by Lorenzo Vidino and Erick Stakelbeck
Wall Street Journal Europe
August 7, 2003
Legal obstacles are seriously limiting the ability of global authorities to prosecute suspected terrorists. Data from a Dutch case this year reveals that, unless something is done soon, the war on terrorism will run against a legal wall.
In May, a Rotterdam court acquitted 12 men accused of providing material support to an international terrorist organization. The 12 are said to be members of the GSPC, an Islamic extremist group with close ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Dutch prosecutors had accused the men -- whom they called "the Dutch branch of al Qaeda" -- of selling and smuggling large quantities of drugs, then using the profits to provide support to fellow members of the GSPC network. According to the indictment, the men also provided safe haven and false documents to other extremists and recruited and indoctrinated young Muslims in the Netherlands, preparing them for jihad against the West.
Despite all this, a Rotterdam judge ruled that most of the evidence presented against the men was inadmissible in court. The Dutch legal system requires that police conduct their own investigation. Information gathered by intelligence agencies can be used as a basis for this investigation, but not as evidence in a trial. Dutch prosecutors were extremely disappointed by the ruling.
Prior to their arrest, the 12 men used to congregate at Eindhoven's al Furquan mosque, a facility notorious for its radical activities. For years, the al Furquan mosque hosted seminars on Islamic law organized by the al Waqf al Islami Foundation, a well-funded Saudi-based organization. These courses, characterized by the extreme anti-Western views expressed, were attended by hundreds of Islamic radicals from across Europe, including some of the planners of the 9/11 attacks. According to Dutch intelligence sources, Mounir Motassadeq, convicted last February for his role in the infamous Hamburg cell, received funding at the al Furqan mosque.
The purported leader of the 12 is Kassim al Ali (aka Abu Bilal), a 28-year-old Iraqi Shiite who also frequented Furquan. Al Ali arrived in Holland in 1997 and immediately asked for political asylum. But after discovering that Al Ali had previously attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to apply for asylum in Germany using the pseudonym "Talal Ala," Dutch police arrested him for carrying a false Iraqi ID. During their subsequent search of Al Ali's Arnhem apartment police found a diving license.
This seemingly insignificant discovery became vitally important when investigators discovered that Al Ali had once attended a diving school in Eindhoven called Safe Diving. More than 50 Muslims attended Safe Diving at the same time, unusual considering that Eindhoven is a relatively small town miles from the sea. Safe Diving owner Bill Megens told the Dutch newspaper Rotterdams Dagblad that most of the Muslim students wore traditional Arabic garments and had long beards. Several are well-known to Dutch intelligence as having radical ties. Investigators nicknamed them the "al Qaeda Diving Team."
The potential for both underwater and waterborne terrorist attacks remains a serious concern to law enforcement and intelligence authorities world-wide. In May of 2002 the FBI issued a bulletin warning that "various terrorist elements have sought to develop an offensive scuba diver capability." Manuals about scuba diving have been discovered in an al Qaeda safe house in land-locked Afghanistan. Al Qaeda also already carried out a deadly high-seas attack against the USS Cole in 2000. In addition, in 2002 Moroccan authorities thwarted a strike on British and U.S. ships in Gibraltar, arresting three Saudis. Interestingly, Al Ali's number was found in the telephone book of one of these men, Abdullah M'Sfer Ali al Ghamdi. Al Ali denies knowing al Ghamdi.
During the trial, Al Ali denied knowing the other 50 Muslim men with whom he attended the Safe Diving school. Displaying the arrogance he showed throughout the trial, he said that "It is difficult to introduce yourself underwater." Yet Bill Megens, the owner of Safe Diving, said that Al Ali appeared to be the leader of the group and that on the day the men took pictures together, everybody wanted to have a snapshot taken with Al Ali.
Still others among the 12 have ties that are worth investigating further. The Eindhoven mosque became known to the public when two young Moroccans that used to worship there were killed in Kashmir while fighting the Indian Army in January 2002. Intelligence gathered shows that some of the 12 knew these two Moroccans intimately. One of them, Anwar al Masrati, owned a photograph of one of the deceased youths and admitted having taught him Arabic and the Quran. Zouhair Tetouani, another member of the 12, was taped while telling one of his friends some unpublished details about the death of the two Moroccans. Mr. Tetouani's two e-mail addresses include the phrases "Preparing for Jihad" and "Dreamer of Paradise." Mr. Tetouani, like many of the 12, made no attempt to hide his allegiance to the jihadist cause.
This is a distressing example of the limitations placed on Dutch authorities in fighting and preventing terrorism, as intelligence agencies' efforts are all too often thwarted by liberal courts and inadequate laws. Another instance occurred last December, when a Rotterdam court acquitted four men accused of planning a suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The Dutch magistrates involved in the case declared that there was "no independent investigation by the police." To say the least, a greater sense of urgency among the Dutch in the face of the imminent terrorist threat is paramount to the security not only of the Netherlands, but of nations across the world.
Mr. Vidino is a terrorism analyst and Mr. Stakelbeck is head writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism think tank.