In front of the Court of Hamburg, October 22, 2002, during the first process against Munir el Motassadek.

September 11, 2001. The dust of the twin towers of the World Trade Center still clouded the sky in New York when commentators around the world named the ones responsible for the attack and thus prepared the ground for the spin doctors of Washington’s “offices of war”: it was Osama ben Laden and his followers. In the following days, Al-Qaeda, of which very little was known until then, was presented as a tentacular organization with ramifications in several eastern and western countries where it uses Islamic radicals, and against whom local authorities immediately began to act.

In the United States, the administration took advantage of the USA PATRIOT ACT to massively arrest thousands of foreigners from the Middle East and Central Asia. In Europe, Islamic groups became the target of antiterrorist laws thus allowing the allies to show their support of Washington. However, the different cases brought to court were characterized by the lack of evidence and the difficulties that authorities - even the exception ones - faced to prove the existence of an organized terrorist network in Europe.

The Examining Magistrates Reject the Antiterrorist Instructions

In Europe, one of the first cases involved a French national, Ouassini Cherifi. In August 2000, the customs at the Roissy airport intercepted a package from Thailand that contained four French falsified passports. Ouassini Cherifi was the addressee.

During a search in his house, “many Islamic documents, two video cassettes about the Bosnia war (former Yugoslavia) and one audio cassette about the Jihad in Algeria” were found. The investigators also found an audio cassette entitled “Dialogue with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri”. Cherifi was then detained on an arrest warrant issued by Judge Jean-François Ricard under suspicions that he was related with Ossama ben Laden’s international terrorist organization. According to the case file, the falsified passports that were sent to him were similar to those of a group of four men that were arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, on December 25 and 26, 2000, when a terrorist attack was being prepared in Strasbourg (France). In a telephone notebook, the investigators found the number of two members of the “Frankfurt group” and one of a relative of Abu Doha, who was «in charge of recruiting the mujaheddins for Afghanistan before he was arrested [1]». Thus, Cherifi was taken for a member of a triangular network among Paris, London and Frankfurt.

During the trial, Cherifi responded to the accusations, one by one, and explained why he had documents related to Islamic radicalism: «I wanted to have my own opinion about all aspects of religion, including the most extremist ones. That does not mean that I support them». The court highlighted this suspicious curiosity. According to the president, the elements of the case «show an obsession with personalities or groups that support violent actions», but they invalidated any terrorist involvement and, thus, Cherifi was sentenced only to five years in prison for possession of falsified documentation.

This is an ideal and typical example of antiterrorist law: although the magistrates in charge of conducting the antiterrorist fight have extreme wide powers (ordering arrests, searches, and listening to private telephone conversations) the file of the Cherifi case was empty. There was not a single material element that may have involved him in an attack - not even in a plan. There was only a common crime foundation.

“War against Terror” and “Pre-Emptive Justice”

Actually, antiterrorist law does not seek to establish guilt regarding crimes committed but to prove that certain Muslim radical groups intend to commit these crimes and that’s why it operates in such a capricious and unconvincing way. That’s the way it was in the case of the “Frankfurt” group, who was accused by the German law of having planned an attack against the cathedral of Strasbourg in December 2000, although the group did not carry it out.

A few days before the operation, Aeurobi Beandali (whose real name is Dillali Benali) was arrested while transporting weapons. Later, weapons were found in his house as well as a home video with images of a Christmas market in front of the cathedral of Strasbourg in which the person who operated the video camera referred to the Catholics in a not very laudatory way.

Immediately, German authorities became excited. The German Minister of the Interior, Otto Schilly, assured that it had been possible to frustrate an attack in the last moment.

According to “French experts in the antiterrorist fight”, the group had links with the Salafit Group for Preach and Combat (GSPC), a movement that grew from the GIA and which has been active in Algeria since 1998.

