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Context of 'After April 2001: Italian Authorities Uncover Extremists’ Route to Afghanistan'

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US, Italian, and Belgian authorities learn more about extremist networks in Europe by monitoring operatives connected to a cell of radicals centered on the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, some members of which appear to have foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000 and March 2001). A man named Tarek Maaroufi, who is under surveillance in Belgium, arrives in Milan and calls another extremist known as Sami Ben Khemais, whose phone is being monitored by Italian authorities and who collects Maaroufi from the airport. Around the same time US intelligence notifies the Italians that Ben Khemais is to be joining three bin Laden-related individuals in Italy and that there are vague plans to attack US targets there. The warning signs of an attack mount, and the US embassy in Rome is even closed for a day. Ben Khemais travels to Spain, where he is monitored by the local authorities and links up with other Islamic extremists, but is arrested along with four others when he returns to Italy. Maaroufi is also arrested. According to the Italians, they had plotted an attack in Strasbourg around Christmas 2000, together with a German cell that is also arrested (see December 25-26, 2000). [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001]

Entity Tags: Sami Ben Khemais, Tarek Maaroufi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman.Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman. [Source: US Defense Department]Italian intelligence successfully wiretaps an al-Qaeda cell in Milan, Italy, starting in late 1999. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002] In a wiretapped conversation from this day, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, a section chief in Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO - roughly the equivalent to the FBI in the US) traveling on a diplomatic passport (see Spring-Summer 1998), talks about a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft and the sky. The conversation takes place in a car on the way to a terrorist summit near Bologna (see August 12, 2000 and Shortly After), and the person Abdulrahman talks to is Mahmoud Es Sayed, a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000). There are several significant aspects to the conversation:
bullet Abdulrahman makes comments indicating he has foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He says that he is “studying airlines,” comments, “Our focus is only on the air,” and tells Es Sayed to remember the words “above the head.” He also says that next time they meet he hopes to bring Es Sayed “a window or piece of the airplane,” and that the security on Alitalia and at Rome airport is poor. The name of the operation is given as “Jihadia,” and Abdulrahman says, “the big blow will come from the other country: one of those blows no one can ever forget.” He adds: “[It is] moving from south to north, from east to west: whoever created this plan is crazy, but he’s also a genius. It will leave them speechless.” He also says: “We can fight any power using candles and airplanes: they will not be able to stop us with even their most powerful weapons. We must hit them. And keep your head up.… Remember, the danger in the airports.… If it happens the newspapers from all over the world will write about it.”
bullet Es Sayed remarks, “I know brothers who went to America with the trick of the wedding publications.” The phrase “Big wedding” is sometimes used by al-Qaeda as code for a bombing or attack, including 9/11 (see November 30, 1999 and Late Summer 2001), so, taken together with Abdulrahman’s remarks, this indicates an unconventional attack in the US using aircraft;
bullet The two discuss training camps in Yemen, which are “proceeding on a world scale.” They also mention youth in Italy, and presumably the youth are training;
bullet Es Sayed says, “my dream is building an Islamic state,” and Abdulrahman replies that this is possible because the Yemeni government is weak and “sooner or later we will dominate it;”
bullet Es Sayed asks after a person named Ayman, evidently al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri;
bullet Abdulrahman twice mentions the name of Abdul Mejid, apparently a reference to Abdul Mejid al-Zindani, a radical leader in Yemen and associate of Osama bin Laden (see January-August 1998);
bullet Es Sayed makes the cryptic comment, “One must be cautious, like in Iran; not a single photo.”
Beginning in October 2000, FBI experts will help Italian police analyze the intercepts and warnings. Related conversations are overheard early the next year (see January 24, 2001 and February 2001). Neither Italy nor the FBI will fully understand their meaning until after 9/11, but apparently the Italians will understand enough to give the US an attack warning in March 2001 (see March 2001). After 9/11, this conversation and others like it will cause US intelligence to think there may be a link between the 9/11 plot and Yemen’s PSO. [Los Angeles Times, 5/29/2002; Guardian, 5/30/2002; Washington Post, 5/31/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002; Vidino, 2006, pp. 224-5] Author Lorenzo Vidino will later comment: “The chilling conversation alarmed officials before 9/11, but it took on a completely different resonance after the attacks had taken place. [Abdulrahman], who had close connections to the highest ranks of al-Qaeda, likely knew about the plan in advance and had told Es Sayed about it.” [Vidino, 2006, pp. 226]

