By BRUCE CRUMLEY / PARIS Tuesday, May. 12, 2009
Malika El Aroud, widow of Abdessater Dahmane, at her computer in the living room of her home in Brussels. Hazel Thompson / Eyevine
Continental Europeans may have been spared the devastation of jihadist suicide bombings since the deadly March 2004 attacks in Madrid, but on Tuesday morning there was another grim reminder that the threat of terrorism is far from over. Italian police in the southern city of Bari announced that they are holding two French nationals whom authorities call “top-level point men” for “al-Qaeda in Europe” and who were allegedly plotting kamikaze strikes in France and the U.K. — including one purportedly targeting the Charles de Gaulle airport. Counter-terrorism authorities in Paris tell TIME, meanwhile, that they believe the pair is only one part of a wider jihadist network that is active in Europe and remains under watch in several countries.
Initially arrested in November on immigration violations, French nationals Bassam Ayachi and Raphael Gendron were remanded in custody on Tuesday and charged with terrorism offenses after Italian authorities established their ties to an extremist network operating in France and Belgium. The Italian magistrates in charge of the investigation say evidence collected against the two men indicates they had “planned and organized terrorist attacks and guerrilla actions.” Ayachi, 62, who was born in Syria, was previously known to authorities as a radical imam who oversaw a reputedly extremist mosque in Belgium. Like Ayachi, Gendron — described as a 33-year old computer specialist — has been a resident of Belgium for several years. (See pictures of a jihadist’s journey.)
French security officials confide to TIME that when Italian police arrested Ayachi and Gendron late last year, the Italians were not aware of the ongoing investigation into the network to which the two men allegedly belonged. For more than a year, authorities in Belgium and France had been arresting suspected radicals whom they allege have connections to the same network — climaxing in a Dec. 11 raid in Brussels that took 14 people into custody. Most of those arrested remain in detention as Belgian authorities continue investigating the case of what they described at the time as a looming suicide bomb plot by the group. According to police, several members of the group were known to have traveled to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Among those arrested in the raid and still detained is Malika El Aroud, 48, a Belgian national known for her blogging calls to fellow Muslims to take up jihad and the widow of Abdessater Dahmane, one of two Tunisian nationals recruited by Belgian extremist networks to assassinate Afghanistan’s key anti-Taliban commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two days before 9/11.
According to French officials, Ayachi and Gendron had left Brussels sometime before the Dec. 11 raid, but nobody knew to where. It turns out that — unbeknownst to Belgian or French authorities — Ayachi and Gendron had actually been arrested in November, after Italian police stopped the camping car in which they were entering southern Italy and discovered five illegal Palestinian and Syrian aliens hiding inside. (See pictures of Fatah vs. Hamas.)
It was only after Belgian and Italian authorities compared notes earlier this year that Italian officials realized Ayachi and Gendron might have been up to something more dangerous than a people-smuggling scheme. That, Italian investigators say, allowed them to piece together material evidence alongside secretly recorded conversations between the two men that indicated that their intent at the time of their arrests had been to proceed towards eventual terror strikes in France and the U.K.
Italian and French officials now say they believe the pair had been trying to furtively return to Europe from Syria, where they had picked up the five Palestinian and Syrian illegals as volunteers for their suspected planned attacks. “We know what kinds of activities [Ayachi and Gendron] had been up to after watching them for months, and they’d never run illegal aliens into Europe before,” says a French counter-terrorism official. “You can be pretty sure if they were arrested by the Italians bringing five illegals in when they did, it wasn’t to organize a little round of golf.”
Still, there’s only limited comfort to be had from the arrests of Ayachi and Gendron. Because Italian police were not aware of the Franco-Belgian surveillance operation, they had no reason to suspect the five people in the back of the camping car of anything other than trying to illegally cross the border. While police held Ayachi and Gendron, they let the other five go. The French official says the Italians had “no reason not to do what they always do with illegal aliens — they expelled them.” The upshot: nothing much is known about the five suspected suicide bomber volunteers beyond their nationalities. “That means they’re still out there somewhere, presumably as ready to strike a blow for jihad as they were when they entered Italy,” the French official says. (See pictures of Osama Bin Laden.)
And they aren’t the only ones. French authorities involved in the surveillance of the network that was the target of the Dec. 11 Brussels raid worried that the intervention was premature, allowing other suspected radical members — known to have been in Afghanistan or to be en route back to Europe — to go to ground once word of the bust got to them. “They’re still out there, and we have no idea if they were involved in the recruitment of the five [Palestinian and Syrian] suspected suicide bombers — or whether those kamikazes might have been trained and recruited out of Afghanistan,” the French official says.
For that reason, intelligence and police investigations continue in France, Belgium, Italy, other parts of Europe and other parts of the world, in nations whose involvement in the Afghanistan conflict has made them a target for terror.