Trial of French Islamic Radical Sheds Light on Converts' Role

Lionel Dumont, a convert to Islam, being escorted into court in Douai, France. He drew a 30-year sentence for his role in a criminal gang that planned to bomb a gathering of the Group of Seven industrial nations in France in 1996.
Lionel Dumont, a convert to Islam, being escorted into court in Douai, France. He drew a 30-year sentence for his role in a criminal gang that planned to bomb a gathering of the Group of Seven industrial nations in France in 1996. (By Pascal Rossignol -- Reuters)

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 1, 2006

DOUAI, France -- Despite his history as a convicted killer and radical Islamic fighter, Lionel Dumont had a real knack for charming the ladies.

Flashing a tender smile and soft brown eyes, the former French Catholic schoolboy seduced women in many parts of the world, using them as unwitting accomplices as he dodged arrest warrants and met clandestinely with Islamic radicals in at least 10 countries.

Two female German tourists whom he wooed separately on the beaches of Thailand served as cover for his travels as he secretly developed plots to transfer weapons and launder money, according to court testimony and European terrorism investigators.

At Dumont's trial in this northern French city in December, both women testified that they still could not believe their smooth-cheeked Romeo was an Islamic radical, even after they learned he was arrested two years ago in Munich in an international counterterrorism operation. "He's open and warm," said Celia dos Santos, 37, a travel agent who married Dumont, now 34, in a ceremony in Malaysia and brought him home to meet relatives in Germany and Portugal. "I would never think that he was involved in a terrorist act."

European counterterrorism officials and experts say Dumont is a prime example of how al Qaeda and other radical groups are drawing heavily on Islamic converts, who are increasingly taking on leadership roles in plotting strategy and launching attacks.

After converting to Islam in 1991, according to investigators, Dumont fought in Bosnia, was involved in a plot to bomb a gathering of leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations in France in 1996 and spent years raising money and organizing cells in Europe and Asia.

Converts are prized by radical Islamic groups because they can usually operate freely in Europe, Asia and North America without arousing the suspicion of police. They are also often eager to accept dangerous assignments as a way to prove their devotion, experts said.

"What is new is that with al Qaeda, converts are now considered full members," said Olivier Roy, research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and an authority on Islamic radicalism. "For al Qaeda, converts are not just tools to get past security. It's a way for them to become a global movement. In just about every al Qaeda cell over the past eight years, we have seen converts. It's structural, not just accidental."

Many converts have become trusted operatives at the highest levels of al Qaeda. Christian Ganczarski, a Polish-born German who trained in Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden, was arrested in Paris in June 2003. Investigators said he was in direct contact with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, organizer of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and helped plan at least two attacks in Africa.

Dhiren Barot, a British citizen and alleged ringleader of a scheme uncovered in 2004 to attack financial targets in New York and Washington with weapons of mass destruction, was born to Hindu parents but converted to Islam at age 20. U.S. investigators say Barot took orders from Abu Feraj Libi, a high-ranking al Qaeda planner captured in Pakistan last year.

Other converts who allegedly reported to the top tier of al Qaeda include Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, and Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian-born resident of London, both of whom are accused by Pentagon officials of planning "dirty bomb" attacks and other plots against the United States. Richard Reid, convicted of trying to blow up an American Airlines jet in December 2001 with explosives stuffed in his shoes, is another convert who was assigned his mission by top al Qaeda leaders.

Converts are still commonly recruited as foot soldiers as well. On Nov. 9, Muriel Degauque, a 38-year-old Belgian and former Catholic, achieved the distinction of becoming the first female Muslim suicide bomber from Europe when she attacked a U.S. patrol in Iraq, wounding one soldier and killing herself, according to Belgian officials.


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