YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 3)

The World | COLUMN ONE

Swiss Spy in a War of Words

An ex-informant who became a Muslim says his handlers wanted him to frame an Islamic scholar. Officials say he's on a personal vendetta.

May 22, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the cloak-and-dagger game has had a new focus. Authorities have frozen millions of dollars of suspected terrorist financiers and investigated local groups allegedly linked to Al Qaeda.

Muslims make up about 4% of the Swiss population of 7.5 million, mostly Balkan immigrants considered moderates. But Geneva draws extremist Muslim ideologues and holy warriors, who have become top priorities for law enforcement.


Helped Out of Jail

Enter Covassi. Acquaintances, and his own account, depict him as engaging, athletic, restless and a slick operator.

The son of an Italian immigrant laborer, he grew up here and went to Paris to study philosophy. But he also racked up two misdemeanor convictions for fraud in Switzerland. Bouncing around Europe, he befriended far-left activists in Italy and hung out with cocaine dealers on the hard-partying Spanish island of Ibiza from 2001 to 2003, according to his account. Those contacts helped him develop a sideline as an informant for narcotics police in his hometown, said Covassi and Swiss officials.

A boyhood friend in police intelligence introduced him to agents of the domestic intelligence service, the Service for Analysis and Prevention, or SAP. The agents helped him get out of jail after an arrest on charges of credit card fraud in February 2004, he said, and enlisted him in a mission dubbed Operation Memphis.

"The SAP had the air of being worried about a terrorist threat in Switzerland," Covassi said. "I didn't know anything about Islam. The project of Operation Memphis seemed useful. I did not get a salary. I was repaid for expenses, along with some 'gifts.' I got paid a total of about $12,200."

Covassi started attending the Islamic Center of Geneva, a mosque run by Ramadan, 47. Ramadan and his brother, Tariq, have been watched by the world's spy services for decades.

Their maternal grandfather was Hassan Banna, an Egyptian who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical, sometimes violent group seeking to revive Islam and rejecting Westernization. The group's philosophies have inspired Islamist movements across the world, including those that spawned Al Qaeda.

After Banna's assassination in 1949, their father, Said Ramadan, helped spread the group's influence across the Muslim world, but soon fled Egypt amid a government crackdown.

The Ramadan brothers were born and raised in Geneva, where their father was granted asylum in the 1950s. The two scholars say they have renounced the intolerant aspects of their legacy.

But several top European anti-terrorism officials and academics see them as sinister ideologues. The United States revoked a visa for Tariq Ramadan in 2004 as he was about to begin a professorship at the University of Notre Dame.

"We have been interested in the Ramadans for a very long time," the Swiss security official said. "But we have found nothing for a criminal indictment. They are fellow travelers.... They are preaching. They are spreading radicalism."

In 2002, the local government fired Hani Ramadan from his job as a French teacher in a public school because of an article he wrote about Islamic law in which he defended the stoning of adulterous women. A court later ruled the firing was excessive.

The Ramadans have defenders, too. The British government has appointed Tariq Ramadan, now a professor at Oxford, to an advisory committee on Islam. Ziegler, the former legislator, calls the brothers unfairly maligned moderates.

"There is a campaign of permanent defamation against the Ramadan brothers," Ziegler said. "Hani is an organizer, a pedagogue, less brilliant than his brother. But there is a social dimension to his work at the Islamic Center, assisting families.... If you want Muslim immigrants to become European, you should support the Ramadans."

In order to infiltrate Hani Ramadan's inner circle, Covassi used his real name and a classic cover story: He presented himself as a troubled ex-convict looking for spiritual solace. Within two months, Ramadan encouraged him to convert, Covassi said.

"With other Muslims I founded a newsletter, Al Qalam, and an association to defend the rights of Muslims," he said. "I was therefore in close contact with Ramadan and I spent many afternoons with him in his office."

The SAP had to resort to an informant because domestic spying laws prohibit its agents from undercover work and wiretaps. The tough restrictions even put agents overseeing informants in danger of breaking the law.

In addition to trying to learn everything he could about Ramadan, Covassi investigated Islamic networks that recruit for Iraq, the new magnet for holy warriors. Radicalization is difficult to combat even in countries with robust anti-terrorism laws. The speeches and activities of many hard-core ideologues are not illegal, even if they ultimately push young men into violence.

Los Angeles Times Articles