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Drazen Pantic on Tue, 9 Oct 2001 20:23:43 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> LAT: Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists


http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/la-000080235oct07.story


Los Angeles Times


SUNDAY REPORT
Bosnia Seen as Hospitable Base and Sanctuary for Terrorists

                                                                      
By CRAIG PYES and JOSH MEYER and WILLIAM C. REMPEL, TIMES STAFF
WRITERS

ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who
became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present
a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States, according to
a classified U.S. State Department report and interviews with
international military and intelligence sources. The extremists include
hard-core terrorists, some with ties to Osama bin Laden, protected by
militant elements of the former Sarajevo government. Bosnia-Herzegovina is
"a staging area and safe haven" for terrorists, said a former senior State
Department official. The secret report, prepared late last year for the
Clinton administration, warned of problem passport-holders in Bosnia in
numbers that "shocked everyone," the former official said. The White House
leaned on Bosnia and its then-president, Alija Izetbegovic, to do
something about the matter, "but nothing happened," he said. Although no
evidence connects any Bosnian group to the suicide hijacking attacks of
Sept. 11 blamed on Bin Laden, U.S. and European officials are increasingly
concerned about the scope and reach of Bin Laden networks in the West and
the proximity of Bosnia-based terrorists to the heart of Europe.

A number of the extremists "would travel with impunity and conduct, plan
and stage terrorist acts with impunity while hiding behind their Bosnian
passports," the former official said. In several instances, terrorists
with links to Bosnia have launched actions against Western targets:

* An Algerian with Bosnian citizenship, described by a U.S. official as "a
junior Osama bin Laden," tried to help smuggle explosives in 1998 to an
Egyptian terrorist group plotting to destroy U.S. military installations
in Germany. The shipment included military C-4 plastic explosives and
blasting caps, the former U.S. official said. The CIA intercepted the
shipment, foiling the attack.

* Another North African with Bosnian citizenship belonged to a terrorist
cell in Montreal that conspired in the failed millennium plot to bomb Los
Angeles International Airport.

* One of Bin Laden's top lieutenants--a Palestinian linked to major
terrorist plots in Jordan, France and the United States--had operatives in
Bosnia and was issued a Bosnian passport, according to U.S. officials.

After the foiled plot against American bases in Germany, the U.S.
suspended without public explanation a military aid program to Bosnia in
1999 in an attempt to force the deportation of the Algerian leader of the
group, Abdelkader Mokhtari, also known as Abu el Maali. Finally, after the
U.S. went a step further and threatened to stop all economic aid,
Izetbegovic agreed to deport El Maali. But the Algerian was back in Bosnia
within a year. Two months ago, he was reported to be moving in and out of
the country freely. He is now thought to be in Afghanistan with the
leadership of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda group, according to a senior official
for the NATO-led peacekeeping force, SFOR, in Bosnia.

President Clinton's secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, personally
appealed to Izetbegovic to oust suspected terrorists or rescind their
Bosnian passports.

The effort by top State Department aides continued through the last days
of the administration. "It wasn't just one meeting, it was 10 to 12, with
orders directly from the White House," said a former State Department
official.

Izetbegovic declined the appeals, several sources said, apparently out of
loyalty to the fighters who had come to his country's rescue. The
president argued that many had married Bosnian women, had taken up farming
and were legal citizens.

"The point we kept making to Izetbegovic was that if the day comes we find
out that these people are connected to some terrible terrorist incident,
that's the day the entire U.S.-Bosnia relationship will change from
friends to adversaries," the former State Department official said.

Senior U.S. and SFOR officials believe that some hard-line members of
Izetbegovic's political party gave direct support, through their control
of the Foreign Ministry and local passport operations, to foreign Islamic
extremists with ties to Bin Laden. Although Izetbegovic stepped down in
October 2000, many hard-liners remain in Bosnia's bureaucracy, and they
are suspected of operating their own rogue intelligence service that
protects Islamic extremists, military and intelligence sources said.

Last week, Bosnia's new interior minister, citing "trustworthy
intelligence sources," said scores of Bin Laden associates may be trying
to flee Afghanistan ahead of anticipated U.S. military reprisals for the
Sept. 11 attacks, seeking refuge among militant sympathizers in Bosnia.
The minister, Mohammed Besic, vowed to intercept any who try to enter the
country.

