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Militants Widen Reach as Terror Seeps Out of Iraq

NY Times | May 28, 2007 
MICHAEL MOSS and SOUAD MEKHENNET

When Muhammad al-Darsi got out of prison in Libya last year after serving time for militant activities, he had one goal: killing Americans in Iraq.

A recruiter he found on the Internet arranged to meet him on a bridge in Damascus, Syria. But when he got there, Mr. Darsi, 24, said the recruiter told him he was not needed in Iraq. Instead, he was drafted into the war that is seeping out of Iraq.

A team of militants from Iraq had traveled to Jordan, where they were preparing attacks on Americans and Jews, Mr. Darsi said the recruiter told him. He asked Mr. Darsi to join them and blow himself up in a crowd of tourists at Queen Alia Airport in Amman.

“I agreed,” Mr. Darsi said in a nine-page confession to Jordanian authorities after the plot was broken up.

The Iraq war, which for years has drawn militants from around the world, is beginning to export fighters and the tactics they have honed in the insurgency to neighboring countries and beyond, according to American, European and Middle Eastern government officials and interviews with militant leaders in Lebanon, Jordan and London.

Some of the fighters appear to be leaving as part of the waves of Iraqi refugees crossing borders that government officials acknowledge they struggle to control. But others are dispatched from Iraq for specific missions. In the Jordanian airport plot, the authorities said they believed that the bomb maker flew from Baghdad to prepare the explosives for Mr. Darsi.

Estimating the number of fighters leaving Iraq is at least as difficult as it has been to count foreign militants joining the insurgency. But early signs of an exodus are clear, and officials in the United States and the Middle East say the potential for veterans of the insurgency to spread far beyond Iraq is significant.

Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, general director of the Internal Security Forces in Lebanon, said in a recent interview that “if any country says it is safe from this, they are putting their heads in the sand.”

Last week, the Lebanese Army found itself in a furious battle against a militant group, Fatah al Islam, whose ranks included as many as 50 veterans of the war in Iraq, according to General Rifi. More than 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed fighting the group at a refugee camp near Tripoli.

The army called for outside support. By Friday, the first of eight planeloads of military supplies had arrived from the United States, which called Fatah al Islam “a brutal group of violent extremists.”

The group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, was an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed last summer. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Mr. Abssi confirmed reports that Syrian government forces had killed his son-in-law as he tried crossing into Iraq to collaborate with insurgents.

A Danger to the Region

Militant leaders warn that the situation in Lebanon is indicative of the spread of fighters. “You have 50 fighters from Iraq in Lebanon now, but with good caution I can say there are a hundred times that many, 5,000 or higher, who are just waiting for the right moment to act,” Dr. Mohammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident in Britain who runs the jihadist Internet forum, Tajdeed.net, said in an interview on Friday. “The flow of fighters is already going back and forth, and the fight will be everywhere until the United States is willing to cease and desist.”

There are signs of that traffic in and out of Iraq in other places.

In Saudi Arabia last month, government officials said they had arrested 172 men who had plans to attack oil installations, public officials and military posts, and some of the men appeared to have trained in Iraq.

Officials in Europe have said in interviews that they are trying to monitor small numbers of Muslim men who have returned home after traveling for short periods to Iraq, where they were likely to have fought alongside insurgents.

One of them, an Iraqi-born Dutch citizen, Wesam al-Delaema, was accused by United States prosecutors of making repeated trips to Iraq from his home in the Netherlands to prepare instructional videos on making roadside bombs, charges he denies. He was extradited to the United States in January and charged with conspiring to kill American citizens, possessing a destructive device and teaching the making or use of explosives.

In an April 17 report written for the United States government, Dennis Pluchinsky, a former senior intelligence analyst at the State Department, said battle-hardened militants from Iraq posed a greater threat to the West than extremists who trained in Afghanistan because Iraq had become a laboratory for urban guerrilla tactics.

“There are some operational parallels between the urban terrorist activity in Iraq and the urban environments in Europe and the United States,” Mr. Pluchinsky wrote. “More relevant terrorist skills are transferable from Iraq to Europe than from Afghanistan to Europe,” he went on, citing the use of safe houses, surveillance, bomb making and mortars.

A top American military official who tracks terrorism in Iraq and the surrounding region, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said: “Do I think in the future the jihad will be fueled from the battlefield of Iraq? Yes. More so than the battlefield of Afghanistan.”

Militants in Iraq are turning out instructional videos and electronic newsletters on the Internet that lay out their playbook for a startling array of techniques, from encryption to booby-trapped bombs to surface-to-air missiles, and those manuals are circulating freely in cyberspace.

And tactics common in Iraq are showing up in other parts of the world. In Somalia and Algeria, for example, recent suicide bombings have been accompanied by the release of taped testimonials by the bombers, a longtime terrorist practice embraced by insurgents in Iraq.

Problems in Jordan

It is perhaps not surprising that Jordan, the site of the failed airport plot, would be among the first countries to feel the effect of an expansion of the war beyond Iraq. The countries share a border, and Jordan is an American ally. Mr. Zarqawi, who was Jordanian, is believed to have been behind a failed rocket attack on two United States Navy ships anchored off the coast of Jordan in 2005 and, later that year, suicide bombings at three hotels in Amman that killed 60 people.

Last week, President Bush asserted that in early 2005 Osama bin Laden ordered Mr. Zarqawi, his designate in Iraq, to organize terrorist attacks against the United States and other countries.

