Arrested Italian cell sheds light on Bin Laden's European network

By

 Updated:

On a cold winter night last January, on the outskirts of Milan, Italian anti-terrorist police intercepted a frantic call between two suspected Osama Bin Laden operatives. "They have arrested our brothers ... half of the group," the caller said. "They have found the arms warehouse in Germany." That call, monitored in a cell phone wiretap, and subsequent other intercepts led to the arrest three months later of Essid Sami Ben Khemais, a 33-year-old Tunisian, and five others in Italy on charges of conspiracy, trafficking in arms and explosives, and using false documents.

Milan prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso is expected to complete his investigation in the case in the coming weeks and ask a judge to try those arrested, along with two others a Belgian of Tunisian descent and an Iraqi living in Germany for a conspiracy that authorities say links alleged Bin Laden loyalists in Italy, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and France.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, outside Washington, D.C., dozens of men suspected of having links to Bin Ladens al Qaeda network have been detained in Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands. The extent of that network remains unclear.

But a 100-page Italian investigative report, obtained by the Center for Public Integritys International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, tells a stunning story of cooperation among suspected Bin Laden cells in Europe and includes chilling wiretaps among the “brothers.”

In one intercepted conversation, Ben Khemais, Mehdi Kammoun, 33, and two others, all now jailed in Italy, boasted about past achievements in Chechnya, the breakaway region of Russia where Bin Laden loyalists are believed to be active. “First we studied the structure (of a building) and then with the plastic BOOM. The building collapsed,” the report quoted Kammoun (codename “Khaled”) as saying. “A fire broke out and so Gods enemies were buried and burned.” In another conversation recorded by Italys antiterrorist agency, known as Digos, Ben Khemais discussed with five other men at his apartment the different types of materials used in bomb-making, including plastic explosives and an unspecified “drug.”

“I’d like to learn how to use the drug and see the effect on someone breathing it,” Ben Khemais, identified by his nom de guerre “Saber,” said in the March 13 conversation, according to the report. “But the formula is in the hands of a Libyan … a chemical professor … . They have created a way to combine the fumes (of the drug) with the explosive. ... Its easy, but I don’t know how to make it.”

Complicated web of relationships

The Italian investigative report, dated April 3, lays out the complicated web of relationships among the suspected al Qaeda operatives and identifies Ben Khemais and Tarek Maaroufi, a naturalized Belgian of Tunisian descent, as being key figures in Bin Ladens European alliance. It was Maaroufi whom Ben Khemais called weeks after the raid in Germany last December, warning him, “you need to cover yourself, you know how!”

Dambruoso has issued a warrant for Maaroufis arrest and hopes to have him brought to Italy to stand trial. Media reports in Brussels say a man named Tarek Maaroufi, identified as a naturalized Belgian of Tunisian origin, was convicted in Belgium in the mid-1990s for his involvement in an Algerian terrorist group and later questioned in connection with the 1991 murder of Belgiums former deputy prime minister.

U.S. intelligence also believes Maaroufi was involved in a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome that prompted the evacuation of the mission on Jan. 5, 2001, Dambruoso told the Italian news agency Ansa.

Maaroufi flew to Milan on September 15, 2000, and from the airport called a cell phone number used by Ben Kehmais, who arrived two minutes later to pick him up, the report said. Italian authorities tailed the two as they drove to Milans Cultural Islamic Institute, whose former director was Anwar Shaaban, an Egyptian who was investigated by Milan prosecutors before being killed in 1995 during the Bosnian war. The report called the institute “a substantial crossroad” for Egyptian terrorists.

Late last year, U.S. intelligence told Italian authorities that a man using the alias, Umar al Muhajer, was “joining a group of three Islamic extremists who were linked to the Osama Bin Laden organization and, from Afghanistan, were planning vague actions against American targets in Italy,” the Italian report said. U.S. intelligence also provided Italian authorities with a cell phone number which, along with the alias, was later traced to Ben Khemais, according to the report.

In the April 5 predawn raid on Ben Khemais apartment in Gallarate, outside Milan, Digos agents found at least 30 cell phone cards, most cloned from the accounts of unwitting Italians, and approximately 40 videocassettes showing training scenes in Afghanistan and battle scenes from Chechnya.

In a July 2000 raid on Ben Khemais apartment, during an earlier immigrant smuggling investigation, police came across a man with a photocopy of a Yemeni passport in the name of Nassim Abdulqader Ahmed al Sakkaf. Not an unknown name, al Sakkaf had been arrested in Ottawa, Canada, in 1997, for using a fake passport. In May 2000, he was jailed in Germany on similar charges. And on September 19, 2000, 8.46 million lire (US $4,000) was wired through Western Union to his accounts by Ben Khemais, the report said.

Al Sakkaf was detained in Jordan on November 1, 2000, for illegally entering the country and also for his connections with mujahedeen in Chechnya, the report said. Jordanian authorities later determined his real name was Fahid Mahdi Ahmad Hamdan al Hassan al Shakri, a Saudi national linked to a prominent member of the “Jamaat al Islamiya” terror organization. That groups spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was convicted in the United States on terrorist conspiracy charges and allegedly was the mastermind behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Ben Khemais nominally was chairman of a cooperative called “Work Service srl,” a company which provides office-cleaning services, as well as maintenance for gardens and parks, the report said. But Digos agents suspect that the company, which was raided together with other apartments Ben Khemais frequented, was just a “smokescreen” to cover the real activity of the Italian terrorist cell.

