This information provided by The Federal Observer, http://www.federalobserver.com
By CRAIG PYES and SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and DAVID ZUCCHINO
BRUSSELS - The murder weapons were a bomb and two passports.
The bomb was concealed in camera equipment carried by two Tunisians who assassinated Ahmed Shah Masoud, legendary guerrilla leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, on Sept. 9.
The assassins' fraudulent Belgian passports had been prepared with the same meticulous efficiency as the explosives because they were just as vital to the crime. An identity document is a terrorist's mask, a talisman, a key to triumph or disaster. Posing as television journalists, the Brussels-based Tunisians traveled to London, Pakistan and on to Masoud's mountain headquarters in Afghanistan, where they blew him up shortly after beginning an interview. European and U.S. investigators believe that their act was ordered by Osama bin Laden as a prelude to the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
To reconstruct the Tunisians' deadly journey, European investigators are retracing the trail of the documents. The passport carried by 35-year-old Dahmane Abd al Sattar, who was gunned down by Northern Alliance bodyguards after surviving the explosion, was stolen from the Belgian Consulate in Strasbourg, France, in August 1999.
The document of the phony cameraman, who was killed instantly by the blast and has not yet been identified publicly, was stolen from the Belgian Embassy in The Hague in November that same year.
The blank passports disappeared into the underworld and reappeared in the hands of Islamic extremists, whose forgery experts gave the assassins new identities, investigators say.
Police in Belgium and France have taken into custody five suspects accused of furnishing documents to the assassins. The case against them is a glimpse into a criminal industry that feeds the jihad of rootless marauders headed from Europe, North America and the Middle East to training camps and battle theaters such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.
The raw material for the underground document workshops comes from an assortment of sources, an investigation by The Times has shown. The business transcends ethnic and ideological differences.
Serbian safecrackers conducted a stealthy blitzkrieg on Belgian city halls. Muslim officials in Bosnia offered passports to hundreds of Arab holy warriors who came to fight the Serbs. Corrupt officials in Yemen, Algeria and Albania purloined thousands of passports. Burglars carted off stacks of driver's licenses in Naples, Italy; purse snatchers and hotel thieves committed seemingly random rip-offs in Madrid, Cairo and Montreal.
Although no evidence has emerged that the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks used false documents, doctored passports have enabled would-be terrorists to plot attacks such as the Masoud assassination and the failed attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999.
~ Wiretaps Zero In on Chatter About Passports ~
"The fraudulent travel document issue is important because it allows terrorist groups to function," said Ronald K. Noble, secretary-general of Interpol. "It's something that benefits organized crime of all types--terrorism, trafficking in drugs and human beings, trafficking in stolen motor vehicles. . . . For all this, the identity documents are crucial."
Suspected terrorists spend countless hours talking about passports, according to police experts and wiretaps. Chattering about documents in code--"books," "green pants," "green sweaters"--members of an extremist Islamic cell in Milan, Italy, that was broken up this year sound alternately businesslike, comical and desperate. They sound like junkies talking about drugs.
The management responsibilities of Tunisian Essid Sami Ben Khemais, 33, the alleged boss of the Milan cell, revolved largely around papers. The suspects allegedly specialized in furnishing documents to help North African and Middle Eastern extremists move around Europe without using their real identities, according to Italian authorities.
Ben Khemais intervened to resolve disputes over prices for identity cards from Spain, Bulgaria, Italy and Egypt needed for jihadis between 25 and 37 years old. He fielded a phone call pleading for a European document with forged visas for a fundamentalist "brother" stranded in Turkey.
Ben Khemais warned his men that they literally held their fate--and that of others--in their hands.
"The first thing now is security, do you understand?" he told a caller in January as Italian police wiretappers listened. "At the first identity check, if they open and verify the passport, they realize that it's rotten merchandise, and that way the whole group is ruined. We all go down."
~ Terrorist Leaders Protected by Anonymity ~
Anonymity is the ultimate shield for the secret leaders of the terrorist movement, as Ben Khemais explained, according to the wiretap transcript.
"In Al Qaeda, there are various top-secret things," he said. "If somebody is important, you must not put him at risk. . . . And he continuously changes his name . . . because an individual that high up cannot expose himself. Why does no one know Abu Selman? He knows 5,000 people, but no one knows him. Not even a cat."
Principal types of passport fraud include forgery; theft of blank documents; substitution of photos on existing passports; and impostor fraud, which utilizes the passport of a person with a similar appearance.
