REGGIO EMILIA, Italy -- To Italian law enforcement officials, Mohammed Daki, a Moroccan expatriate, former engineering student and mosque preacher, was a dangerous terrorist who mingled with 9/11 plotters in Germany and, from a base in Italy, recruited suicide bombers for attacks in Iraq.
But Daki, who flashes quick smiles and favors brown suede shoes, says he is just a victim of a bizarre series of coincidences. "Who me, a terrorist?" Daki said in a recent interview. "I haven't done anything. I just met some people at the wrong time. I'm clean."
In a high-profile case, Mohammed Daki, who Italian officials believed to be a terrorist, was absolved of recruiting militants to fight in Iraq. "I haven't done anything. I just met some people at the wrong time. I'm clean," he said.
(Antonio Calanni -- AP)
His odyssey is one of the strangest among the scores of terrorism suspects' tales across Europe and the United States.
European law enforcement officials say members of suspected terrorist cells roam freely across a continent of open borders and find refuge among the masses of Arab, African and Middle Eastern migrants. They communicate by cell phone, computer, personal courier and through conversations at mosques and Islamic social centers sympathetic to radicals. When a suspect is arrested, making a case in court is often difficult because of the compartmentalized nature of underground movements. For example, a person who provides a false passport customarily does not know the activities of the person he delivers it to, according to Italian intelligence officials.
Despite the dogged efforts of investigators and magistrates, convictions have been rare -- especially in Italy, where charges against several Muslim foreigners arising from alleged plots, including a plan to poison the water supply at the U.S. Embassy in Rome and one to blow up a church in Bologna, either were dropped or resulted in convictions on minor charges that ended with the suspects being quickly freed.
Daki's case is unusual because of his sudden high profile in Italy. He proclaimed his innocence not only in court but on television, and his lean face has appeared in dozens of newspapers. Currently, he is fighting expulsion to Morocco, where he fears he will be jailed.
The verdict in his case caused a national uproar. On Jan. 24, a judge in Milan absolved Daki and two other defendants, Bouyahia Maher and Ali Ben Sassi Toumi, of charges that they had recruited and arranged trips for radical Muslim militants from Europe to Iraq by way of Syria. The three had engaged in recruitment, the judge concluded, but the men they sent to Iraq were guerrillas and not terrorists, which she defined as protagonists who carry out "indiscriminate acts against civilians." Therefore, under Italian law, they had done nothing wrong.
"It has not been proven that these paramilitary structures provided concrete programs with targets exceeding guerrilla activities," Judge Clementina Forleo ruled. She transferred two other detainees, Drissi Noureddine and Kamel Hamraoui, to a court in Brescia on jurisdictional grounds.
Forleo did convict Daki, Maher and Toumi of providing false documents to migrants. Since Daki had already served 22 months in jail following his arrest in 2003, he was released immediately. Maher and Toumi have seven months left to serve.
Government officials denounced the judgment as ludicrous, given the number of attacks on civilians in Iraq, many of them attributed to foreign guerrillas under the command of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgent who leads the group al Qaeda in Iraq. Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini assailed the ruling as "a shameless distortion of a reality." Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu called Daki "dangerous" and urged that he be deported to Morocco. "I would expel him one hundred times over," Pisanu said.
The trial in Milan was the latest episode in Daki's saga. He once shared a mailing address in Hamburg with Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected member of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and of the Hamburg cell that planned and carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Binalshibh was captured in 2003 in Pakistan and is being held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
German authorities questioned Daki three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks but released him.
After the German interrogation, he traveled to Italy and surfaced again in early 2003 in Reggio Emilia, a quiet town in the north-central part of the country.
According to Italian investigators and Daki, he received a phone call from Abderrazak Mahdjoub, an Algerian militant and suspected al Qaeda organizer based in Germany who asked him to find shelter for some arriving migrants. Among them was Ciise Maxamad Cabbdullah, also known as "the Somali," who Italian investigators said worked for Zarqawi and also belonged to Ansar al-Islam. Ansar is an armed radical Islamic group based in Iraq that has provided logistics to foreigners fighting the American occupation and the Iraqi government, U.S. officials say. Daki put Cabbdullah up at a house he shared with four other immigrants.
Ten days before picking up Daki, Italian investigators arrested Cabbdullah and two cohorts. They recorded them as saying that the Italians were "dogs" and servants of the Americans and promising some unspecified "beautiful" news.
Cabbdullah and Mahdjoub are on trial in Italy, accused of having links with international terrorism.
Daki said his contact with people who would later become criminal suspects was purely coincidental. Daki said he was trying to be nice. He said he met Binalshibh, a Yemeni, at a mosque in Hamburg where Daki was a preacher. Binalshibh came up to him and shook his hand after a prayer service and asked for a temporary address where he could have his mail sent, Daki said. Daki also knew Mahdjoub from Hamburg, where Mahdjoub had lived since 1991. Daki said he didn't think of asking either man what he was up to.
"There are lots of immigrants who need help one way or another," he said. "I didn't think anything of letting Ramzi use my address." As for Mahdjoub and the Somali, Daki said: "In our tradition, you must offer hospitality to those in need. It is important to help your brothers. Abderrazak asked me to find him a place. I never met the Somali before. I had to ask Abderrazak what he looked like."
In any event, the verdict has left Daki, 38, in an uncomfortable limbo. He wants his name cleared altogether, not just on a technicality. Free on the streets of Reggio Emilia, he is being guarded by a pair of burly policemen against the possibility that someone from the ranks of militants, thinking he is a turncoat, might try to kill him. The police are from Digos, the Italian anti-organized crime unit responsible for investigating Daki in the first place. He has to register at Reggio Emilia police headquarters twice a day. "Despite everything, I want to stay right here," he said. "If I go to Morocco, I'll be going to my grave. They could take me off to Guantanamo. I would disappear for life."
Daki said he had come to Italy hoping to find a job. After police arrested Cabbdullah, Daki's roommates in Reggio Emilia told him to leave because he was causing trouble. Daki then went to police headquarters to ask that officials there provide him with new housing. "I said, 'You created the problem, you solve it,' " Daki recalled. The police arrested him instead.
Daki is currently living with an Italian resident of Reggio Emilia who is an acquaintance of his attorney, Vainer Burani. Daki says he will not be providing hospitality to any more wayfarers. "Enough is enough. I have paid a heavy price for nothing," he said.