U.S. and SFOR officials acknowledge that the new coalition government in
Sarajevo has become much more responsive to fighting terrorism. A senior
State Department official lauded Sarajevo this year for "working with the
international community" in trying to clamp down on suspected terrorists.

Since Sept. 11, Bosnia has launched an audit of passports and mounted a
more intensive crackdown on naturalized citizens who are wanted by foreign
law enforcement agencies. After years of inaction, several international
fugitives have been arrested this year and extradited. Western Interests
in Balkans May Be at Risk Bosnia has a large Muslim population, most of
whom do not practice a strict form of Islam.

A senior State Department official cautioned that "a lot of people's
interests are served by hyping the terrorism problem in the Balkans,"
referring to anti-Muslim sentiment among other ethnic groups there. But,
he added, "that is not to say there are not bad people who would exploit
the weaknesses in the government and the lax security and use [Bosnia] as
a place to hide."

To date, Western interests in the Balkans have not been terrorist targets.
However, a senior peacekeeping official in Bosnia said local police report
that "there are plans to attack the Western interests here in Bosnia after
any future retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan. We don't have anything to
confirm it." Bosnia has traditionally served as "an R&R [rest and
recreation] destination" for members of Bin Laden's organization and other
extremists, according to U.S. officials and the peacekeeping force. "They
come to Bosnia to chill out, because so many other places are too hot for
them," said a former State Department official active in
counter-terrorism.

They also use Bosnian passports to travel worldwide without drawing the
kind of scrutiny that those who hold Middle Eastern or North African
documents might attract, officials said. Bosnian passports are
particularly valuable for ease of travel to other Muslim countries where
no visa requirement is imposed on Bosnians. Under the Izetbegovic
government, the immigration system was so unregulated that Bin Laden
allies "would get boxes of blank passports and just print them up
themselves," the former State Department official said.

A military official said that "for the right amount of money, you can get
a Bosnian passport even though it's the first time you've stepped foot
into Bosnia."

Among those who Western intelligence sources say was granted Bosnian
citizenship and passports was Abu Zubeida, one of Bin Laden's top
lieutenants. Zubeida, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, was in charge of
contacts with other Islamic terrorist networks and controlled admissions
to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. He arranged training for
unsuccessful millennium bomb plots in Canada and Jordan and a recently
foiled suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, according to court
records and investigative reports. Zubeida also asked LAX bomb plot figure
Ahmed Ressam to get blank Canadian passports that would allow other
terrorists to infiltrate the United States, according to testimony from
Ressam, who was convicted in the bomb plot and is cooperating with
investigators.

Another terrorist with Bosnian credentials is Karim Said Atmani, a
Moroccan who was Ressam's roommate in Montreal and who was in the group
that plotted to bomb LAX, according to testimony. The Bosnian government
arrested him in April, and Atmani was extradited to France, where he
awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.

Beginning in 1992, as many as 4,000 volunteers from throughout North
Africa, the Middle East and Europe came to Bosnia to fight Serbian and
Croatian nationalists on behalf of fellow Muslims. They are known as the
moujahedeen. A military analyst called them "pretty good fighters and
certainly ruthless."

"I think the Muslims wouldn't have survived without this" help, Richard
Holbrooke, the United States' former chief Balkans peace negotiator, said
in a recent interview. At the time, U.N. peacekeepers were proving
ineffective at protecting Bosnian civilians, and an arms embargo
diminished Bosnia's fighting capabilities. But Holbrooke called the
arrival of the moujahedeen "a pact with the devil" from which Bosnia still
is recovering.

The foreign moujahedeen units were disbanded and required to leave the
Balkans under the terms of the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord. But many
stayed--about 400, according to official Bosnian estimates. Although the
State Department report suggested that the number could be higher, a
senior SFOR official said allied military intelligence estimated that no
more than 200 foreign-born militants actually live in Bosnia, of which
closer to 30 represent a hard-core group with direct links to terrorism.

"These are the bad guys--the ones you have to worry about," the official
said.