Forgers use commercially available color copiers and printers, embossing equipment and offset printers. U.S. authorities continually upgrade technological safeguards in American passports and visas to thwart counterfeiters.
Nonetheless, there is no international database containing each country's list of stolen or fraudulent travel documents, according to Noble of Interpol.
The widespread presence of Islamic extremists in Europe is a top concern of U.S. border officials. Most Western European countries have visa waiver agreements with the United States that allow citizens to travel across the Atlantic without visas. The U.S. is reviewing visa waiver agreements with Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Argentina and Uruguay because of the potential for fraud, according to U.S. immigration officials.
"We have had a great deal of cooperation with other governments . . . in trying to lessen the ability of people to use stolen blanks," said an official at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Belgians have made it a habit to notify our embassies" about suspect documents.
Belgium was identified years ago as a vulnerable target of networks that emerged from the bloody Islamic insurgency in Algeria. In the 1980s, major Algerian document-forging rackets sprang up and, aided by official corruption in Algeria, spread overseas, law enforcement officials said.
Experts within the Algerian diaspora helped filter leaders and combatants in and out of their homeland and, amid a terror campaign in France in the mid-1990s, became service providers to Islamic networks, including Al Qaeda. Thieves in Europe's North African expatriate communities stole passports from tourists and city halls, then used sophisticated chemical treatments to replace photos.
Members of the terrorist cell of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who planned to bomb LAX but was arrested at the U.S.-Canadian border in December 1999, traveled with passports from an unlikely source: Tongeren, a Flemish-speaking community of 30,000 that bills itself as Belgium's oldest town.
Tongeren is 95% Catholic and is known for Roman ruins, a Gothic church and a Sunday antique market. In the dingy Montreal apartment that harbored Ressam's cell, police found passports stolen from the Tongeren City Hall in February 1998.
Starting in 1995, more than 300 city halls in Belgium were burglarized by professionals who stole thousands of blank passports and identity documents. The break-ins were traced largely to Serbian gangs operating in Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi, police said.
Most of the city halls were old buildings with poor security. The thieves struck on weekends, giving them 48 hours to pry open safes. Because the safecracking took a long time, the burglars generally ate whatever food was on the premises. That became their signature.
The biggest burglary netted more than 3,000 passports in a small border village, police said. But generally, the haul would be several hundred passports, driver's licenses, identity cards, visa stamps and travel permits. Passports usually fetched between $700 and $2,300 on the black market.
"This was a low-risk, big-benefit enterprise," said Kurt Boudry, who formerly was in charge of investigating organized theft for the Belgian federal police. "Why risk trafficking in drugs?"
Although the ethnic strife of the Balkans made it unlikely that Serbs would deal directly with Muslim terrorists, business is business: Passports circulate in an international underworld.
"It's about meeting people and talking with each other in dark cafes and dark bars and being willing to pay," Boudry said.
Belgian officials still get calls from around the world about suspects captured with stolen Belgian papers.
The Tongeren City Hall, which has since moved into a modern glass and steel structure, was located in a 19th century red brick edifice that was once a hospital. Even though the police department shared the building, the thieves encountered few obstacles. They broke through a window and, as they worked, gobbled down yogurt they had found.
The safes containing documents were opened with a key left carelessly on a desk, said Tongeren Police Chief Tony Verlackt.
"The group made lots of money falsifying and selling them in other countries," Verlackt said. "They've been found as far away as Canada and Africa."
~ Police Raid Nets Cache of Blank Documents ~
Flow of the Tongeren passports throughout the world was directed from London. The gatekeeper for stolen and forged documents in London for recruits headed to Afghan terror-training camps or cells in Europe, according to a U.S. federal indictment, was a 37-year-old Algerian known as Abu Doha.
Abu Doha was carrying a phony passport when police arrested him in February at Heathrow airport. When Scotland Yard raided his apartment, detectives found Belgian, Spanish, French and Slovak passports as well as blank passports from Italy, France and Spain. Searchers also found laminating equipment and an assortment of passport photos of Abu Doha with different appearances.
Authorities found that, in each country where he ran into trouble, Abu Doha had used a new alias. He perfected the art of masking himself with multiple identities, according to a European intelligence official who specializes in Algerian terror groups. Doubts about the suspect's true identity caused U.S. prosecutors to indict him as Abu Doha, a nickname.
