European terror suspects got al Qaeda training, sources say
By Sheila MacVicar and Henry Schuster
PARIS, France (CNN) -- Two senior al Qaeda figures helped train the people now suspected of planning chemical and biological attacks in France and the United Kingdom, European intelligence and judicial sources tell CNN.
One of those figures is Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the man singled out by President Bush as a link between the terrorist group and Iraq.
The other is Abu Khabab whose voice has been identified by intelligence sources as the man on a videotape showing al Qaeda operatives performing chemical weapons experiments on dogs.
The information comes after a recent wave of arrests in France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain that investigators say helped uncover several cells of Islamic terrorists who had the material to make chemical and biological weapons. And, investigators say, the terrorists were apparently ready to use them. (France, Italy, Spain)
Among the common links between some of the men who were arrested: They trained at a camp in the Caucasus region, particularly the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia and in nearby Chechnya, according to investigators.
Officials are concerned the area has become a new base of operations for terrorist groups.
"They are coming from the same region, most of them are Algerian, trained [in] the same place, in some camps in Afghanistan, and at the same time in Georgia in the Pankisi Gorge. They have the same trainers," said Gilles Leclair, who coordinates anti-terrorism efforts for the French Interior Ministry.
"And it seems, if we can recognize what we found in the searches, that they wanted to start chemical attacks," Leclair told CNN.
In raids near Paris in December, the French police not only recovered a chemical suit, as previously reported, but also chemicals, including cyanide.
The formulas for chemical weapons found during the searches appeared to be different from the formulas in al Qaeda's Encyclopedia of Jihad and other training manuals for developing bombs and chemical and biological agents that were recovered from abandoned camps in Afghanistan. And sources say that difference is of particular concern to French security officials.
Officials are investigating similar links with another series of arrests last month in Spain.
European intelligence officials say that according to interrogations of prisoners, Zarqawi was at the Pankisi Gorge providing training for the men, but they have not yet been able to say precisely when that took place.
President Bush last October mentioned Zarqawi as a "very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."
Secretary of State Colin Powell singled out Zarqawi as the connection between al Qaeda and Iraq during his speech to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.
Jordanian authorities say two men who have confessed to the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman last October said they got directions, money and weapons from Zarqawi.
Zarqawi left Jordan in 1999 and has been convicted in absentia of a plot to bomb tourist hotels in Amman during the millennium celebrations.
European intelligence sources tell CNN that while they are sure, based on their investigations, that Zarqawi trained the men in Georgia who were later arrested in Europe, they have found no links between Zarqawi and the Iraqi government.
Another of those said to have trained the men is Khabab, the Egyptian-born member of al Qaeda who coalition intelligence say ran the group's chemical and biological weapons testing facility at the Darunta camp in Afghanistan.
Sources say they believe some of the men recently arrested in Europe were trained by Khabab not only in Afghanistan, but also in the Caucasus. Like Zarqawi, Khabab is very high on the list of al Qaeda leaders wanted by law enforcement and intelligence officials.
Coalition intelligence sources now say that it was Khabab's voice on the videotape of dogs being poisoned in Afghanistan that was obtained and aired by CNN several months ago. The sources say Abu Khabab was directing the experiments.
Security sources believe that those being trained in the Caucasus region may also be receiving instruction from men who had experience with chemical and biological weapons in the Russian army.
Because of the recent arrests and other investigations, a leading anti-terrorist investigator says that the Caucasus region is on the verge of becoming a new launching pad for Islamic terrorism against the West.
"We have some information that the Caucasus at the present time will play a very major role and could be a new Afghanistan zone that will replace Afghanistan, to carry out operations," said Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere.
The examining magistrate has extraordinary powers under French law to track down terror suspects with the help of domestic intelligence and police and then to prosecute and judge them.
Bruguiere, who has been investigating terrorism in France and worldwide for two decades, compares the situation now taking place in Chechnya and the nearby Pankisi Gorge in Georgia to Afghanistan during the mid-1990s.
He believes that Chechnya could become "an aircraft carrier" from which Islamic terrorists could launch attacks against Europe. Bruguiere says that because Chechnya is only three hours by plane from Europe, the situation is at least as dangerous as it was immediately after the September 11 attacks.