Skip to comments.Cryptic Al Qaeda Tapes Hinted at Attacks
Posted on 05/29/2002 10:46:33 PM PDT by kattracks
ARIS, May 29 Italian and German investigators have disclosed fresh information suggesting that hints of an attack involving aircraft and the United States were more widespread among European law enforcement agencies before Sept. 11 than previously suspected.
The disclosures come after weeks in which the Bush administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which announced a shake-up today, have come under sharp criticism that they did not pay sufficient heed to signs of Al Qaeda plots in the United States that may have alerted them to the Sept. 11 attacks.
A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman said today that before Sept. 11 the F.B.I. had been given only a rough summary of the intercepts by Italian officials and that neither the C.I.A. nor the F.B.I. had been warned of specific threats mentioning the United States. Only after Sept. 11, he said, did Italian investigators listen to their tapes more carefully and realize the significance of the very cryptic conversations.
The intercepts, from the summer of 2000, nevertheless raise the question of whether Al Qaeda suspects in Italy knew in advance of plans for the Sept. 11 attacks and whether Al Qaeda cells elsewhere might also have known. They may also help investigators to draw links between Al Qaeda cells throughout Europe and elsewhere that remain active even today.
This week, senior German investigators said communications among Al Qaeda cells, which one official estimated as containing "several thousand" members worldwide, had recently picked up. Citing evidence that Al Qaeda is continuing to recruit in Europe and elsewhere, they said that attacks by the group were possible almost anywhere.
A senior Italian intelligence official, commenting on the intercepts, cautioned that the time of the conversations over a year before the attacks in New York and Washington and a tendency of Al Qaeda cells to communicate in wild imagery made interpretation difficult.
Nevertheless, he said, the intercepts demonstrate "clearly that they were organizing something," but that the exchanges gained intelligibility only after Sept. 11.
In the Italian police intercepts, a suspected Al Qaeda member from Yemen tells an Egyptian living in Italy that he is "studying airplanes," and adds: "God willing, I hope that I can bring you a window or piece of airplane the next time we meet."
According to the Italian translation of the Arabic, he goes on: "We must only strike them, and hold our heads on high. Remember well: the danger in the airports." Referring to the United States, he says, "We intermarry with Americans, and thus they study the Koran. They have the feeling they are lions, a world power; but we will do them this service, and then the fear will be seen."
These intercepted conversations and others similar to them are part of the court record of trials in Milan of Al Qaeda suspects arrested in a series of raids in northern Italy. Italian newspapers have quoted them at length in recent days. The prosecutor in the trials, Stefano Dambruoso, reached by phone, would not comment on them except to confirm their authenticity.
The conversations were recorded in August 2000 in a Citroën car that the police had bugged. The car was driven by Mahmoud es-Sayed Abdelkader, then 39, an Egyptian who was named in a Treasury Department order earlier this year blocking the assets of suspected terrorists.
In 1997, Mr. Sayed was convicted in absentia by an Egyptian court in connection with the massacre that year of foreign tourists at Luxor. Italian investigators suspect Mr. Sayed of being Al Qaeda's leading operative in Italy. The conversation was recorded after Mr. Sayed picked up the Yemeni, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, at Bologna airport.
The Italian official said that the intercepts showed "clearly that they were organizing something." But he added that, "to conclude at a distance of one year and one month before" Sept. 11 that the men were referring to the attacks in the United States "would be a bit strong."
Moreover, he said, interpretation is rendered difficult by a propensity in Al Qaeda to use flowery images. In one passage, for instance, Mr. Abdulrahman says, "There are big clouds in the sky, there in that country the fire has been lit, and awaits only the wind." The official said that such images can often mean the opposite of what they appear to mean, and "require translation."
In an intercept from January 2001, a Tunisian later convicted in Milan of terrorism, asks Mr. Sayed, apparently referring to false passports, "Will these work for the brothers who are going to the United States?" Mr. Sayed responded harshly, "Don't ever say those words again, not even joking." He added that, "this plan is very, very secret."
The Italian official said the intercepts offered evidence of ties between extremists in Italy and cells in Germany and the United States. The main figures in the Sept. 11 attacks, including Mohamed Atta, considered the coordinator of the suicide hijackers, lived in Hamburg, Germany, and trained at flight schools in the United States.
While the official said that "we have not found direct links with Hamburg," German officials said they are intensifying an investigation to flesh out the network of Al Qaeda cells in Europe before Sept. 11.
A spokeswoman for the federal police said the investigation focused on two apartments in Berlin that are believed to have been used by an Algerian extremist, Muhammad Bensakhria, who was later arrested in the northern Spanish city of Alicante and extradited to France. Searches in the apartments turned up equipment for making false passports and credit cards.
The spokeswoman, Birgit Heib, said the investigation "stemmed from an old lead that has taken on greater significance." She did not elaborate.
But the Berlin daily Tagespiegel says in an article to appear Thursday that the federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, has ordered an investigation of Islamic fundamentalists who trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and later operated out of Berlin.
Mr. Bensakhria, the Algerian, was the leader of an Al Qaeda cell in Frankfurt called the Meliani Group, for his nom de guerre. Five members of the group are now on trial there accused of planning attacks on targets in the French city of Strasbourg. The group's breakup led to further arrests, including six in Britain, where the police found plans to produce Sarin nerve gas.
At a meeting Tuesday of European security officials in Bonn, Hans J. Beth, the director of international terrorism at Germany's domestic intelligence service, said his agency operates on the assumption that Mr. bin Laden and other leading Al Qaeda figures had not been killed or captured in Afghanistan and were still in a position to order or approve attacks.
Manfred Klink, the director of Germany's Federal Criminal Police, which has spearheaded the investigation of the Hamburg cell, told the meeting that a "network of several thousand fanatical Muslims" remains in place in Western Europe, North America, and the Arab countries. He added that the majority had been trained in camps in Afghanistan to carry out attacks and that a "significant number" remained in Germany awaiting orders.
German officials said they had also received threats in early January against German interests in the Middle East because of the trial that began on April 16 of the five Islamic radicals in Frankfurt.
In April, 14 German tourists were among 19 people left dead when a truck filled with gas exploded at a Jewish synagogue in Tunisia. German officials have said they have identified links between the suspected attacker, Nizar Ben Mohamed Nasr Nawar, a Tunisian, and a ring of militants linked to Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network who worked out of Montreal.
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