"Who is Abu Doha?" the official said. "Who is he? How do you define people with several aliases in several countries? The art of jihad has several facets. One of them is that they are trained in [deception]."
In August, a U.S. grand jury in New York indicted Abu Doha in the LAX bomb plot. Ressam testified that Abu Doha led an Algerian terror cell at an Afghan terrorist camp called Khalden and that he was the point man for terrorists who returned from the camps to Europe. The U.S. indictment alleges that Abu Doha met with Bin Laden in 1998 and added his Algerian terror network to Al Qaeda's campaign against the West.
Abu Doha's London address was scrawled on a calendar recovered by police in 1999 from the apartment of a Ressam associate in Montreal. Also on the calendar was the post office box address in Peshawar, Pakistan, of a Bin Laden aide in charge of receiving terrorist recruits bound for the training camps.
The calendar, complete with Ressam's fingerprints, helped police connect Abu Doha to Al Qaeda and its interlocking web of stolen and forged travel documents. Also found in the apartment were photocopies of passports from Tongeren that provided identities of terrorists who were later arrested in London and Frankfurt, Germany.
French investigators were led to the Montreal address through the investigation of another passport operation. In 1996, Laifa Khabou, a courier who lived in northern France, racked up air miles retrieving ingredients for false identities.
In Istanbul, Turkey, Khabou picked up photographs of three suspected terrorists. In Montreal, a Moroccan forger who was Ressam's roommate gave the courier three Moroccan passports and visa stamps. Then Khabou flew back to Brussels to have an expert forger from London carefully insert the photos into the passports.
Finally, the courier returned to Istanbul and delivered the fresh papers to a contact at an Islamic charity, which French police say trafficked in passports and weapons in Turkey, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Chechnya. Khabou was taken into custody by French police as part of the lengthy investigation that dismantled the Montreal terror network.
Even when such operations are broken up, others continue. London-based specialists allegedly helped prepare the stolen Belgian passports for the Masoud assassins this year, according to a European law enforcement official.
~ Embassy Thiefs May Have Had Inside Help ~
The two passports were stolen even after Belgian authorities improved security in 1998 and stopped issuing documents from city halls. Criminals responded with a flurry of thefts at embassies and consulates, a more challenging tactic that suggests inside assistance in some cases.
Not much is known about the thefts at the embassy in The Hague or the consulate in Strasbourg, except that a number of the blank passports went to members of the Tunisian Islamic Fighting Group. That network is led by a Bin Laden ally named Seifallah Ben Hassine who worked closely with Abu Doha in London, according to European officials.
The Tunisian organization trained at an Al Qaeda camp complex called Darunta in Afghanistan, according to law enforcement officials. It is believed that as Bin Laden plotted the Sept. 11 attacks, he decided to eliminate Masoud in a preemptive strike because the guerrilla hero was a natural leader for any U.S.-backed retaliation.
A working theory among European investigators is that Bin Laden turned to the Tunisians in an exchange of services.
"It may be that the assassination was a way for the Tunisians to pay their rent for the training camp," the law enforcement official said.
The mission allegedly was assigned to a Tunisian-dominated cell in Brussels that authorities detected last year. A leader in the group, Al Sattar, had the appropriate background to pose as a television reporter. He had studied journalism in Tunisia before immigrating in 1989 to Belgium, where he lived on a student visa and studied communications at three universities. Al Sattar apparently was a bona fide student at first, according to a law enforcement official.
"He was not an Islamic militant when he got to Belgium," the official said. "He was recruited and radicalized at some point. He may have continued his studies to preserve his immigration status."
The Tunisian assassins chose to present themselves as Moroccan-born Belgian citizens, probably because Moroccans are the biggest immigrant group in Belgium. And they used the names of real Moroccans known to them, a common practice along with using actual birth dates on phony identity cards, according to the official. The Moroccan names ultimately helped investigators track down the suspects arrested recently in Belgium and France.
~ Letter Helped Get Pair Within Killing Range ~
Belgian authorities have not yet revealed the names of the jailed suspects, who are Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan. A suspect jailed in France, Adel Taberski, allegedly obtained the plane tickets to Pakistan for the killers. The suspects may not have known the objective of the trip, officials say.
In addition to putting together the passports in London, document specialists also are suspected of assisting with the killers' Pakistani visas. They had one-year multiple entry visas, which are not usually granted to journalists or Arabs. Authorities have not yet said whether the visas were authentic, but one law enforcement official said they were fraudulent.
