Terror Suspects Hone Anti-Detection Skills

Convicted al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla used a code that referred to weapons as vegetables.
Convicted al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla used a code that referred to weapons as vegetables. (Alan Diaz - AP)
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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 5, 2008

MILAN, Italy -- In an age of spy satellites, security cameras and an Internet that stores every keystroke, terrorism suspects are using simple, low-tech tricks to cloak their communications, making life difficult for authorities who had hoped technology would give them the upper hand.

Across Europe, al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers are avoiding places that they assume are bugged or monitored, such as mosques and Islamic bookshops, counterterrorism experts said. In several cases, suspects have gone back to nature -- leaving the cities on camping trips or wilderness expeditions so they can discuss plots without fear of being overheard.

In Britain, a man who called himself "Osama bin London" is among five people being tried on charges of operating terrorist training camps in remote areas, sometimes under the guise of paintball fights in the woods. The camps' participants included four men who later tried to set off backpack bombs on the London transit system on July 21, 2005.

In a separate case in London, a Ugandan immigrant is scheduled to go on trial this month on charges of receiving terrorist training in the New Forest, site of a former royal hunting ground established in the 11th century by William the Conqueror.

And in Germany, three Islamic extremists suspected of plotting to bomb U.S. targets in September were arrested after police tracked them to the hilly resort village of Oberschledorn. Investigators said the suspects had rented a vacation home where they could stash ingredients for making explosives.

Overall, terrorist cells around the world have become noticeably more skilled at avoiding detection, European counterterrorism officials and analysts said in interviews. For instance, operatives now commonly use Skype and other Internet telephone services, which are difficult to trace or bug.

At times, they have displayed a flair for creativity. Defendants convicted last April in a plot to blow up targets in London with fertilizer bombs communicated via chat rooms on Internet pornography sites in an effort to throw investigators off their trail, according to testimony.

Terrorism suspects are "certainly more careful," said Armando Spataro, the deputy chief public prosecutor in Milan. "They know we will intercept their conversations and track their mobile phone traffic."

In November, police in Milan announced they had broken up a long-standing network that had recruited suicide bombers to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. The investigation was based largely on a massive wiretapping effort by Italian police and resulted in the arrest of 20 suspects in Italy, England, France and Portugal. But the case took four years to build, in part because the targets assumed police were watching and eavesdropping on them.

Wiretap transcripts and other court records show that the cell of North African immigrants tried hard to blend into Italian society, working regular jobs, sending their children to public schools and taking pains not to appear unusually religious. When they did talk on the phone, they often adopted a roundabout or obtuse manner that masked their real meaning.

"You have to understand that there are some things everybody has to be careful about," Sabri Dridi, 37, an alleged captain in the Milan-based network, lectured one of his co-defendants in a call that he hinted, correctly, was being recorded by police. "Even going to visit a friend or relative can be suspect. You have to do things so that they don't notice you, because if they see somebody moving around all the time, they can really make things difficult."

Often, suspects use simple, homemade codes in their exchanges. In a trial in the German city of Kiel, a Moroccan-German man charged in a separate case with recruiting suicide bombers to go to Iraq revealed in testimony in November some of the rudimentary ciphers that he and other cell members used in Internet chat forums.

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