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Monday, October 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bosnia — base for terrorism

Los Angeles Times

ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Hundreds of foreign Islamic extremists who became Bosnian citizens after battling Serbian and Croatian forces present a potential terrorist threat to Europe and the United States, according to a classified U.S. State Department report and interviews with international military and intelligence sources.

The extremists include hard-core terrorists, some with ties to Osama bin Laden, protected by militant elements of the former Sarajevo government. Bosnia-Herzegovina is "a staging area and safe haven" for terrorists, said one former senior State Department official.

The secret report, prepared late last year for the Clinton administration, warned of problem passport holders in Bosnia in numbers that "shocked everyone," he said.

The White House leaned on Bosnia and its then-president, Alija Izetbegovic, "but nothing happened," the former official said.

Although no evidence connects any Bosnian group to the suicide hijacking attacks of Sept. 11 blamed on bin Laden, U.S. and European officials increasingly are concerned about the scope and reach of bin Laden networks in the West and the proximity of Bosnia-based terrorists to the heart of Europe.

A number of the extremists "would travel with impunity and conduct, plan and stage terrorist acts with impunity while hiding behind their Bosnian passports," the former official said.

In several instances, terrorists with links to Bosnia have launched actions against Western targets:

• An Algerian with Bosnian citizenship, described by one U.S. official as "a junior Osama bin Laden," tried to help smuggle explosives in 1998 to an Egyptian terrorist group plotting to destroy U.S. military installations in Germany.

• Another North African with Bosnian citizenship belonged to a terrorist cell in Montreal that conspired in the failed millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

• One of bin Laden's top lieutenants — a Palestinian linked to major terrorist plots in Jordan, France and the United States — had operatives in Bosnia and was issued a Bosnian passport, according to U.S. officials.

After the foiled plot against U.S. bases in Germany, the United States suspended without public explanation a military-aid program to Bosnia in 1999 in an attempt to force the deportation of the Algerian leader of the group, Abdelkader Mokhtari, also known as Abu el Maali.

Two months ago, he was reported to be moving in and out of the country freely. He is thought to be in Afghanistan with the leadership of bin Laden's al Qaeda group, according to a senior official for the NATO-led peacekeeping force, SFOR, in Bosnia.

President Clinton's secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, personally appealed to Izetbegovic to oust suspected terrorists or rescind their Bosnian passports.

The effort by top State Department aides continued through the last days of the administration. Izetbegovic declined the appeals, several sources said, apparently out of loyalty to the fighters who had come to his country's rescue. Senior U.S. and SFOR officials believe that some hard-line members of Izetbegovic's political party gave direct support. Although Izetbegovic stepped down in October 2000, many hard-liners remain in Bosnia's bureaucracy, and they are suspected of operating their own rogue intelligence service that protects Islamic extremists, military and intelligence sources said.

But U.S. and SFOR officials acknowledge the new coalition government in Sarajevo has become much more responsive to fighting terrorism.

Since Sept. 11, Bosnia has launched an audit of passports and mounted a more intensive crackdown on naturalized citizens wanted by foreign law-enforcement agencies.

After years of inaction, several international fugitives have been arrested this year and extradited.

Members of bin Laden's organization and other terrorists have used Bosnian passports to travel worldwide without drawing the kind of scrutiny that people who hold Middle Eastern or North African documents might attract, officials said.

Among those who Western intelligence sources say were granted Bosnian citizenship and passports was Abu Zubeida, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants.

Zubeida, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, was in charge of contacts with other Islamic terrorist networks and controlled admissions to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

He arranged training for unsuccessful millennium bomb plots in Canada and Jordan and a recently foiled suicide attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, according to court records and investigative reports.

Zubeida also asked Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in the plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport, to get blank Canadian passports to enable other terrorists to infiltrate the United States, according to testimony from Ressam.

Another terrorist with Bosnian credentials is Karim Said Atmani, a Moroccan who was Ressam's roommate in Montreal and who was in the group that attempted to bomb the airport, according to testimony.

The Bosnian government arrested him in April, and Atmani was extradited to France, where he awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.

In 1992, thousands of volunteers from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe came to Bosnia to fight Serbian and Croatian nationalists on behalf of fellow Muslims.

Organized as an "all-mujahedeen unit" called El Moujahed, it was headquartered in Zenica in an abandoned hillside factory, a compound with a hospital and prayer hall.