Otto Schilly

After 2001 it has been linked with the “Al-Qaeda network” [2]. During the trial, the accusation changed completely: it was not about an attack against the cathedral during Christmas but against a synagogue in January. Obediently, one of the suspects, Aeurobi Beandali, affirmed that the plot aimed at “destabilizing relations between France and Israel”.

According to him, «the accomplice who had been sent to take the video filmed the cathedral and the Christmas market by mistake instead of the synagogue» [3]. However, the new accusation had no foundation. In January 2003, the court affirmed that, although there were confessions regarding the preparation of an attack, there were no elements that could link it to an international terrorist organization [4]. In March, the defendants received sentences that ranged from 10 to 12 years - extremely hard sentences that allowed the German Interior Minister to affirm that the counter-terrorist fight in Germany was “effective and successful” after he congratulated himself for the “strength” of the judges in Frankfurt [5] .

In April 2002, during a similar operation, 11 Palestinians were arrested in Karlsruhe. According to Federal Attorney Kay Nehm, eight of them were preparing attacks and six belonged to «an unknown Islamic organization, the Al Tawhid group (the group of God)» [6] .

Kay Nehm

However, no weapons or explosives were found in their houses. Then, what is the base of those terrorism accusations? According to the German Bild newspaper,«the members of Al Tawhid had tried over the last weeks to buy chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives» and also “a large number of nails”. According to German federal police, these elements could only be used for one thing: the manufacture of a “fragmentation bomb”.

What is surprising, from a judicial point of view, is that the objective in these cases was not to find the perpetrators of a terrorist attack but to attribute terrorist intentions to Islamic radical groups, which reminds us of the “pre-emptive justice” doctrine of John Ashcroft and the “pre-emptive wars” of Paul Wolfowitz.

In a similar way the Bush administration justified its invasion of Iraq as they accused Saddam Hussein of having the intentions of acquiring weapons of mass destruction that would later be used against the United States. Then, we can say that antiterrorist “justice” allows the European governments to show their own support of the US doctrine of “world struggle” against terrorism thus backing the thesis of a world terrorist threat. In the name of this doctrine, the United States can fight the Islamic radical groups, due to domestic policy reasons or just to please its own foreign allies.

This behavior was not born with the September 11 attacks. At the time of the attacks perpetrated in France by the GIA, some French officials said that the investigations of the antiterrorist judges could be manipulated by the regime of the Algerian generals to encourage Paris to act against their political opponents in France.«The Algerian military security wanted us to start from false trails so that we would eliminate those who bothered them (honest political opposition)», said Jean-Louis Debré, then Interior Minister [7] .

Hypothetical “plans of attacks”

The most symptomatic aspect of the antiterrorist law is still its arbitrary and not very legal nature. Most of the cases are based on a doubtful legal concept that could be associated with the French crime named as “association of criminals”. For the antiterrorist magistrates, the perpetration of an attack - or even the existence of a plan - is not necessary. For them, it is enough to prove that the arrested Muslim, at some point of his life, met another Muslim linked to radical Islamism.

That’s how the Dutch law backed several preliminary investigations about an imaginary plan of attack against the US Embassy in Paris. Four detainees were accused of encouraging such attack in September 2001. There was a French among them, Jerome Courtailler; two Algerians, Abel Tobbichi and Abdelkader Rabia; and a Dutch of Ethiopian origin, Saad Ibrahim.

Another target of the conspirators was, according to the tribunal of Rotterdam (city in Holland), the US military base of Kleine Brogel, in Belgium [8]. When these men were arrested on September 13, 2001, they were carrying false passports and a machine to forge credit cards. As it often happens in terrorism-related trials, there were several charges of common crimes: Jerome Courtailler was then accused of trafficking clothes and falsified luxury watches.

The French accepted both charges and also acknowledged having contacts with extremist militants in Europe but he denied planning any attacks. The investigators tried by all means to prove the four men’s involvement in a world terrorist network through their contacts with Djamel Beghal and Kamel Daoudi, in France.