Entity Tags: Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Mahmoud Es Sayed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

German police foil an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the central square in Strasbourg, France. The plot is foiled when German police arrest two Iraqis, a Frenchman, and an Algerian in Frankfurt on December 25 and 26. The men are discovered with a map of Strasbourg and a video showing the market. The plot was to bomb the busy square in front of the city’s main cathedral on New Year’s Eve, just days after the arrests. A French prosecutor will later say the bombing “was avoided by a hair.” The four men will be convicted in Germany in 2003 to prison terms of ten to 12 years for their roles in the plot. France will later sentence ten Islamic militants to prison terms of one to ten years. One of those convicted to a ten year sentence in France is Mohamed Bensakria, who is considered to be a key figure in al-Qaeda’s European network. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001; Associated Press, 12/16/2004]

Entity Tags: Mohamed Bensakria, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Italian government gives the US information about possible attacks based on apartment wiretaps in the Italian city of Milan. [Fox News, 5/17/2002] Presumably, the information includes a discussion between two al-Qaeda agents talking about a “very, very secret” plan to forge documents “for the brothers who are going to the United States” (see January 24, 2001). The warning may also mention a wiretap the previous August involving one of the same people, who discussed a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft (see August 12, 2000) and another of his monitored conversations in which he discusses travel by al-Qaeda operatives to the US (see February 2001).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Following the arrest of extremists based around Milan, Italy, in April 2001 (see 2000-April 2001 and Early 2000-2001), local authorities begin to investigate associates of the arrested men. They find that when the group wants to send people to training camps in Afghanistan, this is arranged through two people based at the Islamic Cultural Institute, a well-known radical mosque in Milan. The two men who take care of the arrangements are Abdelhalim Remadna, an Algerian secretary of the mosque’s imam, and a Moroccan named Yassin Chekkouri, both of whom live inside the mosque and almost never leave. After several months of investigation, the authorities find them to be key players in a sophisticated network that is recruiting hundreds of European Muslims for al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. They also find that Remadna communicates frequently with a man named Abu Jaffa (a.k.a. Abu Jafar al-Jaziri), who runs a guesthouse for Algerian militants in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and that the two of them coordinate the trainees’ movements. The group does not use the usual route for trainees through Pakistan, as it is aware Pakistani stamps in a passport indicate an affiliation with al-Qaeda. Instead, volunteers travel through Turkey and Iran. Members of Remadna’s network say that Iran provides “complete cooperation” with this. Remadna provides the volunteers with addresses of hotels and safe houses, where members of the network meet them and help them cross from Iran into Afghanistan. By analyzing phone traffic, the authorities find that militants from at least six European countries rely on Remadna to reach the Afghan camps. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 219-221]

Entity Tags: Yassin Chekkouri, Abu Jaffa, Abdelhalim Remadna, Islamic Cultural Institute

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

At least one member of the al-Qaeda cell in Milan, Italy, apparently uses steganography, a method of encoding messages within computerized photographs. In Milan’s Via Quaranta mosque in Milan, frequented by Egyptian al-Qaeda operative Mahmoud Es Sayed, pictures of the World Trade Center that have steganographic messages in them are saved on a computer. A number of other pictures of world leaders and pornography are also manipulated in a similar manner. These pictures will not be discovered until months after 9/11, but they help suggest that some in the Milan cell had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot. Es Sayed had been wiretapped on previous occasions, and was heard making comments suggesting he had such foreknowledge (see August 12, 2000) (see January 24, 2001). His current whereabouts are unknown. [ABC News, 5/8/2003]

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Mahmoud Es Sayed, World Trade Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

An Italian network of extremists that has been closely monitored by local authorities (see After April 2001) goes silent following 9/11, after which only one message is intercepted. The message, which says, “Congratulations for the USA,” is from an unknown militant to Abdelhalim Remadna, a leading radical based in Milan. Remadna is arrested on November 12 as he attempts to flee Italy. One of his associates, Yassin Chekkouri, is arrested on the same day. Remadna will be sentenced to eight years in prison, whereas Chekkouri will receive four. Mahmoud Es Sayed, one of their associates who apparently had some foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000 and September 4, 2001), escapes Italy some time in October, but is apparently killed at the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 227-30]

Entity Tags: Abdelhalim Remadna, Yassin Chekkouri, Mahmoud Es Sayed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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