Ben Khemais moved to Milan in March 1998 after spending two years training in Afghanistan to recruit people to bring to one of four Afghan training camps for Islamic fighters, where Bin Laden’s organization teaches bombmaking, disguise, sabotage, kidnapping, and hijacking of trains, buses and planes.

According to the report, the “guerrilla candidates,” once recruited in Europe and provided with false passports, were assembled in Geneva, where a Tunisian, identified in the report as Taher Mestayser, arranged their travel. From Switzerland, they were sent to Pakistan, where they were picked up at the Afghan border and brought to a camp in Khost, south of Kabul. At the end of their training, the report said, the “mujahedeen,” or holy warriors, returned to Europe ready for jihad.

While running the Italian terrorist cell, Ben Khemais was in direct contact with similar groups in Germany, Britain and Belgium, the report said.

Terror networks in Europe

In summer 2000, two Islamic terrorist networks were becoming very active in Europe: one led by a Tunisian, identified as Seifallah ben Hassine, Ben Khemais boss in the European cell, and the second by an Algerian in London, identified as “Abu Doha” and the “doctor,” the report explained. The report said nothing about Ben Hassines whereabouts. Haydar Abu Doha is in custody in London, where U.S. authorities are seeking his extradition on charges he was a key figure in Bin Ladens network and one of the plotters to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Years Eve 1999. Abu Doha also was implicated by U.S. intelligence in the planned attack on the American Embassy in Rome, the Italian report said.

The two networks supported the activity of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a militant offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (known by its French initials GIA), which was opposed to the Algerian government and responsible for subway bombings and hijackings in France. However, by autumn 2000 in Europe, the report said, “the Algerian situation was becoming less important in favor of a new project sponsored by Osama Bin Laden: the setting up of a sort of Islamic International, active under the name International Front Against Jews and Crusaders.” The Italian report, highlighting the labyrinthian ties among the suspected al Qaeda operatives, noted that during a raid on the Vancouver apartment of Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian loyalist of Bin Ladens who was convicted in the plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport, Canadian investigators found two key telephone numbers. One belonged to Abu Doha in London and the other to a Bin Laden operative in Peshawar, Pakistan, who ran a residence for mujahedeen training in Afghanistan. The report also said Italian authorities had intercepted a series of cell phone calls, placed by Mehdi Kammoun, one of the men arrested with Ben Khemais in April outside Milan. Between 12:43 a.m. and 7:08 p.m. on December 3, 2000, Kammoun made about 30 calls to Tunisia, Pakistan, Dubai, Italy, Germany, including to the leader of the German terrorist cell raided in late December, and to Britain, including two calls to Abu Doha. Italian investigators said there were many connections between the Italian cell, run by Ben Khemais, and the Frankfurt cell raided last December. That cell was led by Mohamed Bensakhria, also known as “Meliani,” an Algerian who escaped from Germany but was arrested in Spain on June 22 on French charges that his group planned to attack Strasbourg. Bensakhrias German telephone number was called several times by Ben Khemais and his associates in Milan, the report said. Digos agents also found his number during a raid on another Milan apartment last April during the crackdown on the Italian cell, along with a note reproduced in the report with agents notations, reading: “Mliani (“Mliani” stands for “Meliani”) al Ansari (“Ansari” in Arabic means “The supporter”) Germi (“Germi” stands for Germany).” In addition, German police stopped Ben Khemais, al Sakkaf and another man on May 20, 2000, in Rosenheim, Bavaria, for attempting to enter the country illegally and turned them back to Italy, according to the report.

Following the December raid and arrests in Frankfurt, Ben Khemais was wiretapped giving orders to what Italian authorities said were accomplices escaping from Germany. “Tell him to send me a photocopy of his passport,” Ben Khemais said, according to the report. “Stamps are ready.”

Italian authorities have also linked Ben Khemais to a terrorist cell in Spain. The report said that Italian, French and Spanish agents trailed him as he traveled by train in late March from Milan to Valencia, with stops in Paris, Lyon and Pamplona. Along the way, the report said, he met with Madjid Sahouane, one of the suspects arrested in Spain in the wake of the September 11 bombings.

Spanish police lost the trail after Ben Khemais and a group of men, including a suspected Algerian terrorist, left a mosque in Valencia.

“Even without knowing what was the result of the meeting in Valencia, this activity proves the international connections and the importance of the probed Sami Essid,” the Italian report said.

Ben Khemais has refused to talk to Dambruoso, the Italian prosecutor on the case. But he told the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, “I don’t know Osama Bin Laden. I don’t throw bombs. I only helped Muslim brothers who fight for their freedom in many countries, especially in Chechnya.” Maaroufi told the Italian daily La Repubblica, “It’s all untrue. We are not terrorists.”

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now