Cultlike network in Europe

Terrorists allegedly planned to strike Paris embassy

San Francisco Chronicle/October 23, 2001
By Sebastian Rotella and David Zucchino
Los Angeles Times

Paris -- As 19 hijackers around the United States prepared this summer for a deadly day in September, authorities say, a related but decidedly different Islamic network was plotting an attack on an American symbol in the heart of Europe: the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

The European network also allegedly took orders from Osama bin Laden and may have had ties to the Sept. 11 hijackers. But the apparent plot to blow up the embassy by early next year was foiled when police recently dismantled the group in raids in four countries.

The story of the European network offers a frightening look at who the terrorists are and how they are recruited and indoctrinated. It also underscores the increasing focus of investigators on the activities in Europe of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization, especially several Sept. 11 hijackers who lived in Germany and moved around the continent.

For the most part, the suspects in the alleged Paris conspiracy do not resemble members of the state-sponsored groups that waged past terror campaigns in Europe. The half-dozen key suspects didn't have to concoct fake identities or make risky cross-border journeys; they were already home. The central figures are upwardly mobile young men of North African descent who seemed to fit the European model of immigrant integration.

None of the young men was particularly religious at first, investigators say, but each followed a clandestine path that has attracted dozens of French Muslims and turned them into terrorist "sleepers."

The recruits went to London and frequented mosques that are allegedly academies for al Qaeda and gateways to training camps in Afghanistan, authorities say, where the men hardened themselves for holy war. They allegedly returned as undercover soldiers, plotting the attack in Paris while concealing a conversion to terror that now shocks their families. The portrait of the suspects emerges from interviews with relatives, friends, associates, and law enforcement and government officials in Europe.

Driving the transformation were the unforgiving principles of Takfir wal Hijra, or Anathema and Exile, an extremist Islamic splinter group that is allegedly part of the bin Laden network.

The archaic, sectlike movement to which the suspects in Europe belonged sees violence as a sacred duty and regards even moderate Muslims as legitimate targets. But it also permits disciples to engage in "impure" Western conduct in order to infiltrate infidel societies.

The profile of the Paris suspects recalls a cult, say French and U.S. officials, who compare the indoctrination techniques in Europe to Western religious sects that prey on young people left vulnerable by personal frustrations, family problems, drugs.

On July 28, the accused ringleader of the Paris plot, Jamal Beghal, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates with a false French passport on his way back from Afghanistan. He soon named fellow conspirators in a confession and was extradited to France.

Beghal, 36, could have been acting under instructions to mislead Western law enforcement with the specter of a traditional attack in Europe. Or the European network could have been part of a multipronged global strategy.

In either scenario, the alleged Paris plot was serious business. It showed the widespread and insidious threat in Europe -- a threat embodied by the alleged chief of the network, the Algerian-born Beghal.

Beghal is described as smooth and charming. He has a French wife and three children. They lived until 1997 in a ground-floor apartment in Corbeil- Essonnes, a middle- and working-class suburb south of Paris that was the suspected hub of the network.

Not much is known about Beghal's past or how he made a living. Unlike frequent visitors who dressed in Muslim garb, Beghal had a Western appearance, neighbors said. The family moved out abruptly about four years ago, neighbors said.

Beghal resurfaced in Britain and lived in London and Leicester. He became an assiduous worshiper at mosques in the Finsbury Park and Regent's Park neighborhoods, where extremist clerics rail about an anti-U.S. jihad. Frustrated Western officials say those mosques, and a prayer center off Baker Street in London, are thinly disguised European headquarters for al Qaeda.

Aspiring terrorists are indoctrinated and screened in London before being dispatched to training camps in Afghanistan, according to investigators. Beghal and other suspects have admitted making trips to the camps, although Beghal recanted other parts of his confession.

In his confession, Beghal said he went to an Afghan camp near Kandahar in March and met with a top bin Laden aide, Abu Zubaydah, who allegedly ordered him to plan an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris to be executed by early next year.

There were two possible strategies, investigators say: ramming the building with a van bomb or sending in a suicide bomber wearing an explosive-laden vest or belt.

For this, Beghal allegedly recruited a number of middle-class, apparently Westernized young immigrants. Most grew up in comfortable surroundings; none was particularly religious at first. While some later rediscovered their families' faith -- or converted -- others sought salvation from drug or alcohol abuse.

All, however, came under the influence of radical Muslims. Moving first to London, where intial indoctrination probably took place, and then to Afghanistan for al Qaeda training, they returned to Paris, where they awaited instructions from Beghal.

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