European al-Qaida cells made hints of 9/11

Intercepted conversations contain cryptic remarks that make sense now

May 30, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Italian and German investigators have disclosed new information that hints of an attack involving aircraft and the United States were more widespread among European law enforcement agencies before Sept. 11 than previously suspected.

A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman said yesterday that before Sept. 11 the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been given only a rough summary of the intercepts by Italian officials and that neither the CIA nor the FBI had been warned of specific threats mentioning the United States.

Only after Sept. 11, he said, did Italian investigators listen to their tapes more carefully and realize the significance of the cryptic conversations.

The intercepts, from the summer of 2000, raise the question of whether al-Qaida suspects in Italy knew in advance of plans for the Sept. 11 attacks and whether al-Qaida cells elsewhere might also have known.

This week, senior German investigators said that communications among al-Qaida cells, which one official estimated as containing "several thousand" members worldwide, have recently picked up.

Citing evidence that al-Qaida is continuing to recruit in Europe and elsewhere, they said attacks by the group were possible almost anywhere.

A senior Italian intelligence official, commenting on the intercepts, cautioned that the time of the conversations - more than a year before the attacks in New York and Washington - and a tendency of al-Qaida cells to communicate in wild imagery made interpretation difficult.

Nevertheless, he said, the intercepts demonstrate "clearly that they were organizing something," but the exchanges gained intelligibility only after Sept. 11.

In the Italian police intercepts, a suspected al-Qaida member from Yemen tells an Egyptian living in Italy that he is "studying airplanes," and adds: "God willing, I hope that I can bring you a window or piece of airplane the next time we meet."

According to the Italian translation of the Arabic, he goes on: "We must only strike them, and hold our heads on high. Remember well: the danger in the airports." Of the United States, he says, "We intermarry with Americans, and thus they study the Quran. They have the feeling they are lions, a world power; but we will do them this service, and then the fear will be seen."

These intercepted conversations and others similar to them are part of the court record of trials in Milan of al-Qaida suspects arrested in a series of raids in northern Italy. Italian newspapers have quoted them at length in recent days.

The conversations were recorded in August 2000 in a Citroen car that the police had bugged. The car was driven by Mahmoud es-Sayed Abdelkader, then 39, an Egyptian who was named in a Treasury Department order this year blocking the assets of suspected terrorists.

The Italian official said the intercepts showed "clearly that they were organizing something." But he added that, "to conclude at a distance of one year and one month before" Sept. 11 that the men were referring to the attacks in the United States "would be a bit strong."

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