Hate Club: Al-Qaeda's Web of Terror

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AFP / Getty Images

Osama Bin Laden (C), Ayman Al-Zawahiri (L), a physician and the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Muhammad Atef (R), who has been indicted in the US for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya are seen in this file photo obtained October 2, 2001 by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

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But al-Siri's case demonstrates the oddities of the international legal system. He is in Britain on asylum from Egypt, where he was sentenced to death for the attempted murder of the Prime Minister in 1993, a charge he denies. "That was a military court," he told Time before his arrest. "I'm a civilian." Governments across Western Europe, their feet held to the fire by strong civil-liberties groups, have been protective of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. And while the European Union has demolished barriers to the movement of goods and people, its 15 nations have been slow to develop common institutions of criminal justice and investigation. For Atta and his cell of alleged conspirators in Hamburg, the characteristics of modern European life were a godsend. In addition to the hijackers known to have lived there, other men alleged to be part of the Hamburg cell have had arrest warrants issued for them: Said Bahaji, Zakariya Essabar and Ramzi Binalshibh. German officials believe that last spring both Essabar and Binalshibh tried to get to the U.S. to take flying lessons. The three almost certainly arrived in Pakistan from Germany on Sept. 4 and have since gone to ground — possibly in Afghanistan.

Hamburg was an ideal long-term base; 1 in 7 of the city's population is foreign, as is 1 in 5 of the students at Atta's college. (Foreign students pay no tuition in Germany.) Atta and his friends could have stayed as long as they liked — Germany invented the perpetual student — since they had legal residence, could travel freely around the E.U. or leave it for a period, without arousing suspicion. It is hard to think of a way of life that so epitomized the promise of a borderless world and then perverted globalization to such an evil end.

After seven weeks of investigations there is no hard evidence that links the Hamburg cell to any other. There are fragments of a puzzle — Atta made a 10-day trip to Spain from Miami in July that continues to bother investigators, while French sources still think that Moussaoui may be connected to the Hamburg cell — but many pieces are missing.

For example: Was Mohammed Bensakhria, an Algerian arrested in June by Spanish police, bin Laden's key European lieutenant? If so, is there an American equivalent — and has he been picked up in the dragnet after the attacks? Did al-Qaeda's reputed training-camp chief Abu Zubaydah leave Afghanistan before Sept. 11, as European officials believe, and if so, where is he and what is he doing?

On one matter, however, European investigators are clear: there is something truly ruthless about the suspected terrorists they are finding. After six Algerians were picked up in Spain in September, police found videotapes in the apartment of one of the men. One tape showed four Algerian soldiers, with their throats cut, dying in a burning jeep.

For experts in terrorism, such incidents are suggestive. In Egypt in the 1960s, the Islamic ideology Takfir wal Hijra began to win adherents among extremist groups. One of them, the Society of Muslims, was led by Shukri Mustafa, an agricultural engineer. Mustafa denounced other Muslims as unbelievers and preached a "withdrawal" into a purity of the kind practiced by the Prophet Muhammad when he withdrew from Mecca to Medina. The ideology is particularly dangerous because it provides a religious justification for slaughtering not just unbelievers but also those who think of themselves as Muslim. Intensely undemocratic — for to accept the authority of anyone but God would be a blasphemy — Takfir wal Hijra is a sort of Islamic fascism.

European analysts now believe that Takfir thinking has won converts among terrorist groups. Beghal is Takfiri, and Daoudi is thought to be. Roland Jacquard, one of the world's leading scholars on Islamic terrorism, says flatly, "Atta was Takfiri." It is not just soldiers of al-Qaeda who may be following the Takfir line. Mustafa was executed in 1978, but his ideas lived on; the beliefs of al-Zawahiri's Al Jihad were dominated by Takfiri themes. Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, says of Zawahiri, "He is their ideologue now ... His ideas negate the existence of common ground with others."

Bin Laden and al-Qaeda may have learned, by violent experience, to pre-empt and harness the new fanaticism. In late 1995, bin Laden's compound in Khartoum was attacked by gunmen believed to be Takfiri. A Sudanese friend of bin Laden's who questioned the surviving attacker said, "He was like a maniac, more or less like the students in the U.S.A. who shoot other students. They don't have very clear objectives." By the time al-Qaeda had resettled in Afghanistan, ideological training was an integral part of the curriculum, according to a former recruit who went on to bomb the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. Students were asked to learn all about demolition, artillery and light-weapon use, but they were also expected to be familiar with the fatwas of al-Qaeda, including those that called for violence against Muslim rulers who contradicted Islam — a basic Takfiri tenet. French terrorism expert Jacquard describes Takfiri indoctrination this way: "Takfir is like a sect: once you're in, you never get out. The Takfir rely on brainwashing and an extreme regime of discipline to weed out the weak links and ensure loyalty and obedience from those taken as members."

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