Terror's Little Helpers

French prosecutors are uncovering the key role - and elusiveness - of logistics operatives in several al-Qaeda networks: Investigators say Reid did not act alone

Time Europe/February 13, 2002
By Bruce Amendola and Elise Amendola

Since Sept. 11, people like suspected terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta, alleged suicide hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid have become the faces of the al-Qaeda organization in the West. But European investigators believe these men represent just the tip of a much larger and still lethal network - whose operatives are still at large and planning fresh attacks.

Later this month French prosecutors will begin to lay bare what they say are the roots of one of these terror cells when they open court proceedings against Ouassini Cherifi. A first-generation Frenchman who seemed a model of integration and upward mobility, Cherifi was arrested in August of 2000, and ultimately charged with theft and fraud to generate funds and distribute false identity documents to fellow extremists. Time had an exclusive look at the accusations, the evidence and the defense that will be presented in the case - one that French justice officials say shows how suspected operatives like Cherifi are crucial to the functioning of terror cells.

"Identifying the attack cells can be easier than unearthing the logistic networks, which are often staffed by people born and raised [in Europe] or who are fully integrated immigrants showing no sign of radical association," says a French justice official who is familiar with the Cherifi case. "Many maintain an outwardly modern and moderate profile even after radicalization. In so doing, they avoid detection and are able to work longer for their networks." That, authorities maintain, was precisely the case with Cherifi - who they say provided al-Qaeda cells with money and documents they needed to plan and carry out strikes. While Cherifi's arrest is important, police claim he was only part of a larger system that continues to operate without him. If French authorities are right, Sept. 11 was not the culmination of a single plot but just one thread in a much larger fabric of terror that is still unfolding.

Cherifi is one of seven children born to Algerian parents in suburban Paris. His work ethic and above-average intelligence earned him a university degree in mathematics and computer sciences. Gregarious and personable, Cherifi landed a job as head receptionist with an international hotel chain near Paris and later took on a second job with a computer-software firm. In 1999, at the age of 25, he was married, had a young son and was earning a good living. "Nothing in his life, family background or activities indicated Cherifi was harboring the anger, fanaticism and conspiratorial drive of an Islamist zealot," the French official says. "Yet when he finally came to our attention, we realized he'd completely dedicated himself to international jihad."

The exposure of Cherifi's alleged terrorist-support activity arose from a random postal inspection of a parcel sent to a "Mr. Bourgeois" care of the Novotel Hotel in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois, where Cherifi had worked until November 1999 and continued to receive mail. The package contained a set of forged French passports. When Cherifi came to pick it up, police arrested him. A subsequent search of Cherifi's belongings turned up a machine used to forge credit cards.

Cherifi's lawyer, Fouad Deffous, says his client admits the possession of counterfeit passports and materials to produce fraudulent credit cards. Deffous argues, though, that any theft, fraud or procurement and distribution of forged passports were a means of generating personal income and not of assisting terrorists. Prosecutors contend they have convincing evidence to the contrary. First, they note, fake passports containing spelling and grammatical errors identical to those belonging to Cherifi were discovered in a December 2000 raid of an al-Qaeda cell in Frankfurt. And telephone numbers for members of that group, who were alleged to have been plotting an attack on Strasbourg's Cathedral and Christmas market, were found on Cherifi's mobile phone.

And there's more. Among the telephone contacts in Cherifi's electronic organizer, say police, was a number for Abu Doha, an al-Qaeda sympathizer and recruiter now held in Britain and sought by the U.S. for complicity in Ahmed Ressam's plan to blow up Los Angeles airport. Doha is also known to have had regular contact with the Frankfurt cell. Investigators suspect Cherifi may have also received direct instructions from Doha during four trips he made to London in the first seven months of 2000. "Two visits were spent at Baker Street, the other two at Finsbury Park," the French official says, referring to two London venues suspected as recruiting centers for militant Islam.

Though Cherifi's growing involvement with radical Islam drew him to London, he was unable to follow his fellow extremists to al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Although investigators say the by-now-unemployed Cherifi methodically liquidated family accounts to finance that trip, health problems posed by diabetes derailed his candidacy as a fighter. Police suspect Islamist leaders in London urged Cherifi to dedicate himself instead to vital covert logistics work in Paris - a role more securely assumed without the conspicuous Afghan link - providing money, documents, safe houses and go-between services for members of newly established European cells.

Despite his behind-the-scenes support role, Cherifi still apparently harbored ambitions of martyrdom. "During a search of Cherifi's house, we found a will leaving a portion of his worth to the mujahedin," says the French official. Accompanying that document was a letter Cherifi wanted read to his son, then just 18 months old, in the event of his death. "It urged the boy to fulfill his father's dream of becoming a warrior of Islam and martyr of jihad."

French terror expert Roland Jacquard says the apparent fanaticism beneath Cherifi's well-adjusted exterior is characteristic of Europe's current generation of Islamist operatives. "Recruiters dig through what you or I may consider success, achievement or promise to find that ember of racial, social or religious anger and resentment," Jacquard says. In cases like Cherifi's, he adds, that ember is often a lingering fury at the racial and economic prejudices that French Arabs and their families feel they suffer in French society. Ironically, that anger can be fanned into flame by their own success in climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.

These men are not the petty criminals and social misfits recruited by Algerian radicals in the mid-1990s, though. "Today's al-Qaeda networks use smart, educated, respectable men for logistics and support work," says Jacquard. "Not only are they less likely to arouse suspicion and get caught, but their longevity and experience are invaluable assets to the cells they assist in planning terror."

And that, say French authorities, is exactly why these operatives represent such a grave threat in the battle against terrorism: they are hard to detect and their numbers are impossible to estimate. All the murderous designs of people like Atta and Reid would certainly fail without the kind of help Cherifi is accused of providing.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.