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Listening for Signs of Danger

Translators involved in the war on terrorism must interpret nuances of dialect and culture. Often, they're caught between two worlds.

December 11, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — As a crack interpreter for anti-terrorism investigators, "Wadad" fights the war of the words.

She deciphers North African dialects, Middle Eastern accents and the French Arabic slang of jail yards and housing projects. She braves the crossfire during marathon interrogations of suspected terrorists who snarl at the presence of a female interpreter or recite Koranic verses. She cracks the codes of gunslinger theologians for whom "visiting an aunt" means going to prison and "preparing a marriage" means a suicide attack.

Wadad's job with a French anti-terrorism agency requires the skills of a linguist, a detective, a historian. It requires bleary-eyed hours transcribing wiretaps and documents. It carries huge responsibility: An interpreter can detect an imminent attack, put an innocent man behind bars, make or break a case.

Because of the danger involved, Wadad agreed to provide a glimpse of her secretive world only on the condition that her identity be shielded.

"It's certainly delicate work," she said. "I am completely absorbed by it. I have a passion for it. I am aware of how important it is. I know I don't have the right to make a mistake."

In Europe and especially in the United States, anti-terrorism agencies contend with an acute shortage of Arabic-speaking investigators and translators, say veteran European law enforcement officials. As Western security forces strain to confront and comprehend terrorism by Islamic extremists, one of their greatest challenges is the recruitment of skilled, trustworthy linguists.

"The translators are overworked, underpaid and scared," an Italian official said.

In Italy, a North African translator quit a law enforcement job because militants threatened him while he was visiting his homeland. Dutch police recently arrested an intelligence service translator, accusing him of acting as a double agent. This year's deadly train bombings in Madrid revealed overwhelming workloads for translators, delays in listening to and transcribing intercepts, and a lack of specialists with analytical skills or expertise in the many Arabic dialects.

"There are a lot of bad translators," said Alain Grignard, a veteran commander of Belgium's federal police and one of the few senior investigators in Europe who speak fluent Arabic. "The real solution is to team up translators with police analysts who know some Arabic. It's very demanding. You have to understand the religious and historical references. The Islamists talk about events in the Middle Ages as if they had happened yesterday."

Grignard cited a public statement by Osama bin Laden in which the Al Qaeda leader compared President Bush to Hulagu Khan, a Mongol chieftain and grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Baghdad in 1258.

Harried European and U.S. authorities sometimes enlist the help of Arab spy agencies, particularly from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, officials say. But that risks security breaches and manipulation. Similarly, a tendency to recruit non-Muslim Arabs can backfire because some Lebanese Christians or Egyptian Coptics might be influenced by religious resentments, Grignard said.

France probably has the biggest and best cadre of linguists, European officials say. Its population of Arabic origin is the continent's largest, drawing on Francophone diasporas from North Africa and Lebanon. Outbreaks of terrorism here in the 1980s and '90s spurred the French to build a robust security apparatus.

Challenges persist, a senior French anti-terrorism official said.

"It's harder to get Pakistani interpreters," he said. "And with Iranians it is very difficult, because their intelligence service is so good at infiltration."

The Italian proverb "Traduttore, traditore" ("Translator, traitor") apparently became reality in the Netherlands. In September, police arrested a translator for the AIVD spy agency. He has been identified only as Outmar ben A., 34, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent. He had left a post at the immigration service to work for the intelligence agency half a year before his arrest, according to AIVD spokesman Vincent van Steen.

He fell under suspicion after police found classified documents in Utrecht homes raided in connection with a suspected bomb plot, Van Steen said. Outmar allegedly tipped off the suspects, enabling them to get rid of explosives before the roundup.

Police want to determine whether Outmar was already in league with extremists when he was hired, Van Steen said. The case recalls the arrest last year of a Syrian-born translator for the U.S. Air Force who had been assigned to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was accused of spying.

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