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Swiss Secrecy May Be a Lure for Al Qaeda

September 17, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

BERN, Switzerland — The trail began in the desert mayhem of Saudi Arabia and led to a suspected militant Islamic network operating in the Alpine tranquillity of Switzerland.

It started with a Saudi investigation into the May 2003 suicide attacks on three expatriate housing compounds in Riyadh by Al Qaeda that killed 26.

Investigators recovered a suspect's cellphone and made a startling discovery: The memory contained 36 Swiss numbers. And one of them belonged to an alleged Yemeni extremist based in the pristine village of Aegerten, an area known more for clockmakers than for terrorists.

The discovery led to an investigation by Swiss police that has resulted in 10 arrests during the last year. According to a preliminary indictment filed July 30, officials have uncovered a logistics and financial network in Switzerland with ties to top Al Qaeda figures and terrorist cells across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The indictment charges that the Swiss network supplied fraudulent documents, smuggled itinerant Middle Eastern extremists into the country and used criminal rackets to raise and move funds to cells in Europe and the Middle East.

The unlikely setting shows how extremists establish footholds in whatever corner of the world they can.

In some ways, Switzerland does not seem a hospitable base for the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The country lacks the big cities and vast Muslim neighborhoods of neighboring nations. It does not belong to the borderless European Union, making entry and exit more complicated.

The society also has a reputation for order. "It seems like every Swiss has a little bit of policeman in him," one foreign law enforcement official said. In addition, Swiss police are experienced in complex investigations because of the many international crimes that intersect with their secretive banking system.

Nonetheless, that banking system remains a magnet for the global underworld: Swiss prosecutors are pursuing two massive investigations of wealthy Arabs accused of financing Islamic extremists through Swiss bank accounts. And street-level militants know that, like other small European nations with traditions of tolerance and neutrality, Switzerland has generous political asylum laws, strong protections for criminal defendants and an ingrained respect for privacy.

Switzerland entered the picture in 2002, when European investigators found that Al Qaeda's operational boss, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and his associates were using hard-to-trace Swiss cellular phones.

Intercepts allegedly revealed that Mohammed, who has since been captured, was in touch with a Swiss convert in a plot that led to the truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue that year, investigators said.

The Swiss convert remains free. But several Yemenis who frequented the same Islamic center as he did in the town of Biel have been charged in the July indictment, officials said. The Yemeni network resembled Al Qaeda "sleeper" cells established around the world, authorities said.

The accused ringleader is Abdelhamid Fayek, the Yemeni whose number Saudi investigators found on the phone of the suspect in Riyadh.

Fayek, 56, came to Switzerland about five years ago and applied for political asylum in 2001, according to investigative documents. His application was rejected but remains under appeal. The former bookseller has done jail time in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which expelled him for extremist activity, according to documents. He's now under arrest in Switzerland.

Under Fayek's alleged leadership, the network, according to court documents and officials, provided a service hub for the increasingly fractured factions of Al Qaeda -- from incoming Saudis to a European-bred network of North Africans arrested in France, Belgium and the Netherlands in September 2001 for plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

After Saudi authorities found Fayek's number, Swiss police tapped his phone. They soon intercepted calls from a suspected Al Qaeda operative, Abdullah Kini, wanted in the Riyadh attacks and in the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen, according to Swiss court documents.

Calling from Qatar, Kini asked for help getting identity papers so he could flee to Switzerland, according to documents.

"The suspicion was that he might have been one of the people tasked to take the fight to Europe or North America," a Swiss counter-terrorism official said in a recent interview.

"It was thought there was a further destination after Switzerland, possibly the U.S. or Britain."

As a result, Qatari police arrested Kini in the summer of 2003. He was deported in May to Yemen and is in custody there.

Kini allegedly has high-level and disparate connections. The Swiss indictment says Kini "was close to certain members of the first tier of Al Qaeda, including Tawfiq Attash Khallad, Saif Adel and Abu Musab Zarqawi."

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