The phones at city hall began ringing nonstop one morning last year when several masked figures were spotted walking through the cobbled streets of this pastoral town. A small panic erupted when one of the figures, covered head to ankle in black fabric, appeared at a school and scared children to tears. It turned out the people were not hooded criminals, but six female residents of Maaseik who were displaying their Muslim piety by wearing burqas , garments that veiled their faces, including their eyes. After calm was restored, a displeased Mayor Jan Creemers summoned the women to his office.
“I said, ‘Ladies, you can be dressed all in Armani black for all I care, but please do not cover your faces,’ ” Creemers recalled. “I tried to talk to them about it, but it was impossible. They said, ‘We are the only true believers of the Koran.’ “
What the city elders did not know at the time was that the women came from households in which several men had embraced radical Islam and joined a terrorist network that was setting up sleeper cells across Europe, according to Belgian federal prosecutors and court documents from Italy, Spain and France.
Over the next nine months, Belgian federal police arrested five men in Maaseik, a town of 24,000 people tucked in the northeast corner of Belgium. Each was charged with membership in a terrorist organization, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a fast-growing network known by its French initials, GICM.
With each arrest, investigators uncovered fresh evidence that placed small-town Maaseik at the center of a terrorist network stretching across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The town had served as a haven for suspects in the Madrid train explosions that killed 191 people in March 2004, for instance, as well as an important meeting place for the GICM’s European leadership.
The Belgian investigation underscores the challenges that authorities in Europe face in tracking down sleeper cells and in sorting vaguely suspicious behavior from imminent danger. Police have made scores of arrests in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and Amsterdam in the past two years to disrupt what were described as terrorist plots, although in many cases it remains unclear whether the threats were overstated or false alarms.
The problem has become more acute since the attacks in Madrid and the July 7 subway and bus bombings in London, with many intelligence officials predicting that Islamic radicals will inevitably strike again on the continent.
In Brussels, 13 people, including a group from Maaseik, appeared in court this month on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and providing logistical support to the Moroccan network.
Despite an investigation that has reached into eight countries, Belgian authorities remain uncertain about the Maaseik cell’s true mission . Police found no bombs, no guns, no blueprints for an attack — just lots of worrisome evidence that the defendants were consorting with terrorism suspects from elsewhere and could have been planning something big.
“We are quite sure that we have proved that they were a logistical support cell,” said a senior official with the Belgian State Security service, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the fact is, the potential was there to do something more serious.”
Maaseik is located in the Belgian province of Limburg, a few miles from the Dutch and German borders. Until recently, its chief claim to fame was as the home town of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, the 15th-century Flemish painters.
About 800 people of Moroccan origin live in the town, many of them the children and grandchildren of immigrants. There is a new mosque in the center of town, but little overt history of Islamic radicalism.
That began to change after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. A handful of men from Maaseik’s Moroccan community started wearing long beards after returning from lengthy trips abroad. Some had been to Afghanistan, where burqas are commonly viewed as appropriate dress for devout Muslim women.
Rumors that radicals were living in Maaseik spread to the offices of the Belgian State Security agency in Brussels, which opened a surveillance operation in the summer of 2002.
At first, intelligence officials suspected the Maaseik group was a ring to smuggle illegal farmworkers into Limburg. The agents dubbed their mission Operation Asparagus, after the vegetable that is widely grown in the region. As months passed, concerns grew.
In November 2003, several key figures in the GICM traveled to Maaseik from Spain and France for a rare meeting, according to Spanish and French court documents.
The GICM’s European cells normally avoided direct contact with each other so that they wouldn’t attract attention from police. But the network had seen several of its leaders arrested in Morocco after terrorist bombings in Casablanca six months earlier and was trying to regroup, the court documents show. Maaseik was emerging as an important hub.
Among those attending the meeting was Lahoussine Haski, a Moroccan with a history of fighting for radical Islamic causes in Chechnya, Afghanistan and other places, according to Belgian investigators and court documents.
Haski arrived in Maaseik holding a false passport, on the run from authorities in Morocco who had issued a warrant for his arrest on terrorism charges. In Saudi Arabia, he was listed by the government as one of the 26 most-wanted terrorist suspects in the kingdom for his alleged role in a series of bombings.
After months of hiding out in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, Haski needed a refuge. Maaseik seemed safe. He married a local woman. Later, she would become one of the half-dozen women who caused a ruckus in town by donning their black burqas.