However, the evidence was not enough to make them accomplices in the September 11 attacks. The Dutch justice official, Theo D’Anjou, equivalent to the Attorney General assistant, presented the case to the court in the following way: «if Holland does not want to become an ‘islet in the world’, Jerome Courtailler and Abdelghani Rabie have to be condemned» [9]. Finally, all defendants were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

According to the court president, Stefaan van Klaveren, «part of the evidence presented by the attorney was obtained using irregular methods and it was not withheld against the defendants" [10]. But that was only a false pretext. If the evidence had been convincing, it is clear that the court would have not released four dangerous terrorists so easily.

However, the false attack lingered on. Nazar Trabelsi, former Tunisian soccer player turned into a drug trafficker, was tried for the same charge in Brussels in May 2003. He was also accused of encouraging an attack against the US embassy.

However, since the beginning of the preliminary investigation into the case, he affirmed that his objective was the US military base of Kleine Brogel [11] .

Nazar Trabelsi

During the trial, one of the 23 detainees, Tarek Maaroufi, who was accused of acting in complicity with the assassins of Shah Massoid, whom he would have provided with false documentation, explained that in his trips to Afghanistan, London and Milan his objective was not to recruit pro-Taliban volunteers or to prepare the attacks but «to found a party that opposed the power in Tunisia» [12] .

Was it a defensive strategy or a good faith argument? It can not be ignored that the anti-terrorist fight may in fact be a trick to legalize the repression in Europe against the opponents of certain allied Arab governments. In regards to the attack against the US embassy in Paris, it is the methods of French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière and those of the French intelligence services that are questioned: judge of instruction Christian de Valkeneer said in court that Nazar Trabelsi never spoke of such project in his presence and he related the “clumsy way” in which the members of the DST (French counter-espionage) tried to force Trabelsi to speak about the topic [13] . In spite of everything, Trabelsi was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

After the failure of the first trial against the Rotterdam cell, Holland had the opportunity of redeeming itself before its allies of the other side of the Atlantic in May 2003. Twelve Islamic militants stood in front of the same court in Rotterdam. Accused of having recruited combatants for the “Jihad”, two of which had been killed in the border of Kashmir in January 2002 by India’s security forces, the alleged members of the network had been arrested on the basis of information gathered by the Dutch secret services.

During the hearing, the deputy director of these services refused to reveal the foundation of those accusations. As a consequence, four of the twelve defendants were released during the trial and the others were also freed a few days later.

Confirming the US Interpretation of September 11

The “world war” against terrorism that the United States declared has had setbacks in Europe. However, what is at stake is essential since this new crusade is trying, at the same time, to justify the official interpretation of the September 11 attacks, although in this field the zeal of the anti-terrorist judges in Europe was also rapidly frustrated.

However, the first moments were promising with the beginning, on October 22, 2002, of «the first trial of the world against an alleged accomplice of the kamikazes of September 11, 2001» [14]. The alleged accomplice was Moroccan Mounir el Motassadek, tried by a German court in Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta - one of the alleged authors of the September 11 attacks - lived.

As to the evidence, the attorney’s office could not even prove that El Motassadek knew the people that the FBI accuses of committing the September 11 attacks in the United States. However, German federal Attorney General Kay Nehm went beyond the accusations.

Mounir el Motassadek

According to him, the Moroccan was an «essential element» of a group that began to plan an air attack against the United States since October 2000. The court finally sentenced El Motassadek to 15 years in prison, the maximum penalty in this case. Was it for having participated in the attacks or for not confirming the official version? A friend of Mohammed Atta, Motassadek declared: «I can not believe that Atta carried out those attacks» and added that «violence does not solve problems» [15] .

However, this first victory of the anti-terrorist judges is nothing but the first step of a long process. In September 2003, Motassadek is called as witness to the trial against Abdelghani Mzoudi, also accused of being too close to Mohammed Atta in Hamburg. During the hearing, the head of the German intelligence services, Heinz Fromm, affirmed that the September 11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan in late 1999 and not in Hamburg in 2000 [16].

