By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 7, 2007
CASABLANCA, Morocco -- On March 6, Moroccan police surrounded a cybercafe here and arrested a fugitive who many people assumed had fled the country or was dead. Saad al-Houssaini, known as "the Chemist" because of his scientific training and bombmaking skills, had vanished four years earlier after he was accused of helping to organize the deadliest terrorist attack in Moroccan history.
It turned out that Houssaini hadn't gone anywhere. Since 2003, according to Moroccan police documents, he had remained underground in Casablanca as he rebuilt a terrorist operative network and recruited fighters to go to Iraq. He also spent time honing his bombmaking techniques, designing explosives belts that investigators believe were used in a string of suicide attacks this spring, including one that targeted the U.S. Consulate in this North African port city.
"The Chemist" provides a vivid example of how veteran members of al-Qaeda's central command have continued to plot major terrorist attacks around the world, particularly in Europe, North Africa and Iraq, despite the capture or deaths of many of the network's top operatives since Sept. 11, 2001.
His long underground career demonstrates the limits of stepped-up anti-terrorism cooperation between governments in the past five years -- Houssaini, now 38, eluded not just Moroccan authorities but intelligence agents from France, Spain and the United States who feared he was involved with sleeper cells in Europe.
British counterterrorism officials say most major terrorist plots in their country in recent years, including the July 7, 2005, public transit bombings in London, can be traced back to al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Investigators suspect that a key sponsor in at least two cases was Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, an al-Qaeda military commander in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq who was captured in December in a CIA operation and is now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has blamed last month's attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow on "people who are associated with al-Qaeda." Although officials have not revealed hard evidence of a connection to the network, British investigators are examining whether the plot had its roots in Iraq.
Security officials are focusing on the role played by Bilal Abdulla, a Sunni Iraqi who was charged Friday with conspiring to cause explosions. He and another man are alleged to have rammed a Jeep Cherokee into the Glasgow Airport terminal. Abdulla earned his medical degree in Baghdad in 2004 and was known for his radical views, as well as his strong verbal support of al-Qaeda operations in Iraq.
"We have seen how al-Qaeda has been able to survive a prolonged multinational assault on its structures, personnel and logistics," Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism branch, said in a recent speech. "It has certainly retained its ability to deliver centrally directed attacks here in the U.K. In case after case, the hand of core al-Qaeda can be clearly seen."
Morocco also continues to keep up its guard. On Friday, it raised its national security alert level to maximum, indicating that a serious terrorist attack was expected imminently, the Interior Ministry announced in a statement. The ministry cited "reliable intelligence information" but gave no details about a specific threat.
Houssaini, the Moroccan, abandoned his graduate studies in chemistry in Spain in the mid-1990s. He went to Afghanistan, where he trained in al-Qaeda camps and consulted with high-ranking members of the group, including deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later become chief of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to documents and interviews.
While there, he helped found an affiliated network known as the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which is blamed for the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid. As operational commander of the group, he was suspected of fashioning the bombs used in coordinated suicide attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 that killed 45 people.
Four years later, suicide bombers struck in Casablanca again, blowing themselves up on three separate occasions in March and April, including the attack on the U.S. Consulate. No bystanders were seriously injured in the attack on the consulate, but the diplomatic post remained closed for nearly two months because of security concerns.
At first, Moroccan authorities described the perpetrators as amateurs who lacked any international connections. But since then, investigators have concluded that the bombers intended to strike hotels, cruise ships and other tourist targets. Houssaini's arrest disrupted the plans and exposed the network, they say.
Police have arrested two other key figures in the network who had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Abdelaziz Benzine, who police believe served as the brains of the network alongside Houssaini, was arrested March 11, hours before the first suicide bombing this spring.
Another collaborator, Abdelaziz Habbouch, was arrested May 28; police suspect him of playing a lead role in the May 2003 Casablanca bombings and helping to recruit fighters for al-Qaeda forces in Iraq.
"It's obvious that many of these people are linked directly to al-Qaeda," said Mohamed Darif, a Moroccan terrorism analyst and political science professor at Hassan II University in Mohammedia. "The police are discovering that these cells were much more advanced than they had thought. This is scary for them, and it should be."
Police said they seized more than 450 pounds of explosives, concocted primarily from ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder, a common al-Qaeda bombmaking recipe.
