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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 22:29 GMT
Looking for European al-Qaeda
us and eu police
European and US police are moving towards closer co-operation
By BBC European affairs analyst William Horsley

The US attorney general and a group of FBI officials are now starting a tour of Europe to exchange information on the continuing hunt for terrorist cells worldwide.

The US most-wanted
The US most-wanted terrorists
The European Union has drawn up urgent plans for cross-border judicial co-operation against terrorism.

And there has been unprecedented co-ordination among European security services and police forces, resulting in more than 30 significant arrests.

The picture that European law-enforcement officials draw of suspected Islamic terrorist groups active in Europe is growing more complex all the time.

Phone taps

Arrests have been made in the last three months in at least eight countries, including Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Bosnia.

Among the most significant involve a Tunisian man arrested in Brussels with bomb-making materials; an Algerian in London accused of training some of the hijackers to fly; a group of North Africans arrested in Milan, after phone conversations about the threatened use of "suffocating gas"; and eight men held in Madrid and Granada.

The Spanish suspects were detained after phone-tapped conversations, in which one allegedly said: "We have entered the field of aviation and we have cut the bird's throat."

Investigators have hinted at about 10 potential targets for attacks, including the US embassy in Paris, the Nato headquarters in Brussels, a market-place in Strasbourg and US military targets in the Balkans.

Zacarias Moussaoui
Zacarias Moussaoui: The first indictment since the September terror attacks
The close co-operation among different police forces within Europe is new.

German and Italian police worked together to catch the Milan cell.

Tip-offs from the French and Italians enabled German police to make arrests in Frankfurt and Munich.

And the proposed system of pan-European arrest warrants is meant to result in much faster transfers of suspects from one part of Europe to another, to face trial for terrorism and other serious crimes.

The EU has agreed to pool intelligence information much better through Europol.

It is also promising a fast-track system for extraditing suspects to the US - although America's use of the death penalty and its plan to set up special military courts for terrorism-related trials will make that hard to agree quickly.

Overall the picture is still a confused one.

European authorities believe thousands of al-Qaeda agents may have been trained in guerrilla camps in Afghanistan before coming to Europe.

Yet they do not claim to know the extent of control by al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden himself over those suspected agents.

What type of agent?

Experts suggest a clear distinction should be made between al-Qaeda agents - who are thought to be responsible for the attacks on US embassies in East Africa and the warship USS Cole in Yemen as well as the 11 September attacks - and other groups such as North African militants who for years have plotted bombings in France, or dissidents from the Gulf states whose goal is to destabilise their own governments at home.

One big puzzle for European anti-terrorist forces is to find out what links, if any, there are between radical Muslim clerics in mosques in, say, London or Cologne, and truly dangerous groups plotting organised violence.

Many European countries are giving their police extra powers to monitor or to investigate those who speak the language of Islamic militancy.

But some experts believe that al-Qaeda agents are taught to lie low and live a double life as ordinary law-abiding people, before seeking to strike again.

See also:

11 Dec 01 | Americas
Ashcroft embarks on European tour
29 Nov 01 | Americas
US amnesty for terror informants
27 Nov 01 | Americas
Al-Qaeda suspects 'in US custody'
09 Nov 01 | Americas
Doubts over FBI shake-up
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US legal chief seeks tougher laws
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