The GICM was founded in 1997 by Moroccan veterans of the jihad training camps in Afghanistan. Its goal: to take the fight back to Morocco, overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamic republic, according to Moroccan and European counterterrorism officials.
After the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the Moroccans scattered. Many returned to their homeland. Others traveled to Europe, where they blended into the continent’s fast-growing Moroccan immigrant communities.
On May 16, 2003, a dozen suicide bombers recruited by the GICM detonated explosives at several targets in the port city of Casablanca, killing themselves and 33 other people. Less than a year later, the GICM struck again — this time in Madrid, carrying out the first major terrorist attack in Europe since the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Spanish and European intelligence officials acknowledged they had underestimated the presence of the Moroccan radicals. “We didn’t see what was going on in the shadows with the Moroccans,” said Claude Moniquet, director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels research organization. “In Europe, agencies were not paying them that much attention. The idea was that they were just logistical cells.”
In the past two years, police have broken up GICM cells in Italy, Belgium, Spain, France and the Netherlands. Moniquet estimated that the GICM has a few hundred committed followers in Europe and North Africa, as well as 1,000 to 2,000 sympathizers.
Some intelligence officials characterize the GICM as a loose alliance of cells that operate independently. Others say there is evidence that the network is more structured and that the sleeper cells bide their time until they receive orders from the central leadership.
In April 2004, French police arrested six alleged GICM members in Paris and charged them with supporting a “terrorist enterprise.” As in Maaseik, however, investigators did not find evidence that a specific plot was in the works.
Moustapha Baouchi, the alleged leader, told French interrogators that the cell raised some money and sporadically kept in touch with counterparts in Italy, Spain, Belgium and Britain. But otherwise it was content to wait, knowing that an assignment would eventually come.
“In effect, we were a group united in jihad,” Baouchi said, according to a transcript of his interrogation. “This jihad could well have taken place in Morocco, or in any other country that we chose to destabilize. Our group was ready because we possessed the military training.”
The Maaseik cell began to unravel in January 2004. Khalid Bouloudo, a pastry chef who was born in the town, was stopped by police across the border in the Netherlands for driving with a broken taillight. After a routine records check, officers discovered he was wanted on a terrorism warrant in Morocco and took him into custody.
The arrest jeopardized the surveillance operation being conducted by Belgian state security officials, who had not notified Maaseik’s leaders of their investigation. After dodging questions from angry residents who wondered how a suspected terrorist could have been in their midst, Belgian federal police rounded up four other GICM suspects in mid-March. But investigators had only a partial grasp of the network’s reach.
In early June 2004, they were tipped off by Italian anti-terrorism police about a Moroccan suspect in Brussels. In wiretapped conversations recorded by the Italians, the man was overheard telling another radical in Milan that he and three friends were ready to carry out suicide attacks in Belgium.
Belgian police responded with several raids and made 15 arrests in what they called Operation Asparagus 2. “We don’t know yet if they are active members of the GICM, of al Qaeda or of another terrorist group,” Glen Audenaert, head of the federal police, said at a news conference at the time. “But that they were preparing an attack is beyond dispute.”
All but one of those suspects was later released, however, and it is unclear what, if anything, they were planning.
More arrests followed. In July 2004, Belgian police nabbed Lahoussine Haski, the most-wanted suspect in Saudi Arabia, in Maaseik after he returned from a trip to Syria and Turkey. Two months later, they arrested another Maaseik man and charged him with membership in the GICM.
In December, Spanish police arrested Haski’s brother, Hassan Haski, in the Canary Islands and charged him with trying to set up yet another GICM cell to launch attacks on the Spanish mainland. Investigators later concluded that Hassan Haski had visited Maaseik on six or seven occasions. Spanish court documents describe him as “one of the most important current leaders” of the network.
Christophe Marchand, an attorney for Lahoussine Haski, said his client was innocent. He said the evidence against Haski was based largely on coerced interrogations of GICM suspects in Morocco and France. “There was a lot of pressure put on these people,” he said. “It’s hard to know where all this information is coming from.”
In Maaseik, residents still find it hard to believe that their town served as a hub for an international terrorist network. In an attempt to contain extremism, the town passed a law last year that bans anyone from wearing a burqa. The fine: 125 euros, or about $150.
Five of the six Maaseik women who kicked off the burqa controversy have agreed to obey the ordinance. The only holdout: Samira Haski, wife of one of the GICM defendants and sister of another. She is challenging the measure in court, according to Mayor Creemers.
“Sometimes, I see her on the street, still wearing it,” he said. “She sees me, and she runs away.”