From Tapes, a Chilling Voice of Islamic Radicalism in Europe

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Nov-05 | Author: Elaine Sciolino

Yahia Ragheh, foreground, and Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed being led into a Milan court last month, charged with ties to…
Yahia Ragheh, foreground, and Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed being led into a Milan court last month, charged with ties to a terror network.
MILAN - Playing an Internet video one evening last year, an Egyptian radical living in Milan reveled as the head of an American, Nicholas Berg, was sawed off by his Iraqi captors.

"Go to hell, enemy of God!" shouted the man, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, as Mr. Berg's screams were broadcast. "Kill him! Kill him! Yes, like that! Cut his throat properly. Cut his head off! If I had been there, I would have burned him to make him already feel what hell was like. Cut off his head! God is great! God is great!"

Yahia Ragheh, the Egyptian would-be suicide bomber sitting by Mr. Ahmed's side, clearly felt uncomfortable.

"Isn't it a sin?" he asked.

"Who said that?" Mr. Ahmed shot back. "It is never a sin!" He added: "We hope that even their parents will come to the same end. Dogs, all of them, all of them. You simply need to be convinced when you make the decision."

Unconvinced, Mr. Ragheh replied: "I think that it is a sin. I simply think it is a sin."

The blunt exchange is contained in an 182-page official Italian police report that has not been made public, but is widely available in court circles and frames the judicial case against the two men. "The Madrid attack was my project, and those who died as martyrs were my dearest friends," Mr. Ahmed boasted in one intercepted conversation.

He and Mr. Ragheh, his 22-year-old disciple, will be tried in Milan in January under a contentious law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States that makes association with an international terrorist network a crime.

The indictment calls Mr. Ahmed an "organizer of the terrorist group responsible for the Madrid attacks," a "recruiter of numerous people ready to commit suicide attacks," and a "coordinator of terrorist cells" abroad. The police report charges that he used cassette tapes, cellphones, CD's and computers as recruitment tools, highlighting how the Internet potentially can transform any living room into a radical madrasa.

The report says he downloaded hundreds of audio and video files of sermons, communiqués, poetry, songs, martyrs' testimony, Koranic readings and scenes of battle and suicide bombings from Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Israeli-occupied territories, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kashmir and Iraq.

A onetime house painter who was able to take on new identities, hopscotch across Europe and dodge the police who had him on their watch lists, Mr. Ahmed is believed to have links to radicals in France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Saudi Arabia. The police report calls him a recruiter of suicide bombers for Iraq and at least one other terrorist operation, probably in Europe. For the Italians, Mr. Ahmed is emblematic of the new enemy in their midst.

A Spanish prosecutor is still investigating Mr. Ahmed's alleged role in the Madrid bombings. He cannot be prosecuted in Italy for a terrorist attack that took place in another country.

Portrait in Taps and Tapes

Substantial information about Mr. Ahmed surfaced after preliminary transcripts of some wiretaps and telephone conversations were disclosed last year, first in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. But the police report offers a richer and more dramatic portrait of both Mr. Ahmed and the process of Islamic radicalization in the heart of Europe.

The detailed transcripts form the heart of the prosecutors' case; the prosecutors concede that there is minimal physical evidence.

Both defendants deny involvement in any terrorist plot. They are challenging the evidence, which is largely gathered from conversations translated from Arabic. All conversations monitored by the Italian police must be retranslated by special court interpreters, but they are more likely to speak classical Arabic rather than the Arabic of the streets.

"It's an important case but it's a difficult case," said Armando Spataro, a deputy chief prosecutor and head of the antiterrorism investigative unit in Milan. "There are no bombs. There was no attack in Italy. The case is based in large part on conversations, not on material proof."

At a preliminary court hearing last May, Mr. Ahmed himself accused the police who prepared the intercepts of twisting his words. He denied ever saying he had a role in the Madrid bombings, explaining that the authorities "interpret this in their own way, at their convenience." His voice, he added, "could have been copied, through the computer." Mr. Ragheh's lawyer, Roberta Ligotti, said some of the tapes were unintelligible.