According to Moroccan police documents, Houssaini began teaching other members of the network, including Benzine and Habbouch, how to manufacture explosives and detonators using techniques he had learned in Afghanistan. He also recorded bombmaking instructions on a computer disk and tested the cells' makeshift explosives, records show.
Houssaini has been charged in Morocco with organizing a criminal enterprise and other terrorism-related activities. But he has not been formally accused of involvement in attacks that took place after his arrest, said his attorney, Tawfiq Mousaif. "The state so far hasn't presented any evidence at all pertaining to the charges," said Mousaif, who otherwise declined to comment on the allegations.Years in Spain
Houssaini was born in Meknes, a north-central Moroccan city with about 500,000 residents. A professor's son, he studied chemistry in college and won a Moroccan government scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Valencia in Spain.
The scholarship, however, paid only a few dollars a month in living expenses. Houssaini was forced to take frequent breaks from his studies and lab work to take odd jobs, said his academic adviser, Francisco F. Perez, a chemistry professor at the university.
"He was a hardworking individual," Perez said in a phone interview. "He would come for a month, then not show up for 10 days because he was selling carpets and junk at street markets, and when he got enough money to get by, he would come back."
When Houssaini arrived in Valencia in December 1992, he was not visibly religious and would occasionally join students or faculty for drinks, Perez recalled. The professor said he noticed a few changes toward the end of Houssaini's time in Spain, however: The student grew a beard and printed out so many religious poems and Koranic verses from a lab computer that he drew a reprimand.
"He was very interested in social justice," Perez said. "He said his country was governed by tyrants. . . . He never said anything bad about Western countries. Quite the opposite -- he envied our political regime here and said he wanted our political regime and democracy to be installed in Morocco."
Houssaini later told Moroccan police interrogators that he became radicalized in Spain after meeting a Tunisian friend who urged him to support Islamic fighters in Afghanistan. Details of the interrogation were first reported in Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a Moroccan news magazine.
"Our principal subjects of discussion were around the jihad," he said, according to a transcript of the interrogation. "He made me understand the importance of religion and faith, providing me with religious books and audiotapes of the great sheiks' speeches."
Houssaini left Valencia University at the end of 1995. He told his professors that he was going home to Morocco for the holy month of Ramadan but never returned. Colleagues said they were surprised because he was close to finishing his degree. In fact, a few months later, his primary research paper -- focusing on the anti-cancer properties of certain chemical compounds -- was accepted for publication by the International Journal of Chemical Kinetics.
But Houssaini hadn't left Valencia. In December 1996, he and two friends were arrested by Spanish police and charged with possessing false travel documents and manuals on how to manufacture explosives. He was released on bail.
A few weeks later, he fled Spain and made his way to Afghanistan.After Afghanistan
Houssaini remained in Afghanistan for four years. In October 2001, after the U.S. military began its bombing campaign against the Taliban, he escaped the country in a Toyota truck with other Moroccan radicals, driving to Iran, according to his interrogation transcript.
After stops in Damascus, Syria, and Ankara, Turkey, he returned with his family to Casablanca in April 2002. He was questioned by police upon his arrival at the airport, but released without charge.
In addition to his efforts to establish domestic cells of bombers over the next few years, Houssaini gradually turned his attention to Iraq. By October 2006, he and other Moroccan radicals had created "many recruitment networks" to send would-be Moroccan suicide bombers and fighters to combat U.S.-led forces there, police documents allege.
The documents identify 18 Moroccans who had been recruited by Houssaini and his allies and who left for Iraq in early 2007. Investigators believe there were many more. Police said Houssaini's network was separate from other Moroccan recruiting pipelines that have sent scores of volunteer fighters to Iraq, including a major ring based in the northern city of Tetouan that was broken up last fall.
Moroccan police said Houssaini collaborated via the Internet with a Moroccan man based in Syria, known as Zeid, who would greet the volunteers in Damascus and arrange for their passage across the border into Iraq. Although few personal details were disclosed about the recruits, police documents show that Houssaini made a point of personally paying their families small sums of money.
Each family received between $100 and $150 last fall, as the volunteers were recruited during Ramadan, and an additional $175 at the end of December to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Then, in February, they received a final payment of $500 as the recruits departed for Iraq.
Special correspondents Munir Ladaa in Berlin and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.