The Baker Street connection

It happened in London. Three middle-class, well-educated young Muslims turned to extremism after being taught by a radical imam at a youth club. John Lichfield on a sinister link to terror
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The Independent Online

One was a brilliant student who rocketed through the French school system and seemed destined for a glittering career as an engineer. Another was a friendly, family man with startling blue eyes, who helped his neighbours and worked with children. Another was a professional footballer who is remembered fondly by his former team-mates.

All, at some time in the past five years, attended classes given by an imam, Abu Koutada, at a small community centre off Baker Street in London, yards from the most prestigious mosque in Britain in Regent's Park. Investigators studying the profile of the alleged members of the Osama bin Laden-trained European terror network – the men apparently entrusted with a "second wave" of attacks against American targets in Europe this winter – have been confronted with a puzzling sociological pattern.

These are not men rejected by the Western societies in which they lived or were brought up. These are not young hot-heads from communities with a tradition of extremist allegiances, nor were they gang members from the immigrant ghettoes found in or around most French, Belgian or German cities. All are people who could have had – or already did have – comfortable lives in western Europe. If they are, as alleged, Islamist terrorists, what, or who, made them so?

Sources in the French investigation point a finger of blame at London. All the members of the European terror network, they say, were recruited by Imam Koutada. It was through him, they say, that Djamel Beghal (the friendly family man), Kamel Daoudi (the brilliant student) and Nizar Trabelsi (the former footballer) were sent to Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. The imam has long been identified by the security services as a threat because of his open support for the creation of a worldwide Islamic order. He has publicly backed suicide bombings in Palestine and Algeria and reportedly spent several years at Mr bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.

Today the Fourth Feathers Youth Club, an undistinguished post-war brick building in Rossmore Road – where Imam Koutada met the alleged terrorists – is closed and surrounded by scaffolding. A sign says it is "under refurbishment". Some worshippers at the London Central Mosque know Mr Koutada as a "humble, dignified prayer leader". One man who had attended his talks in Rossmore Road said: "I can't possibly imagine he could be involved in such a thing."

But officials at the mosque said Koutada is well known for his extremist views, which is why they had banned him from attending. "He has no place in our mosque," said Fatma Amer, head of education and interfaith relations at the mosque. "We don't welcome those kind of people or those kind of views."

The far right in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria has been attempting to make hay from the crisis. They would have people believe that all people of Islamic origin are Bin Laden fanatics - stocking weapons and waiting for their moment to declare jihad.

Majid, an Algerian-born politician and youth worker in the eastern suburbs of Paris, said: "It is not so and we should give thanks for that. The kids in the suburban gangs, in France anyway, are often racially mixed and care nothing for Bin Laden. They don't worship his God. They worship Nike and Adidas. They associate with Palestinians throwing stones in the West Bank but they don't associate with flying planes into buildings, even if they go around teasing the police by shouting Bin Laden's name."

An opinion poll in the newspaper Le Monde last week broadly confirmed this view: 90 per cent of the French Muslims questioned condemned terrorism and 70 per cent said they would support French military action against Mr bin Laden. How does one explain, then, the journey into extremism and terrorism of a handful of young, well-educated, middle-class Muslim men?

Djamel Beghal, 35, was, until 1996, a quiet, hard-working man, married to a French wife, with two small sons. His former neighbours in Corbeil-Essonnes, 20 miles south of Paris, describe him as "polite" and "always helpful". One said: "At first, they were nice people, the kind you could chat to. He was very tall, very handsome with incredible blue eyes. She was small with long blonde hair ... at the end, everything changed. All the people who came were in strict Islamic dress. He grew a beard. She wore a veil."

The Beghals moved to London in November 1997. French investigators say Mr Beghal began to attend Abu Koutada's "ideology classes". They say he was then selected for further training in Leicester and then sent to Afghanistan. On July 27, Mr Beghal was arrested with a falsely extended French passport in Dubai. He confessed to the Dubai authorities that he had been sent by Mr bin Laden's headquarters to plan attacks on American targets in Paris next January or February. Since his extradition to France last Sunday, he has admitted attending Mr bin Laden's Afghan training camps but denied he had been ordered to organise terrorist attacks.

Kamel Daoudi, 27, came to France from Algeria when he was five. His father is a medium-ranking official in the French post office. Mr Daoudi, brought up in the Left Bank of Paris, had a brilliant school career, passing his baccalaureate (equivalent to A-levels) at 17. He began a university course in engineering but dropped out. He worked in a cyber-cafe, run by a Paris suburb to create jobs for young people. At first, he was a big success, popular with his bosses and the teenagers who used the cafe. Then he stopped turning up for work regularly and was fired. Last Tuesday week, Mr Daoudi was arrested in Leicester and expelled to France. He is suspected by French police of being the internet postman for Mr Beghal's network. His job was allegedly to de-code messages sent from Afghanistan in e-mailed pictures. French investigation sources say Mr Daoudi, also attended the classes run by Abu Koutada before being sent to Afghanistan for training. His father, Tehar Daoudi, said: "I knew he had gone off the rails ... I thought he was hanging out with delinquents. I didn't for a moment think he was linked with people like that."

Nizar Trabelsi, 35, joined the Fortuna Düsseldorf football club from Tunisia in 1989. Although a promising striker he never made it to the first team. His former team-mates remember a friendly young man who could take a joke and liked the girls. He began to stumble down the German divisions; married and divorced; got a couple of drugs convictions; and stopped playing football in 1995. Two days after the suicide attacks on the US, Mr Trabelsi was arrested in a Brussels flat. He had notes on how to make a bomb in a scrap-book. French investigators say he, too, had taken Abu Koutada's "classes". He admits having spent time in Afghanistan. He denies being a terrorist. French and Belgian investigation sources say he was to have been the suicide bomber who entered the US embassy in Paris next year with explosives strapped to his waist.

What cause in nature, or western society, or in Islamic thinking, makes such hard hearts, from such promising beginnings? "How does one explain Timothy McVeigh or Jeffrey Dahmer?" Majid, the youth worker said.

"How does one explain middle class French kids joining some crazy sect? Identity crises are common in all societies. For someone of Islamic background, the strain of having two identities can be overwhelming. That is perhaps more true if you are intelligent and interested in the world around you. Most of us work it out. Some ... however integrated they may seem to be, find solace in a message of blind extremism."

Additional reporting by Neil Bowdler in London

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