The final piece of the plot, authorities say, was a letter of recommendation from Yasser al Siri, an Egyptian who directs an Islamic organization in London. British police arrested him in October and charged him with conspiracy, alleging that the letter introducing the assassins as journalists for an Arabic news service was written to help them gain access to their victim.
The killers flew to Pakistan on July 25. They gradually made their way to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and then into Northern Alliance territory. The documents got them within killing range of Masoud; the explosives did the rest.
~ Excerpt of Italian Police Wiretap ~
For three months this year, Italian intelligence agents bugged the phones of a suspected terrorist cell in Milan, Italy, and the apartment of Essid Sami Ben Khemais, a 33-year-old Tunisian.
Ben Khemais was arrested in April and accused of leading the cell, which police have linked to the Al Qaeda network. On the tapes, suspects speak reverently of Osama bin Laden and tell war stories. But their conversations, deals, jokes and fears center on identity documents. The cell allegedly supplied stacks of fraudulent documents for Islamic networks in Western Europe. Here are excerpts from wiretap transcripts in an Italian prosecutor's report.
Jan. 3, 2001, 12:52 p.m.: Ben Khemais gives document forging instructions.
Unknown man with Yemeni accent: How do I do this plastic?
Ben Khemais: Which one . . . Itali--
Unknown: No. Morocco.
Ben Khemais: With a hair dryer. . . .
Unknown: Ah! The one for the head?
Ben Khemais: Or use an iron.
Unknown: What do you mean with an iron? I heat it up?
Ben Khemais: Yes. Heat it up.
Unknown: And then how do I make it normal again?
Ben Khemais: It goes back to normal on its own. And it stays all attached, and it attaches itself. It becomes normal.
Unknown: Do I heat it up a second time?
Ben Khemais: No, heat it up a bit, a bit. But use the hair dryer, a bit, a bit. You understand?
Feb. 26, 5:15 p.m.: Ben Khemais, who is also known as Saber, takes a telephone order for a fake identification card, called a "book."
Mohammed (a Tunisian): There's a brother who wants to pick up his book. Is that possible?
Ben Khemais: I don't know. I really don't know. Let him know he needs to see Farid. He needs a labor contract, everything. You understand why?
Ben Khemais: I'll see. I'll talk to the person. I'll see what he needs to do to pick up the book.
Feb. 26, 5:34 p.m.: Mohammed calls back and forgets to speak in code.
Mohammed: Brother Saber, I have to tell you he has false documents.
Ben Khemais: God curse you. Like that on the telephone? You understand me, man?
March 3, 2:35 p.m.: Ben Khemais and an associate named Lhabib talk with a man named Mohammed, who is on the phone from France.
Ben Khemais: Here's Lhabib, who wants to talk to you urgently.
Mohammed: I'm not interested. I closed it.
Lhabib: With whom?
Mohammed: With Daia [phonetic spelling]. I dealt with him.
Lhabib: The price?
Lhabib: Lire or francs?
Lhabib: Just the identity card?
Mohammed: Yes. The one.
Lhabib: No! . . . You messed up having the identity card made there [France]. What are we going to do now with the other person? He needs the license. . . . It's been a month he's waiting. He's running back and forth. . . .
Mohammed: Maybe he'll be happy with the identity card, and later we'll give him the license.
Lhabib: He wants his documents. You can't throw away a million and a hundred for the identity card. He wants it anyway. By now we've thrown away a million. What, Mohammed, how did you mess up like this?
Mohammed: I warned you. I haven't messed up. I'll tear up this identity card. When I get the money for the others. I'll give you a million.
Lhabib: Why would you tear it up? This way we lose a million. Why do you talk like that? Don't get mad.
Ben Khemais interrupts. Shut your mouth, he tells Lhabib, and takes the phone.
Ben Khemais: If you want to talk about these things, use the other phone.
March 12: Ben Khemais laughs about being stopped by police. The seemingly routine identity check was part of the surveillance operation that led to his arrest three weeks later.
Ben Khemais: This is the second or third time that I get myself stopped with Issam's documents, understand? They confiscated one of Issam's documents and one of his photos . . . also Ussama's brother got caught with Issam's documents [laughter], everybody gets caught with this stuff on them [laughter]. . . . No, I'm not under surveillance. . . . It was just a routine check. God knows it was a routine check.