Bin Laden financed small convoys of recruits from the Arab world through his businesses in Sudan, according to Middle East intelligence reports.

Other support and recruits for El Moujahed came, at least in part, through Islamic organizations in Milan, Italy, and Istanbul, Turkey, that European investigators later linked to trafficking in passports and weapons for terrorists.

At the war's end, U.S. officials focused on state-sponsored terrorism and worried about getting Iranian fighters back to Iran. Less clear were the implications of loosely allied extremist groups and individuals. While Iranian fighters went home, many of el Maali's trained warriors did not.

In Bosnia, most of the violence stopped with the peace accord in 1995. But in January 1996, it broke out again — on the streets of northern France.

A puzzling crime wave swept the area around Roubaix, a gritty, Muslim-majority town near the Belgian border.

Small groups of men began holding up stores and drivers. They brandished machine guns and wore hoods and carnival masks. Two people were killed.

On March 28, just before a Group of Seven summit of leading industrial nations that would bring top ministers to Lille, police discovered a stolen car abandoned in front of the police station. It was parked askew. And it contained a bomb packed into three gas cylinders rigged to devastate everything within 600 feet. It was disarmed.

The next night, a special tactical squad surrounded a house at 59 Rue Heni Carette in Roubaix that had been linked to the booby-trapped car.

Police fired thousands of rounds into the building. The house erupted in flames because of munitions inside, police said later. Four charred bodies were recovered.

Two men fled the barrage and inferno. At a police roadblock just inside Belgium, another furious gun battle erupted. One of the men was killed, and his accomplice was wounded.

In the getaway car, police found rocket launchers, automatic weapons, large amounts of ammunition and grenades. They also recovered an electronic organizer containing coded telephone contacts, nearly a dozen of them in Bosnia.

The dead ringleader was identified as Christophe Caze, a young French medic who had gone to fight in Bosnia.

The French investigation uncovered what might have been the first terrorism cell exported from Bosnia.

The robbery gang was identified as nine militants who attended a local mosque. Most had undergone military training at the El Moujahed compound in Bosnia.

The armed robberies were a radical form of fund raising by Caze and his associates to benefit their "Muslim brothers in Algeria." Their high-powered weapons were smuggled home from the Bosnian war.

Caze's organizer was described by one official as "the address book of the professional terrorist."

It contained phone contacts in England, Italy, France and Canada, as well as direct lines to el Maali's Zenica headquarters. It led French authorities to trace travels and phone records and to set up electronic surveillance.

French counterterrorism officials realized they had stumbled upon more than a band of gangsters.

Five years before the sophisticated terrorist assault on the United States, the French were starting to uncover loosely linked violent networks spreading into several countries, all tied together by a common thread: Bosnia.

One of the phone numbers in the dead terrorist's organizer led to a suspect in Canada: Fateh Kamel, 41, who ran a small trinkets shop in Montreal.

Kamel also was a confidant of el Maali. Kamel had gone to Bosnia early in the war, suffered a shrapnel wound in one leg and been treated at the El Moujahed hospital by Caze, the young medic.

After the Dayton accord, French police say, Kamel became deeply involved in terrorist logistics. During the same period, Kamel assisted other North African extremists relocating to Canada, exploiting the country's lax immigration laws and Quebec's eagerness for French-speaking immigrants such as Algerians.

According to French investigators, Kamel was the leader of a terrorist cell in Montreal. Other members included Ressam, Atmani and a third roommate, Mustafa Labsi.

Like Kamel, Atmani had served in Bosnia and was close to el Maali.

Later, authorities believe, the three roommates went to Afghanistan to train for a terrorist attack on the United States. They returned to the West after learning their target would be Los Angeles International Airport. The conspiracy was interrupted when Atmani was deported from Canada to Bosnia.

When Ressam, traveling alone, was captured at the border in Washington state with explosives in his rental car, U.S. officials tried to track down his former roommate Atmani.

Atmani was part of the hard-core terrorist group noted in the secret State Department report. He remained beyond the reach of international extradition until this year, when he was arrested and turned over to France by Bosnia's new coalition government. He awaits sentencing on terrorism charges.

Kamel, the alleged ringleader of the group, was arrested in Jordan and extradited to France, where he is in prison on a terrorism conviction.

Ressam and Labsi have been jailed. All of the members of the former Montreal cell have been convicted of being operatives in a terrorist network that originated in Bosnia.

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