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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 22:53 GMT 23:53 UK
Europe's hunt for al-Qaeda
How closely linked were the 11 September hijackers with other al-Qaeda cells around Europe?
Michael Buchanan

The revelation that the 11 September hijackers had close links with al-Qaeda cells in Europe sparked a hunt for terror suspects across the continent.

One year on and over 800 suspects have been identified, but none convicted. Michael Buchanan reports on the investigators' progress.

The announcement by Germany last week that it was charging a 28-year-old Moroccan, Mounir al-Motassadek, with helping the 11 September hijackers plan their attacks is, on the surface at least, a big breakthrough for European investigators.

Each country has its corresponding terrorism unit, and when they are all called for Islamic jihad they join together and take part

Pedro Rovira, Spanish prosecutor
The federal prosecutor described Mr Motassadek as "a cog without whom the thing would not have worked."

The Moroccan has fiercely denied the allegations and his lawyers said the charges were "thin on evidence".

Only a proper court hearing will of course decide whether Mr Motassadek is guilty or not, but the charges do at least highlight the work European investigators have been doing since 11 September.

University degrees

In Hamburg, home for a while not only to Mr Motassadek but also to a number of the 11 September hijackers, police have introduced a profiling system to try and spot potential militants among the city's large Muslim population.

British European Union passport
False documents is as important as weapons

The deputy head of the city's anti-terrorism unit, Andreas Croll, says the key factors in establishing whether someone is likely to be a militant are "their age, the countries they come from, whether they have secure status in Germany and the subjects they study at university."

The system has thrown up 811 suspects so far, but no convictions.

In Italy, meanwhile, where police have foiled a number of attacks they blame on al-Qaeda, the courts have convicted people for what the authorities say were al-Qaeda related activities.

Earlier this year, four men were sent to prison for producing false documents. The investigations carried out in Italy suggest that producing false identification papers is a major task for al-Qaeda.

Milan's prosecutor of terrorism cases Stephano Dambruoso, says he was surprised by the importance al-Qaeda placed on producing false passports.

"We discovered that for them, the purchasing and finding of false documents was really important, as important as finding weapons and guns," says Mr Dambruoso.

Open borders

What has also become very apparent to investigators is how al-Qaeda uses Europe's internal open borders to organise different parts of their activities in different countries, and then come together for the final operation.

Pedro Rovira, the prosecutor in Spain responsible for trying to convict the country's 15 al-Qaeda suspects, says the way they operate remind him of Europe's premier football tournament, the Champions League.

"That is to say, each country has its corresponding terrorism unit. And when they are all called for Islamic jihad they join together and take part", says Mr Rovira.

Without conviction

The European investigations into al-Qaeda have spanned at least 8 different countries. Millions of dollars have been invested and scores of people have been arrested and questioned.

But the fact remains that since September 11, no-one has been convicted of direct al-Qaeda involvement in Europe.

The authorities undoubtedly know a lot more about the group than they did a year ago.

But with that knowledge has come even more questions, and a gnawing fear that Europe could well be the target of the next major al-Qaeda attack.

Key stories

European probe


See also:

29 Aug 02 | Europe
29 Aug 02 | Media reports
29 Aug 02 | Europe
24 Aug 02 | Americas
25 Apr 02 | Europe
11 Dec 01 | Europe
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