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Trial of French Islamic Radical Sheds Light on Converts' Role

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.

In France, which has 5 million Muslims, the most in a European country, authorities have dealt with radical Islamic converts for years but say the problem is becoming worse, fueled in part by a religious and political backlash over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The converts are undeniably the hardest ones," anti-terrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere told the French newspaper Le Figaro in October, a few days after police arrested two converts in a town south of Paris on suspicion of terrorist activity. "The conversions today are more rapid, and their engagement is more radical."

Estimates vary on the number of Islamic converts in the country -- from 30,000 to 100,000 -- but only a small percentage are believed to embrace radicalism. Experts said many of the converts adopt Islam as a way to confront personal problems, such as drug addiction or involvement in crime, but others see it as a political cause akin to the radical left-wing terrorism that took root in Europe in the 1970s.

Pascal Mailhos, director of the French national police intelligence agency, said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper in November that there were about 5,000 Muslims in France who had adopted extremist beliefs. Of those, about 400 are converts, he said.

"The phenomenon is on the rise, and we are very alarmed," Mailhos said. "The process is often very quick and offers these dysfunctional young adults a new way of organizing their lives."

'No Explanation'

Lionel Dumont was 20 years old and living an aimless life in the industrial rust belt of northern France when he decided to renounce his Catholic upbringing and become a Muslim. Friends said he was looking for spiritual reassurance, but during his trial, Dumont brushed aside efforts to explain his decision. "There is no explanation," he testified.

His beliefs deepened in the early 1990s while he performed his obligatory French military service as an armorer and sharpshooter in the army, based in Djibouti and Somalia. On his return to France, he became more active in a mosque in the town of Roubaix, where he met Christopher Caze, a medical student.

Ethnic wars were raging in the Balkans at the time, and Caze, a fellow convert, persuaded Dumont to join him on a mission to Bosnia, where the pair enlisted in an international brigade of Muslim fighters. A charismatic but deeply violent man, Caze made an impression on Dumont and others by playing soccer with the severed heads of Serbs killed in battle, according to French court documents.

Dumont testified that he also traveled to military camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-1990s, although little is known about his time there. Returning to France, he joined a radical group led by Caze known as the "Roubaix gang," which robbed armored cars and attempted a car-bomb attack on a G-7 jobs summit in the city of Lille in March 1996. Most of the gang members, including Caze, were killed in shootouts with police. But Dumont fled to Bosnia.

Escape and Travel

In 1997, he was arrested in the town of Zenica and sentenced to 20 years for fatally shooting a Bosnian police officer at a gas station. Around the same time, he was convicted in absentia in France for his role in the Roubaix gang's activities. Five days before he was scheduled to be extradited to France, he escaped from his jail cell while his guards were watching a European Cup soccer match on television.

At his trial this month, Dumont said he then began extensive international travel, using fake passports to go to Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary. By 2002, he had landed in Asia, where he shuttled among Malaysia, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia.

Dumont said he sold used cars in Japan and Southeast Asia while he was on the run, but he denied being involved with radical causes after the Sept. 11 attacks. "I preferred the paradise beaches of Thailand to Tora Bora," he testified, referring to the mountainous area in Afghanistan where al Qaeda fighters battled U.S. allies.

Asian investigators, however, have said they suspect he was setting up a terrorist cell in Japan, as well as raising and laundering money for radical groups in the region.

While they say there is still much they do not know about his activities, they characterize him as a mid-level planner and recruiter who was able to blend into Asian society as a white-skinned European tourist. They said he used several false passports to avoid international warrants for his arrest issued by France, Bosnia and Interpol, as well as a global order from the U.S. Treasury to freeze his assets.

In 2002, according to authorities in Malaysia, Dumont met twice in that country with a fellow Bosnian war veteran named Andrew Rowe, a British convert of Jamaican descent. Rowe was also a global traveler, visiting Afghanistan, Chechnya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco over a seven-year period, according to investigators. They say they believe he and Dumont were planning a major attack in Europe, perhaps in London.

In August 2003, the pair met again in a hotel in Frankfurt. Dumont was spending time there with his new German wife, who was still unaware of his real identity and background, according to court testimony.

Two months later, Dumont and Rowe reconvened in Frankfurt. By this time, however, Rowe was being followed by British and German investigators. Police had raided his home in London while he was traveling and found instructions on how to fire mortar shells, as well as a code book for transmitting instructions using text messages.

After the rendezvous in Frankfurt, investigators tailed Rowe westward across Europe and arrested him as he tried to board an English Channel tunnel train on the French coast. They reported finding rolled-up socks in his luggage bearing traces of explosive material, including TNT.

At his trial on terrorism charges in London in September, Rowe testified that he went to Frankfurt to receive instructions for the delivery of explosives and weapons from Eastern European sources to Muslim fighters in Chechnya, but he denied being involved in terrorist activities. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

'Brought to Justice'

British investigators said they suspected Rowe and Dumont were in the late stages of planning an attack but said they had been unable to determine the details. "We don't know when, what or where he was going to attack, but the public can be reassured that a violent and dangerous man has been brought to justice," Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism branch, said after Rowe's conviction.

Two months after Rowe's arrest at the French border, German and British investigators tracked down Dumont in Munich and arrested him while he was taking a shower. He has admitted meeting with Rowe but said the Briton was just an acquaintance.

At his trial last month, Dumont said he regretted his involvement with the Roubaix gang and tried to play down his conversion to Islam.

He told jurors he realized his life story read like "a novel," but asked for leniency, saying he didn't want to "rot in jail." He also showed he hadn't lost his romantic touch, blowing a kiss to one of the German women after she testified that she still loved him.

The jury wasn't impressed. On Dec. 16, it convicted him for his role in the armed robberies in France in 1996 and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

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