Europe-wide network enlists fighters for Iraqand Don Van Natta Jr./NYT
MILAN - A string of recent arrests of terror suspects has shown that Al Qaeda and groups linked to it have established a Europe-wide network that is moving recruits into Iraq to join the insurgency targeting American and coalition forces, European intelligence and law enforcement officials said this week.
Over the past year, the officials estimate, the network of recruiters working in at least six European countries - Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Britain and Norway - has assisted hundreds of young men trying to get to Iraq.
The network provided high-quality fake documents, training, money and infiltration routes into the country, the officials said.
They said the evidence indicated that the campaign to recruit young militant Muslims for Iraq had become better organized and coordinated in recent months. According to an investigating judge in Italy, the new network is building on an underground that helped to smuggle fighters out of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the autumn of 2001, when Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were routed by American-led coalition troops. But since the end of last year the flow of recruits, including young men from Europe and North Africa, has turned toward the new front in Iraq, the judge said. "In August and September people were approaching the borders of Iraq in Turkey and Syria, " he said. "These people got very close and it's very easy for them to slip in." An Italian investigation of a terrorist group with links to Al Qaeda led to the arrest of three men in Italy and Germany last week. Two men who were arrested in Milan were accused of providing false passports and money to the network for Iraq. Six men arrested in northern Italy in April were also accused of aiding the recruiting operation.
Officials in Italy said that the conclusions emerging from their case were supported by investigations in other European countries.
"We have seen an intensification of movement by people who are under investigation," said Armando Spataro, coordinator of terrorism investigations for Milan's Justice Department. "They were going to Iraq or to training camps. We have seen that movement across Europe."
The evidence gathered by Italian investigators indicates that fighters entering Iraq from Italy have been active in recent attacks on coalition forces there, Italian judicial and military officials said. One official said there was evidence that a recruit from Italy, Morchidi Kamal, was involved in the October rocket attack on the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. assistant defense secretary, was staying at the time.
Fake Italian documents recovered in Iraq, including passport photos and identity cards, suggest that at least three recruits from Italy died there, the officials said. However, Spataro said he had not seen conclusive evidence that recruits from Italy had died in suicide bombings in Iraq.
It is not clear how significant a role foreign terror recruits may have in the upsurge of violence in Iraq. President George W. Bush and L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the American administrator in Iraq, have said that "jihadists" and foreign terrorists have entered the country.
But American military leaders there say they have not seen signs of a large influx of foreign fighters. They say that about 300 out of 5,000 prisoners in Iraq are holding non-Iraqi passports. "It is not correct to say that there are floods of foreign fighters coming in, or thousands," said General John Abizaid, commander of the coalition troops in the region. Abizaid and other coalition military leaders said the insurgency was led by Iraqis still loyal to Saddam Hussein's toppled regime. According to several European intelligence officials, the Italian investigation is one of several in Europe of Iraq recruitment. German officials said Thursday that they had opened an investigation into recruiting activities after the arrest of an Iraqi man, identified as Mohamed L., 29, suspected of aiding 12 people who traveled to Iraq.
"Almost all Western European countries have been touched by recruiting," Spataro said. The European investigations have produced further evidence that Turkey has recently become an important "staging ground" for recruited fighters to meet, possibly train and then enter Iraq. Four bombings last month in Istanbul, linked by some investigators to Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, killed 61 people.
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Milan.
Terror suspects released
Bolivia has released 16 Bangladeshis less than a day after they were arrested on suspicion of links to terrorism following a tip that they planned to strike U.S. targets, Interior Minister Alfonso Ferrufino said Friday, Agence France-Presse reported from La Paz.
"The investigation so far has not allowed us to find sufficient evidence so as to file a complaint against these people," Ferrufino told reporters as he announced that a group of nine was set free on Friday. The seven others were released late Thursday.
Ferrufino said an investigation would continue "in case new elements are turned up along the way."
The United States on Friday had welcomed the detention of the 16 at the Santa Cruz airport in southeast Bolivia. The police said all of them been carrying false documentation.
The official Bolivian News Agency said a tip from the French authorities indicated that nine of those detained had been planning to hijack a plane bound from La Paz to Buenos Aires, with a stopover in Santa Cruz, to use it to hit U.S. targets.
The arrests were part of a joint operation with French intelligence, Ferrufino said. He would not comment on the reports of a planned hijacking.