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A World Wide Web of terrorist plotting

April 16, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — They never met face to face, but the two young zealots became brother warriors in the new land of jihad: the Internet.

Investigators say their bond made them central figures in a terrorism network that spanned eight countries, involved more than 30 suspects and hatched plots in Washington, Toronto, London and Sarajevo.

Maximus was the online moniker of Mirsad Bektasevic, a lanky Bosnian refugee with a dark stare and a hunger for action. At 18, he returned from Sweden to this war-scarred city, where he assembled an arsenal for a suicide attack and filmed a "martyrdom" video.

Irhabi007 was Younis Tsouli, a Moroccan living in London with his diplomat father, investigators say. Hunched day and night over his computer, the diminutive 22-year-old allegedly served as a pioneering cyber-operative for Al Qaeda, oversaw Bektasevic's mission and was at the hub of other plots.

Their case shows that the Internet has become a virtual training camp and operations center replacing the Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Bosnia that produced a legion of fighters, formed them into cells and launched them at targets.

The soldiers of this looser network were more technologically and culturally agile than the grim fanatics who executed attacks in the past, according to trial evidence, court documents and interviews with investigators, defense lawyers, family and friends. They spoke more English than Arabic and listened to the rap of Kanye West along with the harangues of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Their Western ways enabled them to communicate and cross borders with ease. And investigators say they had a youthful disregard for life.

At the same time, many were amateurish and reckless. That made them easier to track, but presented investigators with a dilemma: A fighter may lack experience, but he remains a menace if he is willing to die for his cause. As militants radicalize more quickly and operate more independently, the threat they pose often is harder to assess.

One thing hasn't changed. Fledgling holy warriors still need real-world arms and expertise.

Al Qaeda takes hold

Eleven years after the siege of Sarajevo ended, downtown bustles: stylish young crowds, cafes full of smoke and talk, the call to prayer echoing among ornate Ottoman mosques.

On the edge of this capital city, however, the Butmir neighborhood looks somber and shuttered, as if nursing old wounds. There are flak-shredded ruins on Polygonska Street, where Bektasevic's uncle owns a house with an eagle statue on a balcony. A haze floats over a garbage dump at the end of the street.

Beyond the dump rise the mountains from which Serb snipers and artillery rained fire onto Sarajevo. The onslaught brought fighters from across the Muslim world to defend Bosnian Muslims.

The battleground became a spawning ground for Al Qaeda. After the war, hundreds of militants gained Bosnian passports and stayed. Extremists groomed here were involved in plots such as the bombings of Paris trains in 1995 and one targeting Los Angeles International Airport in 1999.

Bektasevic's family fled to Sweden at the start of the war when he was 5, and he lived with his widowed mother on welfare. Most Bosnians practice a tolerant Islam, but some refugees in Scandinavia have been swept up by extremism that has spread among young Muslims there. At about 13, Bektasevic grew interested in his religious heritage after memorizing a Koranic verse to pray at the funeral of a friend.

"This was the thing that change [sic] my heart," he later told interrogators. "I liked it and I wanted to know more."

The pimply teenager dropped out of school after ninth grade and racked up juvenile arrests. He spent six hours a day on the Internet, soaking up rage and gore. On a radical website, he befriended half a dozen teenagers in Denmark. Their families were Palestinian, Moroccan, Turkish, Bosnian; after the youths visited an extremist cleric in London in 2004, Danish intelligence put them under surveillance.

Bektasevic drifted to Copenhagen, where he slept at a mosque and became a leader of the group. In the summer of 2005, they filmed a video declaring themselves "Al Qaeda in Northern Europe." It featured a logo allegedly designed by a long-distance associate: Irhabi007.

The word means "terrorist" in Arabic. Court documents and investigators identify him as Younis Tsouli.

'A flair for marketing'

Tsouli had moved to London about four years earlier with his father, a deputy director of the Moroccan tourist office. Father and son shared a basement flat on a quiet street in West London that mixes brick apartment houses with ethnic restaurants.

The younger Tsouli sometimes attended the Shepherd's Bush mosque near a stretch of Uxbridge Road where black-veiled women push baby strollers and men smoke hookahs in scruffy cafes. He registered for college computer studies, officials say. But he apparently spent most of his time at his computer.

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