But he also said that "hundreds of other" Islamic extremists with and
without Bosnian passports "come in and out" and that Bosnia remains a
center for Al Qaeda recruiting and logistics support.

Bin Laden Reportedly Financed Recruits

A U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed that "several hundred" former
moujahedeen remain in Bosnia. "Are they a threat? Absolutely. Are we all
over them? Absolutely," he said. The fighters were organized as an
all-moujahedeen unit called El Moujahed. It was headquartered in Zenica in
an abandoned hillside factory, a compound with a hospital and prayer hall.
Bin Laden financed small convoys of recruits from the Arab world through
his businesses in Sudan, according to Mideast intelligence reports. Other
support and recruits for El Moujahed came, at least in part, through
Islamic organizations in Milan, Italy, and Istanbul, Turkey, that European
investigators later linked to trafficking in passports and weapons for
terrorists. A series of national security and criminal investigations
across Europe have since identified the El Moujahed unit in court filings
as the "common cradle" from which an international terrorist network grew
and ultimately stretched from the Middle East to Canada. Abu el Maali, its
leader during the Bosnian war, remains an enigmatic figure, charismatic
and popular within the moujahedeen but barely known outside. He briefly
appeared in a propaganda video on El Moujahed during the war, but his face
was digitally removed before distribution.

French court documents say El Maali now is the leader of terrorist cells
in Bosnia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Court testimony, confidential police
records and interviews with European intelligence officials show how El
Maali marshaled recruits from the West and Muslim countries to assemble
the infrastructure of what would become a terrorist organization. Two
French converts to Islam, both in their mid-20s, were among the early
volunteers for El Maali's ranks in the Bosnian war. Christophe Caze, a
medical school dropout, and Lionel Dumont joined El Moujahed to provide
humanitarian services. But once assigned to the moujahedeen unit in
Zenica, they immediately "plunged into violence," an associate told French
police. A French judicial official said their eventual passage to
terrorism was strongly influenced by El Maali, with whom they became
close. El Maali "exerted a lot of influence on the fighters . . . which
led them to commit these violent actions under the cover of Islam," the
magistrate said.

The converts emerged as leaders, rendering impassioned exhortations to
younger volunteers to defend Islam "by all means," according to court
records. They also began setting up a clandestine network in France,
creating multiple identities, encoding phone lists and recruiting
followers they could call into action later. Court records say that Caze,
working as a medic, recruited future terrorists among the wounded he
treated. At the war's end, U.S. officials focused on state-sponsored
terrorism and worried about getting Iranian fighters back to Iran. Less
clear were the implications of loosely allied extremist groups and
individuals.

Looking back, peace negotiator Holbrooke blamed imprecise and "sloppy
intelligence" for failing to distinguish which Muslim groups posed a
threat to the United States. It turned out that Iranian fighters went
home. Many of El Maali's trained warriors did not.

Spasm of Violence Hits Northern France

In Bosnia, most of the violence stopped with the peace accord in 1995. But
in January 1996, it broke out again--on the streets of northern France.

A puzzling crime wave swept the area around Roubaix, a gritty,
Muslim-majority town near the Belgian border. Small groups of men began
holding up stores and drivers. They brandished machine guns and wore hoods
and carnival masks. Two people were killed. On March 28, just before a
Group of 7 summit of leading industrial nations that would bring top
ministers to Lille, police discovered a stolen car abandoned in front of
the police station. It was parked askew. And it contained a bomb packed
into three gas cylinders rigged to devastate everything within 600 feet.
It was disarmed. The next night, a special tactical squad surrounded a
house at 59 Rue Henri Carette in Roubaix that had been linked to the
booby-trapped car. Police fired thousands of rounds into the building. The
house erupted in flames because of munitions inside, police said later.
Four charred bodies were recovered.

Two men fled the barrage and inferno. At a police roadblock just inside
Belgium, another furious gun battle erupted. One of the men was killed,
and his accomplice was wounded.

