Failed plot offers look into terror network

European police glean insights after foiling plan to bomb U.S. Embassy

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The chemicals were stored in vats in the basement of an Egyptian restaurant in downtown Brussels, Belgium. The suicide bomber, a former soccer player who had fallen into drug use and petty crime, had been selected. The target, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, had been scouted.

All that remained was the signal from Osama bin Laden's suspected operatives in Afghanistan to strike. The nod was to come from a Frenchman of Algerian origin who was on his way back from training in Afghanistan.

But he was arrested in transit, and he talked, spilling to French interrogators details of what could have been one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in France in more than a decade.

The police in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, acting on tips from his confession and being especially active after the terror attacks Sept. 11, set up surveillance. A large manhunt - from working-class immigrant neighborhoods that ring French cities, through mosques in London that were apparently clearinghouses and all the way to Afghanistan - was under way.

After a leak late last month to the French media produced unwanted publicity, however, alleged militants apparently scrambled to escape the expected sting. There was a series of hasty arrests.

The chance to observe over the long term a militant Islamic network as it planned attacks on U.S. interests, and make perhaps dozens of arrests, was lost.

Nonetheless, law enforcement officials across Europe said the embassy plot gave them a glimpse of how bin Laden has operated in their midst and offered clues about Sept. 11, as well as how plots might unfold. The plotters, the officials said, were students, fathers and delinquents. Some came from middle-class households that embraced modernity. Many grew up in Europe and did not speak Arabic.

There were converts to Islam, called "white moors." Others came from the underclass in the Middle East that found its solace in militant Islam.

The ringleaders were often veterans of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. All were inconspicuous in the West, making it hard to identify them as potential or actual terrorists.

At the center of the plot was Jamal Beghal, 36, a strikingly handsome Frenchman of Algerian origin.

Beghal, born in Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algeria, arrived in the Ermitage as a child. He grew up surrounded by the five huge seven-story blocks with other North African immigrants.

French authorities say another conspirator, Kamel Daoudi, 27, lived in Beghal's apartment after he left. Daoudi was said to be in charge of communications, and when news of Beghal's arrest hit the airwaves he managed to travel as far as England before being picked up and returned to France.

Beghal first came to the attention of the French police in 1994 in a wave of arrests of suspected members of a group of armed Algerians. He was jailed for three months. On his release, Beghal left for England and fell into a circle of radical clerics based in mosques and prayer centers in London and Leicester that French officials see as central to bin Laden's movement.

Beghal began to disseminate videocassettes and propaganda on the war in Chechnya. He came under the sway of a militant cleric, Abu Qatada, a Palestinian refugee in London since 1994 and a former fighter in Afghanistan. Beghal raised money to support Muslim fighters in Chechnya and spoke fervently to groups around Europe about militant Islam, according to French intelligence officials.

In November last year, Beghal left to train in a camp in Afghanistan.

Before leaving Afghanistan, Beghal later told French intelligence officials, he had a meeting in the house of an important associate of bin Laden's, Abu Zoubeida. He was told to plan the embassy attack for the end of the year or early next year. Beghal told the intelligence officials that he was to declare his passport lost in Morocco so the record of his travels would be wiped out, pick up $60,000, head to Spain and then return to France.

The plotters, he said, were instructed to buy a minivan at a car fair in Paris. The van would be packed full of explosives and driven into the embassy gates by a former soccer player, Nizar Trabelsi, who might have met the suspected hijacking ringleader, Mohamed Atta, in Spain in the summer. All communication was to be through the Internet, with coded messages embedded in programs used to create computer images, French police said.

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