When robbers stole more than $300,000 from an armored car here in 1997, investigators were taken aback by the size and brazenness of the heist. But they really became alarmed when they discovered that one of the culprits had been under surveillance as a suspected Islamic extremist.
That man, Mustapha Darwich Ramadan, was arrested shortly before he planned to flee Copenhagen on a flight to Amman, Jordan, police said. He was convicted of robbery and served 3 1/2 years in prison. After his release in June 2001, Copenhagen police said, he struck again, robbing a money-transfer store of about $15,000. This time, he escaped to either Jordan or Lebanon, police said.
Since then, according to European intelligence officials, Ramadan has surfaced in Iraq as a leader of Ansar al-Islam, a radical group that U.S. officials say has carried out at least 40 suicide bombings and other attacks resulting in more than 1,000 deaths in the war-ravaged country.
Officials say Ansar also operates an extensive underground network that recruits young Muslims across Europe to join the insurgency in Iraq. Intelligence estimates of the numbers sent from Europe by Ansar and other groups vary from 100 to more than 3,000, but there is general agreement that the flow is increasing.
U.S. intelligence officials say most insurgents are Iraqis, but that foreign fighters pose a major threat. Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, CIA Director Porter J. Goss said Islamic extremists were “exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists.”
He expressed concern that fighters who survive the insurgency will establish cells in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.
Since moving to Iraq, Ramadan has operated under the name Abu Mohammed Lubnani, or father of Mohammed the Lebanese, European intelligence officials believe. A Web site run by Islamic radicals reported recently that he had been killed, but the claim has drawn skepticism here on grounds it may be disinformation.
Lubnani, a 40-year-old former Lebanese military officer, developed contacts across Europe during his 14-year stay in Denmark. His story is emblematic of how Ansar, once a small Kurdish group focused solely on local conflicts in northern Iraq, has been able to broaden its mission, casting itself as an international force in Islamic radicalism and expanding into Europe.
In the past two years, authorities have arrested alleged Ansar operatives, smugglers and fund raisers in six European countries. In Italy, anti-terrorism police said they had broken up two Ansar cells that funneled fighters to Iraq via Turkey and Syria.
In Sweden, police arrested four Ansar suspects and are investigating them for allegedly helping to plan twin bombings that killed more than 100 people on Feb. 1, 2004 in the Iraqi city of Irbil.
In December, German police said they broke up a hastily arranged plot by three Ansar members to attack interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during a visit to Berlin. German federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said the cell had “close contact to the highest leadership circles” of Ansar, in which he included Lubnani, describing him as “the deputy leader” of the network in Iraq.
“Ansar is very good — a leading power — in terms of mobilizing followers to fight the Americans in Iraq,” said Guenther Beckstein, interior minister for the German state of Bavaria. “They are especially brutal and they are very good at getting attention worldwide. This in turn enables them to recruit more fanatics.”
Beckstein estimated that between 10 and 50 fighters had left Bavaria to join the insurgency in Iraq. Among them: a 27-year-old Ansar courier from Munich who traveled freely back and forth between Germany and Iraq 20 times before he was caught by Iraqi forces last March.
Ansar was founded by a Kurdish cleric known as Mullah Krekar, who was granted political asylum in Norway more than a decade ago but who traveled back and forth from Europe to northern Iraq to set up military training camps for the group. According to the State Department, Ansar’s goal was to establish an Islamic state in northern Iraq.
In Washington, officials began to view the group as a threat to U.S. interests after seeing evidence that it gave shelter to al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan when U.S. attacks began there in October 2001.
In the early days of the Iraq war, U.S. troops and Kurdish allies swept into Ansar’s enclave in northern Iraq. U.S. officials estimated that 250 to 700 of the group’s fighters were killed.
Since then, Ansar has regrouped and become stronger, with many new recruits coming from outside Iraq. The State Department reported last April that membership levels had rebounded to 700 to 1,000 fighters. Ansar gained a quick foothold in Europe because it tapped into pre-existing networks on the continent, according to a review of arrests of its operatives.
In 2003, Italian police detained a dozen suspected Ansar supporters and accused them of smuggling an estimated 200 Islamic radicals from Europe into Iraq.
A key figure in that cell was Abderrazak Mahdjoub, an Algerian immigrant who had been investigated previously by German and Spanish officials for ties to the al Qaeda cell from Hamburg that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings in the United States.
Mahdjoub and three other Algerian men were arrested in Syria in March 2003, days before the start of the war in Iraq. They were deported to Germany, but it took European investigators several months to realize that the reason the men were in Syria was to set up a pipeline to funnel foreign fighters into Iraq.
