COPENHAGEN -- 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.
This TV image shows victims of Feb. 1, 2004, suicide bombings in Irbil that killed at least 100. Sweden arrested four men in connection with the attack.
(Kurdsat Via AP Television)
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 that 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 fundraisers 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.