Mr. Ahmed's defense is complicated by the fact that he fired his court-appointed lawyer in October, and her replacement is still familiarizing himself with the case. Both men have also been questioned by the F.B.I. and the United States Attorney's Office in New York for potential terrorist links in the United States. Mr. Ahmed spoke in the intercepted conversations of plans for a chemical attack against American interests, and was questioned by American officials in Milan last summer.

On Nov. 9, three American officials questioned Mr. Ragheh.

"It was all very speculative questioning," Ms. Ligotti said. "I don't know what they're investigating him for in the United States, if he's been charged with something or just a witness."

Egyptian-born and educated, Mr. Ahmed was attached to an explosives brigade during his military service in Egypt, was linked to radical groups and spent time in a maximum security prison there for people involved in extremist activities, Egyptian officials told Italian investigators.

Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed's computer had a picture of a briefcase bomb that could be set off by a cellphone.
Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed's computer had a picture of a briefcase bomb that could be set off by a cellphone.
Hooked on the Internet

At the height of the nearly three-month investigation, the Italian police said they had a six-way monitoring system for Mr. Ahmed.

They installed devices on both his telephone and home computer, planted an in-house wiretap and video cameras in both his apartment and outside the building and trailed him round the clock. The cameras even recorded him praying. When Mr. Ahmed suddenly changed apartments, the police had to start over. At one point, 40 police officers a day were assigned to the case.

One of the most chilling aspects of the police report is that Mr. Ahmed apparently found the Internet more exhilarating than any drug.

He used a fictitious e-mail address in which he listed the month and the day of the Madrid attacks as his birthday and his place of birth as Centerville, Va.

The files he is charged with downloading range from the "complete story" compiled by a Saudi opposition group of the 1996 terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans in the armed services dead to plaintive recitations by children to their fathers imprisoned in places like Guantánamo, Cuba, and Pakistan.

With his vast online library, Mr. Ahmed fought a virtual war for hours on end, sometimes throughout the night, educating himself and others.

"He used the Internet at all hours like a drug," Mr. Spataro said. "It's a much-needed link to the outside world for people like him."

Among the dozen files Mr. Ahmed apparently monitored in one predawn session in March 2004, for example, were video of battles in Chechnya and speeches by Osama bin Laden. One audio file attacked Jews and Christians and all who collaborate with them, another invited followers to wage holy war against infidels who follow the "laws of the devil."

A young girl on a third audio file asked if she could have a kamikaze belt so that she could "blow up" her body; a man on a fourth declared, "One day's resistance for the holy war is worth 1,000 years of life." Among the "poems for jihadists" was one that repeated over and over, "I am a terrorist; I am a terrorist."

The attraction to death was a constant feature. One evening, Mr. Ahmed opened a file named, "Allah has said that each person has tasted death," with links to subjects like "death is easy" and "the tomb."

A song Mr. Ahmed listened to one weekend went: "We are terrorists, we want to make it known to the world, from West to East that we are terrorists, because terrorism, as a verse of the Koran says, is a thing approved by God."

The sites are filled not only with calls for the destruction of Israel but also raw anti-Semitism. In one question-and-answer session with a Saudi sheik who is asked what suicide operations against Jews are allowed under Islamic law, the sheik responds that Jews are "vile and despicable beings, full of defects and wickedness." God, he added, "has ordered us to wage war against them."

Mr. Ahmed installed and demonstrated a computer program that allowed the simultaneous setting of alarms on multiple cellphones, the report said. The system masks the country of origin of the caller, underscoring the borderless nature of communications. "You must know," Mr. Ahmed said, "that in today's world everything is linked by a wire."

He erased potentially incriminating files, including 11 photographs and diagrams of explosive suitcases to be triggered by a cellphone and vests modified for suicide attacks. The Italian police recovered them.

There were cassette tapes and CD's to help rid Mr. Ragheh of fear as he trained for a suicide mission. "These are very special cassettes that show the path of the martyr and they will make everything easier when you feel them enter your body," Mr. Ahmed told Mr. Ragheh in one conversation. "But you must listen to them continuously."

