Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, investigators have arrested dozens of suspects in Europe and found that several of them have links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. But security officials are finding it difficult to unravel the tangle of the Islamic terrorist networks operating in Europe, because the cells are small and scattered and appear to have only casual links with one another.
Over the past year, investigators have found evidence of plans for at least three Islamic terrorist attacks on European soil.
One break came last July, when a Franco-Algerian named Djamel Beghal was arrested in Dubai on the way from Pakistan to France for carrying a false passport. He told investigators that he had been instructed by a top aide to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to assemble a network to plan an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Once extradited to France, he recanted much of his testimony, but acknowledged that he had been trained at a camp in Afghanistan belonging to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Though some investigators believe the Paris attack was to have occurred simultaneously with the attacks in the United States, others say it was supposed to have taken place late this year or early next year. French law enforcement officials say an Algerian now in custody in Paris, Kamel Daoudi, was also involved, as was a down-and-out former professional football player from Tunisia, Nizar Trabelsi, who was arrested by Belgian police on September 13. French and Belgian authorities say all three men attended the same camp in Afghanistan.
French, Belgian and German officials say there appears to be no evidence linking the plotters of the Paris attack to the men who carried out the attacks in the United States. Jonathan Stevenson, a counter-terrorism expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, shares that view. "There don't seem to be any provable links between the plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris and the September 11 attacks, at least not any direct ones," he said.
Intelligence officials say, despite the time some members spent in Hamburg, the group that carried out the attacks in the United States appears to have been an elite, tightly insulated unit of Middle Eastern men. They appear to have had little if any contact with the mostly North African cells that have been discovered operating elsewhere in Europe.
A French law enforcement official said there is no structured network, perfectly organized into cells or groups. Security analyst Matthew Dunn, at Control Risk Group in London, said the structure is one of casual links. "There are these cells with different names and based in different locations, but sometimes with some informal links between them," he said.
There is strong evidence of a link between an al-Qaida cell in Frankfurt that was disrupted in December 2000, and another based in Milan that was broken up in April of this year. Investigators say the Frankfurt cell was planning to launch an attack on the French city of Strasbourg around Christmas last year. They say a Libyan who lived in Munich was the liaison between the two cells. He and members of the Milan cell are suspected of plotting attacks on U.S. targets in Italy. Spanish investigators say there were contacts between the Frankfurt and Milan cells with Islamic radicals in Spain.
A top Spanish police official said he believes the Islamic terrorist network is held together by a small coterie of trusted messengers who link cells to each other and to Osama bin Laden. Steven Simon, an expert on al-Qaida who once served on the U.S. National Security Council and is now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the links between cells may be loose, but the ties to al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan are not. "I personally don't believe the cells operate autonomously," he said. "That is to say, they operate autonomously from each other, but they don't operate with complete autonomy vis-a-vis Kandahar or, you know, the al-Qaida leadership. There are people who volunteer their services to bin Laden, and he incorporates them into his network. And there are those he recruits, or his network recruits."
Mr. Simon said there are several types of networks in al-Qaida. There are those that are made up of veterans of the Afghan wars and those that are centered on 25-to-30-year-olds of Arab origin, many of them born in the West. He and other experts say these younger men have fallen under the influence of two strains of radical Islam. The Takfir wal Hijra (Anathema and Exile) group, which springs out of Egyptian Islamic Jihad; and the so-called Salafist group for Preaching and Combat, an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which has been fighting the Algerian government for several years. Security analyst Matthew Dunn said the French wing of the GIA was thought to have been dismantled by the French government after several attacks in France during the mid-1990s. "It seems to have been able to reform itself in Europe through networks of Algerians based across the continent, and be willing to carry out attacks, both against French and U.S. and British targets," he said.
French intelligence officials say that, while Islamic terrorist cells and networks may have different origins, they all seem to look to Osama bin Laden as the great leader, and have adopted his call for a holy war against the West. Analyst Jonathan Stevenson said incorporating terrorists with experience, such as those of the Algerian GIA, into the movement, only makes the organization more deadly. "Al-Qaida is not a group that has simply sprung up and grown its own terrorist capabilities," he said. "In fact, it has imported appreciable experience."
As European investigators try to unravel how this new type of terrorist organization works, they say they are painfully aware that they are in a race against time to prevent further attacks.