According to documents filed at a court in Milan, the cell members had been operating in Italy since at least July 2001, though investigators do not believe that the cell established connections to Ansar until later.
Six of the suspects, including Mahdjoub, are scheduled to go on trial this month in Milan. Indictments accuse them of “sending militants to war zones to sustain terrorist activities” and raising money for Ansar. Last month, a judge threw out terrorism charges filed against three other suspects in the case, saying their actions in Iraq amounted only to guerrilla warfare by a resistance movement, not terrorism
The discovery of the cell in Milan enabled European officials to track down Ansar operatives in several other countries. According to court records, one of the suspects arrested in Italy, a Kurdish immigrant named Mohammed Tahir Hamid, has provided investigators with the names of Ansar members in Norway, Germany, Sweden and Britain.
Search Moves North
Information from the Milan case soon led investigators north to Munich.
On Dec. 3, 2003, German police arrested a 30-year-old Kurdish immigrant at the Munich train station and accused him of smuggling a dozen fighters into Iraq and of helping wounded Ansar members leave the war zone and bringing them clandestinely into Europe to receive medical treatment.
The suspect, Lokman Amin Mohammed, was indicted last year on charges of smuggling more than 20 Iraqis into Europe, most of them before the invasion. He is also charged with belonging to Ansar, which the German government formally listed as a terrorist organization last summer. He is scheduled to go on trial in March.
In one of the smuggling cases, court records allege, Mohammed helped an Ansar bomb expert named Ali Fadhil leave Iraq after he lost his hands in an explosion in September 2003. Mohammed arranged for the man to be smuggled along a circuitous route from Milan to Rome, then to Paris and finally London, where he received medical treatment, records say.
Investigators have been unable to find the bomb maker and it is unclear if he is in Europe.
Mohammed has admitted to investigators that he helped smuggle people from Iraq into Europe, but has denied being a member of Ansar or knowing that any of the illegal immigrants were part of the group, his lawyer said.
“From the first moment on, he said he was not a member of Ansar al-Islam and that there was no political background to his actions,” the lawyer, Nicole Hinz, said in an interview in Munich. “He was smuggling these people for money. There was never any doubt about that.” His purpose was to reunite people with friends and relatives in Europe, Hinz said.
Prior to his arrest, German police wiretapped Mohammed’s phone and listened to dozens of conversations in an attempt to learn more about the Ansar network in Europe. Records show that at least one of the conversations steered the investigation north again, this time to Sweden.
On Nov. 22, 2003, in a tapped phone conversation, Mohammed was asked by a boyhood friend to help smuggle 12 people into Iraq, ostensibly for the purpose of joining Ansar forces there, according to court records. Mohammed didn’t have time to act on the request; he was arrested two weeks later.
The friend, Shahab Shahab, had grown up with him in the Kurdish town Chamchamal. The two left Iraq together for Europe; Shahab went to Sweden.
The conversation led Swedish security police to open an investigation into Shahab. In April 2004, he and three other men were arrested in Stockholm and the southern Swedish city of Malmo on suspicion of engaging in terrorism.
Swedish authorities have accused the four men — three of whom are Iraqi nationals — of having “strong ties” to Ansar and of planning crimes that were “directed at the state of Iraq and were aimed at striking grave terror into a population,” according to arrest warrants filed in Stockholm.
Swedish media have reported that the men are suspected of helping plan the bombings in Irbil last February.
After the arrests, the chief of Sweden’s security police, Klas Bergenstrand, called the risk of terrorism in Sweden “relatively small,” but acknowledged the presence of Ansar operatives in the country.
“There is a high risk that there are people in Sweden who work to prepare terrorist attacks in other countries,” he told Swedish radio.
The arrests were “the first serious sign that we do have these problems,” said Magnus Norell, an analyst for the Swedish Defense Research Council who studies terrorist groups. “Most of what is going on, you don’t see. And that’s the danger. This is a very good part of Europe to operate in. As long as you play it safe and play it cool, you’re home free.”
Shahab was released from jail last month after an appellate judge ruled that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to hold him while they pursued the investigation. Swedish authorities said they wanted to deport him, but were forbidden by law from sending him back to Iraq because he could face the death penalty or political persecution there.
His attorney, Bengt Soederstroem, said Shahab denied “very strongly” belonging to Ansar or playing any role in the Irbil bombings. Two of the other suspects in the case remain in jail. A third suspect, a Swedish citizen originally from Lebanon, was released in September but also remains under investigation.