Whether the plot against the Amman airport last year was connected to Al Qaeda is not clear. Some of the conspirators who were convicted in Amman in April told Jordanian investigators that Mr. bin Laden's group sponsored their mission, although the investigation did not confirm any link, according to records of the case obtained by The Times.

But the investigation did establish a connection between the people who planned the attack and militants from Iraq. The plot, pieced together from a 130-page record in Jordan's secret security court, along with interviews with intelligence officials and defense attorneys, shows why intelligence officials are concerned about the reverberations from Iraq.

The Iraqi identified by authorities as the organizer of the attack, Youssef al-Abidi, moved freely through Iraq, Syria and Jordan, ferrying cash, explosives and conspirators, court records show. He crossed national boundaries that officials concede they cannot control, and although he was convicted in absentia, he remains at large.

The logistics team included at least one recent refugee from Iraq, a 34-year-old former Iraqi Army soldier named Mohsen al-Wissi. He was among the estimated 1.5 million to 2 million Iraqis now living in Jordan and Syria.

The bomb maker, Saad Fakhri al-Naimi, 40, arrived on a commercial flight from Baghdad to prepare a suicide duffel bag for Mr. Darsi, using eight pounds of plastic explosives hidden in a child's toy.

The airport plot got under way in Zarqa — the birthplace of Mr. Zarqawi — a city north of Amman where community and religious leaders say the growing Islamic conservatism among its mostly Sunni residents has turned hostile toward Shiites as well as the United States.

When the Zarqa police raided a house used by two Iraqis in the plot, they found a computer and 375 CDs filled with anti-Shiite propaganda.

But according to Jordanian prosecutors, Mr. Abidi, the organizer, wanted to focus on resort hotels in Jordan “due to the fact that these hotels are resided in by Americans and Jews.” As part of that goal, the prosecutors said, they selected the Queen Alia Airport in Amman.

During one meeting, Mr. Abidi showed Mr. Naimi, the bomb maker, a black sports bag labeled “Polo World” that contained the explosive PE-4A, which is used by insurgents in Iraq. According to court records, he told Mr. Naimi that he would earn $20,000 for wiring it into a bomb that could be carried in the bag.

They needed someone to set off the bomb at the airport, someone willing to kill himself. That is when they found Muhammad al-Darsi, the militant recently released from prison in Libya.

Disrupting a Plot

In his confession, Mr. Darsi said that he had been jailed in Libya for six years for associating with a militant group there, and that when he got out he wanted to rejoin the fight. He found a recruiter and, at the recruiter's e-mail directions, Mr. Darsi said he flew to Istanbul, then traveled south to Damascus. By prearrangement, he dressed in black pants and a black sweater and met the recruiter on the bridge just after evening prayers.

“I told him I want to join the mujahedeen in Iraq,” Mr. Darsi said in his statement, each page of which bears his signature and thumbprint. Through his lawyer, Mr. Darsi agreed to be interviewed in prison, but Jordanian officials declined to make him available.

Mr. Darsi, in his statement, said the recruiter “told me that he will not send me to Iraq, that he will put me in charge of a military operation inside Jordan.”

Over the next few days, Mr. Darsi says, he was blindfolded and taken to safe houses in Syria where he was prepared for his mission. To maximize civilian deaths, he was told to survey incoming flights and then detonate his bomb after joining a crowd of arriving tourists as they boarded a bus outside the terminal. In his statement he said he was told that the bag of explosives would have buttons “and that by pressing the buttons, the explosion will take place.”

With a Nokia phone and a contact's phone number in hand, Mr. Darsi drove south to Amman in a borrowed car.

Officials at the General Intelligence Department in Jordan had picked up vague references to the planned attack from sources in Syria. But the investigation was complicated by the fact that the plotters were moving between Jordan and Syria, which have strained relations.

American officials have accused the Syrians of being indifferent to the way militants use their country as a gateway to Iraq. In Damascus, Mounir Ali, a Ministry of Information spokesman, conceded that controlling Syria's long border with Iraq was difficult and blamed the Americans for not supplying border-control technology. But he said that Syria, too, was apprehensive about militant attacks. “We are very afraid of this problem created in Iraq,” he said. “The religious problem. The sectarian one. It is going to affect everybody and primarily Syria.”

Although the Jordanians identified the safe houses in Syria used by the airport plotters, they could not raid them. Instead, they broke the case when they picked up the two men in Zarqa and then arrested Mr. Naimi as he arrived from Baghdad, according to court records and interviews with government officials.

Those men, in turn, gave up Mr. Darsi, who was grabbed as he crossed from Syria into Jordan.

The Jordanian Security Court acquitted one man and convicted six others in connection with the airport plot, three of whom remain fugitives, including a Saudi identified as Turki Nasr Abdellah, who is believed to have helped recruit Mr. Darsi.

Mr. Abidi, whose nickname is the Father of Innocence, is believed to still be in Syria.

At the hearing last month, in which he was sentenced to life in prison, Mr. Darsi struck a defiant tone. Although he never made it to Iraq, he said he had pursued his vision of jihad, according to his lawyer, Abdel Rahman al-Majali.

Mr. Darsi stood at the barred wooden defendant's box, shouted “God is great!” and recited verses from the Koran aimed at justifying violent jihad, according to Mr. Majali. Before being led away, Mr. Darsi told the court, “I came here to fight against Zionists and occupiers.”

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