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Heeding the Call

Out of the blue, a near-stranger phones to warn of an imminent terrorist attack. What's your next move?

By Alan Huffman
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page W26

I heard the first message on my cell phone as I was driving home from dinner with a friend. It was from a guy named Peter, a Dutch tour guide whom I had met more than three years before in the Moroccan desert -- a random encounter that had lasted perhaps an hour, over a couple of beers at an auberge in remote Todra Gorge. My first thought was: How did Peter get my cell number, and why was he calling me now?

When I got home, there were two more messages from Peter on my answering machine, the first reminding me about our meeting at Todra Gorge and the second saying: "Please listen to me. I want to speak to a journalist because something is going to happen very bad."

It was nighttime May 24 in Bolton, Miss., where I live, about 4 a.m. in Amsterdam, Peter's home. When I called the number Peter had left, he answered immediately. His voice sounded agitated. "Alan, there's going to be something very, very bad, even more than happened in New York a few days, I mean a few years ago," he said. His English seemed to be failing him, and he said he would call back on a different line.

During two follow-up calls that night, in language that was at times maddeningly cryptic, Peter warned of a planned terrorist attack in New Orleans that would take place within the next three weeks. "It's going to be much worse than 9/11," he said. He claimed that instead of being a tour guide, he actually worked for CIS, a private Dutch ship inspection agency, but he had recently quit his post after agency officials refused to act upon his New Orleans tip, which he said originated from a terrorist cell operating in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. He said he had contacted me because I was the only American journalist he knew. He knew that I had written for newspapers and magazines and that I was working on a nonfiction book.

I had no idea what to make of Peter's warning. I couldn't help thinking of the deluded guy who once repeatedly called a reporter I knew, insisting that the reporter come over to his house "to see the pony that Reagan left in my yard." But I felt obliged to pass the information along to someone, so I called the local sheriff, Malcolm McMillan, that same night and told him what Peter had said. "What would you do with this kind of information?" I asked McMillan. He said he would have someone call me, although he wasn't sure who it would be.

While I was waiting for the sheriff's call, Peter called again. This time he went into greater detail. He said he was "100,000 percent sure" that something would happen in Louisiana. I asked why he had not passed the tip along to authorities in the United States, and he said: "I don't want any part of the system. I'm just going down under . . . I can disappear . . ." I could hear another man's voice in the background. Peter said he was packing his bags, that he planned to "go over to the other side." I asked if he meant to the terrorist side, and he said, "No. You must know what I mean." When I said I did not, he repeated: "I will be on the other side. Don't see the other side as the side which is aggressing you. See the other side when your foot is down, it will be on my foot." Then he added, "Maybe you will hear from me next week, or maybe you will never hear from me again."

The next time the phone rang it was Keith Moses, an agent with the Jackson, Miss., office of the FBI, who listened to my account, asked a few questions and then said he would call back the next day. The investigation had begun.

The FBI gets countless tips, and sorting truth from lies and fever dreams is a gargantuan task. People tend to see goblins everywhere these days, and not without some justification. Terrorists sometimes take advantage of this widening paranoia by leaking erroneous information to confuse intelligence agencies and cause them to waste manpower -- a kind of terrorist "noise." I had no idea how Peter's call might fit into the mix, if he really worked for CIS, if he was delusional, or if he was perhaps a terrorist operative himself, trying to manipulate me and whomever else I might infect with his story. Anything seemed possible. But this much was clear from the tenor of Moses's questions: Peter's warning had assumed a life of its own. In the coming days, it would throw open a window upon a strange, murky world of threats and counterthreats -- a world that we will likely inhabit for the rest of our lives, yet now know very little about.

ABOVE THE TERRACE OF THE AUBERGE TOMBOUCTOU, the sky was so bright with stars that I could make out the faces of the camels tethered to palm trees 100 feet away. It was September 2000. A couple of local guys played nomad drums in the lamplight, as much for themselves as for the guests, who included me, my friend Josh Zimmer and a boisterous group of German tourists and their Dutch guide, Peter.

This is my first memory of Peter: As an annoying intrusion, a man who took advantage of a break in the drummers' performance to lead his German charges in an off-key, beer-hall rendition of "American Pie." Other bad American pop tunes followed. I made a mental note to try to expunge the group from my memory of the place, a small Moroccan oasis known as Merzouga.

As Josh and I sat on the terrace that night, the drumming of the local musicians was so strong that it resonated through our chests, rhythmic and hypnotic. The Auberge Tombouctou, an inn set against a backdrop of orange dunes that are the tallest in Morocco, is a popular stop for trekkers getting their first taste of the Sahara Desert. The Algerian desert has never been a hospitable place but was then, and still is now, truly off-limits because of internal and international political disputes and a dangerous proliferation of machete-wielding bandits and rebels with guns and four-wheel-drives. Merzouga, which was once a stop for caravans, is hemmed in and subsists primarily on a few small herds of camels and goats, a rug shop belonging to a gregarious and photogenic merchant named Brahim Karaoui, and the inns and guide services used by trekkers and the occasional movie crew.

Aside from a few satellite phones and electric generators, Merzouga was remote and exotic. The staff of the Tombouctou managed to provide an environment that was seductive to such people as were gathered on the terrace on that particular night. The drummers got to play their traditional music and make a little money by selling cassettes. Because of the tourists, they felt less compelled to move to Casablanca or Tangier in search of jobs.

Although we did not know it then, everything would change the following year. Ironically, the drummers, the staff of the Tombouctou and Brahim would begin to lose their hold on their gainful traditional life because of the actions of fundamentalists bent on eradicating modernism from the Islamic world. On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States would cause the tourism economies of Morocco and many other Muslim countries to sharply decline -- a side effect of fearpartly by terrorist design.

Tourist-dependent Islamic countries are inevitably more secular and Western-friendly, and terrorists are aware that by undermining those economies, the governments are made vulnerable. For a millennium, trade has brought an endless parade of outsiders across Morocco's borders, and, as a result people tend to be tolerant of, and in many cases attracted to, cultural differences. It is not unusual to meet people, such as Brahim Karaoui, who speak several languages.

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