Days later, the famous German magazine Der Spiegel published revelations, based on testimonies from two “accomplices” of Ben laden, that said that the operations had been planned since 1996. Consequently, Abdelghani was released on December 11, 2003 - something that allowed to presage his future acquittal. However, the decision did not please the German authorities. Regional Interior Ministry Dirk Nockermann then declared that if the defendant was acquitted he would be immediately expelled to Morocco. «There is no place in Germany for a terrorist like him», he declared.

Abdelghani Mzouzi

The attorney’s office then received an unexpected and fortunate support. A self-proclaimed former Iranian agent affirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible for the attacks and that Mzoudi was acting as “link agent” with Al-Qaeda. However, these statements did not deceive the court. On February 5, Abdelghani Nzoudi was acquitted.

In short, the September 11 attacks have not modified the way the antiterrorist justice works. The accusatory data that is gathered continue to come from doubtful sources - either from western intelligence services or from not so reliable “reformed terrorists” - and the rights of the defense continue to be little respected.

The shock wave of the attack against the Twin Towers has not provoked a particular hardening of sentences either: faced with empty files and in spite of the international pressure, the judges don’t hesitate to release the defendants. The peculiarity of the cases that we have analyzed is that they do not allow confirming the US thesis regarding the existence of a terrorist “Hydra” with many ramifications around the world, an international organization with little groups spread all around the globe that may be mobilized to act against different objectives in the West.

They have only managed to prove that there is a sociological environment in Europe in which militants from Islamic radical groups, who are committed to the armed struggle against their respective governments, develop and meet. Then, what are the “sixty countries” to which John Kerry referred as ground of operations of Al-Qaeda?

[1«Devant le tribunal, le Franco-Algérien Ouassini Cherifi nie être un terroriste», Le Monde, April 8, 2002

[2The article by Jean-Michel Salgon about the GSPC, Publisher in Les Cahiers de l’Orient in the second quarter of 2001 and then used as reference about the issue, did not mention any links with Al- Qaeda

[3«Attentat déjoué de Strasbourg: la cible était la synagogue», AFP, April 23, 2002

[4«Attentat déjoué à Strasbourg: l’accusation d’appartenance terroriste levée», AFP, January 14, 2003

[5«Quatre islamistes condamnés pour avoir planifié un «bain de sang» à Strasbourg», by Yacine Le Forestier, AFP, March 10, 2003

[6«Huit islamistes d’Al Tawhid écroués», by Jean-Paul Picaper, Le Figaro, April 26, 2002

[7«Attentats: Jean-Louis Debré sévèrement critiqué», by Franck Johannes, Libération, September 23, 1995

[8«Ouverture du procès de quatre terroristes présumés à Rotterdam lundi», AFP, November 23, 2002

[9«Face aux accusations d’appartenance à Al-Qaïda, Jérôme Courtailler invoque hasards et coïncidences», by Jean-Pierre Stroobants, Le Monde, December 6, 2002

[10«La justice néerlandaise acquitte quatre jeunes gens accusés de terrorisme», by Gerald de Hemptinne, AFP, December 18, 2002

[11According to a spokesman of the Belgian army, in this military base located in Belgium, there are «US military men in charge of equipping aircraft with nuclear devices in the event of an attack». «Procès de Bruxelles: Al-Qaïda visait une cantine de soldats américains», AFP, May 26, 2003

[12«Haute sécurité à l’ouverture du troisième procès européen lié à Al Qaïda», by Philippe Siubierski, AFP, May 22, 2003

[13«Trabelsi: un «affectif» qui a été «manipulé» (juge d’instruction)», AFP, June 2, 2003

[14«Ouverture du procès d’un complice présumé des kamikazes du 11 septembre 2001», AFP, October 22, 2002

[15«El Motassadek, bouc-émissaire autoproclamé du 11 septembre», AFP, February 17, 2003

[16«Le 11/9 préparé en Afghanistan et non à Hambourg (renseignements)», AFP, October 24, 2003