.

Ganczarski called Mohammed's Swiss cell phone in Pakistan "numerous times" in the months before the Djerba attack, according to the report.

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