BRUSSELS — Determined to die as martyrs, the French and Belgian militants bought hiking boots and thermal underwear and journeyed to the wilds of Waziristan.
After getting ripped off in Turkey and staggering through waist-deep snow in Iran, the little band arrived in Al Qaeda's lair in Pakistan last year, ready for a triumphant reception.
"We were expecting at least a welcome for 'our brothers from Europe' and a warm atmosphere of hospitality," Walid Othmani, a 25-year-old Frenchman from Lyon, recalled during an overnight interrogation in January.
Instead, the Europeans -- and at least one American -- learned that life in the shadow of the Predator is nasty, brutish and short.
Wary of spies, suspicious Al Qaeda chiefs grilled the half-dozen Belgians and French. They charged them $1,200 each for AK-47 rifles, ammunition and grenades. They made them fill out forms listing next of kin and their preference: guerrilla fighting, or suicide attacks?
Then the trainees dodged missile strikes for months. They endured disease, quarrels and boredom, huddling in cramped compounds that defied heroic images of camps full of fraternal warriors.
"What you see in videos on the Net, we realized that was a lie," Othmani told police. "[Our chief] told us the videos . . . served to impress the enemy and incite people to come fight, and he knew this was a scam and propaganda."
Disenchantment aside, the accounts of four of the returning militants arrested in Europe combine with intercepts to paint a detailed picture of Al Qaeda's secret compounds. They also reinforce intelligence that a campaign of U.S. Predator drone airstrikes has sown suspicion and disarray and stoked tension with tribes in northwestern Pakistan, anti-terrorism officials say.
At the same time, the case shows that wily militant leaders still wage war in South Asia and train a flow of foreign recruits. The few trainees from the West remain an urgent concern. Anti-terrorism forces have detected at least one American, a convert to Islam, who trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan during the last year, Western officials say.
Militant paths from the U.S. and Europe may cross: Prosecutors in Brussels have made a request to interrogate a witness now in the United States who was in Pakistan with the European suspects, a Belgian anti-terrorism official said.
Police in Europe tracked the group's radicalization and travel with the help of real-time U.S. intercepts that corroborate the confessions, and they exploited the men's reliance on the Internet. Fear of an imminent attack spurred their arrests here in December after Hicham Beyayo, 25, a Belgian just back from Pakistan, sent a troubling e-mail to his girlfriend.
"I am leaving for an O [operation] and I don't think I will return," Beyayo wrote Dec. 6, according to investigative documents. "My request has been accepted. You will get a video from me to you from the [organization]."
Beyayo told police that he was boasting to impress his girlfriend. But investigators believe the group may have been groomed for missions at home.
"They were much more valuable for operations in Europe," said the Belgian anti-terrorism official, who, like others interviewed, requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing. "Al Qaeda does not need Belgians and French to fight in Afghanistan."
doesn't come cheap
Beyayo is about 5-foot-5, chubby and bespectacled. Like the others, he is of North African descent. He grew up in the tough Anderlecht neighborhood of Brussels, and his brothers have done time for robbery and arms trafficking. But he does not have a criminal record. He interspersed college courses with fundamentalist Islam.
"He is the intellectual of the family," said his lawyer, Christophe Marchand. "He bears no ill will against Belgium. He went to Afghanistan to join an Islamic resistance movement."
Islamic resistance is expensive. The unemployed Beyayo scrounged together about $5,000 for the trip.
The Frenchman Othmani, a father of two, had to borrow about $1,000 from his mother, and he spent hundreds on hiking boots, a sleeping bag, thermal underwear and a "big Columbia-brand jacket for the cold."
The leader was Moez Garsalloui, 42, a Tunisian married to the Belgian widow of a militant who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, an anti-Taliban warlord, in a suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The balding, bearded Garsalloui sought recruits among visitors to a radical website run by his wife, who is revered in militant circles.
It was Garsalloui's first trip to South Asia, but he took advantage of his wife's strong Al Qaeda ties, investigators say. He organized smuggling contacts and met four Belgians and two French in Istanbul in December 2007. He carried a bag full of cash -- about $40,000, according to the confessions.