In the getaway car, police found rocket launchers, automatic weapons,
large amounts of ammunition and grenades. They also recovered an
electronic organizer containing coded telephone contacts, nearly a dozen
of them in Bosnia. The dead ringleader was identified as Christophe Caze,
the young medic who went to fight in Bosnia. French authorities, confused
about the motives for the spasm of gang violence, considered it a new
phenomenon, calling it "gangster terrorism." Their investigation uncovered
what may have been the first terrorism cell exported from Bosnia. After an
investigation of the surviving associate, Caze's electronic organizer and
other evidence recovered by French police, the robbery gang was identified
as nine militants who attended a local mosque. Most of them had undergone
military training at the El Moujahed compound in Bosnia.

The armed robberies were a radical form of fund-raising by Caze and his
associates to benefit their "Muslim brothers in Algeria." Their
high-powered weapons were smuggled home from the Bosnian war. Caze's
organizer was described by one official as "the address book of the
professional terrorist." It contained phone contacts in England, Italy,
France and Canada, as well as direct lines to El Maali's Zenica
headquarters. It led French authorities to trace travels and phone records
and to set up electronic surveillance. French counter-terrorism officials
soon realized they had stumbled upon more than a band of gangsters. Five
years before the sophisticated terrorist assault on the U.S., the French
were starting to uncover loosely linked violent networks spreading into
several countries, all tied together by a common thread: Bosnia. One of
the phone numbers in the dead terrorist's organizer led to a suspect in
Canada: Fateh Kamel, 41, who ran a small trinkets shop in Montreal.

French authorities say Canada rejected their initial request to
investigate Kamel, calling the dapper Algerian "just a businessman." But
Kamel also was a confidant of El Maali. He spoke frequently to the Bosnia
moujahedeen chief over his wife's cell phone. Kamel had gone to Bosnia
early in the war, suffered a shrapnel wound in one leg and been treated at
the El Moujahed hospital by Caze, the young medic. Kamel first came to the
attention of European intelligence officials in 1994, when Italian agents
tracking suspected terrorists stumbled upon him recruiting fighters in
Milan for El Maali's brigade. After the Dayton accord, French police say,
Kamel became deeply involved in terrorist logistics. He was "the principal
activist of an international network determined to plan assassinations and
to procure arms and passports for terrorist acts all over the world,"
according to a French court document.

In 1996, an Italian surveillance team recorded Kamel discussing a
terrorist attack and taped him declaring: "I do not fear death . . .
because the jihad is the jihad, and to kill is easy for me." During the
same period, Kamel assisted other North African extremists relocating to
Canada, exploiting the country's lax immigration laws and Quebec's
eagerness for French-speaking immigrants such as Algerians.

According to French investigators, Kamel was the leader of a terrorist
cell in Montreal. Other members included Ressam, Atmani and a third
roommate, Mustafa Labsi.

Like Kamel, Atmani had served in Bosnia and was close to El Maali. A U.S.
law enforcement official described Atmani as a "crazy warrior with a nose
so broken and twisted that he could sniff around corners." Later,
authorities believe, the three roommates went to Afghanistan together to
train for a terrorist attack on the United States. They returned to the
West after learning that their target would be Los Angeles International
Airport. The conspiracy was interrupted when Atmani was deported from
Canada to Bosnia.

When Ressam, traveling alone, was captured at the border with explosives
in his rental car, U.S. officials tried to track down his former roommate
Atmani. Authorities had information that he was traveling between Sarajevo
and Istanbul, but Bosnian officials denied even that Atmani had been
deported there. Investigators later learned that Atmani had been issued a
new Bosnian passport six months earlier. Atmani was part of the hard-core
terrorist group noted in the secret State Department report. He remained
beyond the reach of international extradition until this year, when he was
arrested and turned over to France by Bosnia's new coalition government.
He awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.

Kamel, the alleged ringleader of the group, was arrested in Jordan and was
extradited to France, where he is in prison on a terrorism conviction.
Ressam and Labsi also have been jailed. All of the members of the former
Montreal cell have been convicted of being operatives in a terrorist
network that originated in Bosnia. James Steinberg, deputy national
security advisor in the Clinton administration, said that although the
U.S. works closely with countries in the Balkans to deal with "the problem
of these cells," the very nature of secret terrorist organizations
confounds those efforts.

"It's one thing to [arrest] the people you know [are terrorists], but then
the others . . . bury themselves even deeper," he said.





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