One cassette in particular, he explained, "enters into your veins."

"In Spain they learned this by heart," he added. "And it gives you security and tranquillity. It takes the fear away."

Mr. Ragheh was entranced, saying, "Come on, come on, give one to me so that I may learn it."

Mr. Ahmed also said he would use his computer to create an appropriate martyr's portrait of Mr. Ragheh, "with the light behind you, with your angelic face."

"And you have the green background behind you and the moon above you." He promised to send the image by computer to Mr. Ragheh's family and to other young martyrs. There would also be a martyrs' video that would be taped the night before an attack.

'We Are Entering Rome'

The Italians began monitoring Mr. Ahmed shortly after the Madrid attacks, after the Spanish police found his cellphone number in the address book of two of the men suspected of involvement in the plot. A witness identified him as having visited the safe house near Madrid where the bombs were made just days before the attacks.

The police report contains dozens of pages of conversations that the police recorded and translated.

In one, Mr. Ahmed appeared to be recruiting people to carry out suicide attacks in Iraq and preparing a second attack, perhaps in Europe.

In another conversation, he branded President Bush as "the dog who is the son of all dogs." He said that the party of Spain's prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, deserved to fail in the election just days after the Madrid bombings and called the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy "dictatorial," expressing hope that "God will bring disaster upon it."

The Italian authorities had hoped to watch Mr. Ahmed much longer but felt compelled to arrest him after hearing particularly troubling phone conversations.

On May 24, 2004, Mr. Ahmed discussed an "operation" that had started four days before with a would-be suicide bomber living in Belgium named Mourad Chabarou. Mr. Chabarou said he would be "completely ready" in 25 days, and the two men planned to meet in Paris.

Then came a conversation that struck closer to home. "Rome, we are entering Rome, Rome, if God wishes we are entering, even entering Rome," Mr. Ahmed told Mr. Ragheh, the other potential suicide bomber, as if in a trance. "Rome, Rome, we are opening Rome with those from Holland. Rome, Rome, if God wishes, Rome is opening. It will be. It will be."

Italy, like Spain, had troops as part of the American-led coalition in Iraq, and after the Madrid bombings, the Italian authorities thought their country might be the next target. They also believed that Mr. Ahmed was about to flee, probably for Paris.

On June 7, 2004, Mr. Ahmed and Mr. Ragheh were arrested.

Mr. Ahmed knows that the contents of his conversations as well as of his computer will be used against him in the trial. Even as Mr. Ahmed sat in custody, the police were listening to him.

In a holding cell shortly after his arrest, he worried aloud to Mr. Ragheh that the police "will find the pages I downloaded."

He displayed none of the serenity he tried to impose on his disciples. He cursed whoever betrayed him to the police and predicted he would spend at least 30 years in prison.

"Things here are strange, they are strange, strange," he confided to a friend. "I do not understand a thing."

The friend tried to comfort him, saying: "Why do you torture yourself in this way? Leave everything in the hands of God."

But Mr. Ahmed seemed inconsolable, adding later in the conversation, "Believe me, I swear to you, I've had this feeling before and I haven't heard the voice of God."

In mid-October the two suspects, bearded and in jeans, were taken handcuffed under heavy guard to a Milan courtroom for what was supposed to have been the start of their trial. They chatted and joked with their lawyers from inside a large metal cage.

The trial was delayed for three months to give the judge, Luigi Domenico Cerqua, who has been ill, time to recover. The judge ruled in a case last May that Italy's terrorism law was written so narrowly that conviction was extremely difficult, adding to the prosecution's anxiety about the chances for a conviction, which could bring a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

In various interrogations, Mr. Ahmed has even denied knowing anything about computers and the Internet.

"I am weak in the language of the computer, even just to switch on the computer," he said. At another point he said that because he was from Egypt, "How can I learn the computer or the Internet?" He added, "It is not a sin not to know computers."

Brian Wingfield contributed reported from Milan for this article, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.