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One terrorist suspect's murky trail

A Moroccan prisoner offers an example of a hybridization of crime and ideology, says a security official.

August 24, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MARRAKECH, MOROCCO — The wild ride of Abdelkader Belliraj ended at the Hotel Fashion.

The Moroccan-born Belgian had quite a resume: accused terrorist kingpin, assassin, gangster, double agent -- and hotelier. He visited from Belgium now and then to oversee the hotel, a three-star joint with a sidewalk cafe where men sip tea and watch a parade of whining scooters, dusty taxis, sunburned tourists and veiled Berber women.

Moroccan police allege that the salmon-colored Hotel Fashion, on a downtown corner near a Haagen-Dazs shop and the train station, was a den of outlaws. In February, they arrested the burly, moon-faced Belliraj and three dozen suspected members of a network he is accused of arming for a terrorist campaign.

The 50-year-old's intrigues over the last quarter of a century chart a singular history of Muslim radicalism, from a meeting with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1981 to a meal with Osama bin Laden just 10 days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Belliraj allegedly displayed a variety of talents, including ideologue for Moroccan radicals, triggerman for Palestinian mercenary Abu Nidal and bagman for Al Qaeda.

Investigators say Belliraj personifies the dangerous convergence of for-profit thuggery and true-believer terrorism. Authorities suspect him in at least six assassinations, multimillion-dollar holdups, money laundering and arms trafficking in Europe and Morocco.

'Gangsterrorism'

The Belliraj affair offers a rare, uncomfortably up-close look at the kind of shadowy, dangerous middleman on whom the world's criminal, extremist and espionage networks often depend.

"This case encompasses just about every genre of terrorism and criminality," said Khalid Zerouali, a top Moroccan security official. "It's an example of 'gangsterrorism,' the hybridization of terror and crime. From a strategic point of view, you realize it's about opportunism. Belliraj's contact with an umbrella of groups, from Al Qaeda to Shiite Muslims, shows that this is business. The important thing is profit, whether financial or ideological."

The case also gives a glimpse of an underworld of informants whose handlers face a central dilemma: The better the snitch, the more likely it is that he is involved in skulduggery.

"It is a gigantic web," said a Belgian law enforcement official, who like most others interviewed asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case.

While Belliraj made money by breaking laws, he spied for the Belgian intelligence service, according to investigators and Belliraj himself. Although he insists that he acted out of patriotism and didn't take "a euro," three Belgian officials say Belliraj was a top paid informant. A Belgian Senate intelligence committee is investigating his case.

The inquiry and his trial might answer big questions: What did Belgian and Moroccan intelligence know and when? Did Belliraj spy for other countries? Is he a brave secret agent or a ruthless terrorist -- or both?

Belliraj was born in Nador, a northern Morocco city with a history of smuggling.

"He grew up with guns," said Abderrahman Lahlali, a Belgian lawyer for the Belliraj family. "His father was in an Islamic movement and spent time in Egypt, involved in armed activity as well."

Like many radicals of his generation, Belliraj studied engineering and embraced leftist and Islamic ideas. He migrated to Brussels, married, worked odd jobs and opened a clothing shop. His activism intensified after the Iranian Revolution shook the Muslim world in 1979. Although the fundamentalist regime was Shiite, it attracted many Sunni radicals such as Belliraj.

The Iranian ambassador in Brussels helped Belliraj travel to Iran to meet Khomeini and other ayatollahs in 1981, according to Belliraj's testimony and his Moroccan lawyer, Mohamed Ziane, a former minister of human rights.

Two years later, Belliraj went to Lebanon, a base of Shiite militant groups, and learned how to use explosives and the AK-47 assault rifle, according to his testimony. He honed his marksmanship at a gun club back in Brussels.

'Moralist serial killer'

The six unsolved Belgian homicides to which Belliraj has confessed were the work of "a kind of gun-for-hire and moralist serial killer," a veteran European intelligence official said.

The first two victims were gunned down in the summer of 1988 in gritty immigrant neighborhoods near the Midi train station in Brussels. A well-liked grocer died because the killer thought mistakenly that he was Jewish, investigators say. A 53-year-old gay man was slain in a dispute, possibly after making an advance, they say.

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