Friday, June 11, 2004

Paris metro feared target of suicide bombers

John Hooper in Rome and Jon Henley in Paris

The Guardian

An alleged Egyptian bomb expert arrested in Milan this week was feared to be planning an attack on the Paris metro in the next three days, modelled on the one in which 191 people died in Madrid on March 11.
According to one Italian media report last night, police seized him to avert a massacre before Sunday's European elections. The Madrid bombings took place three days before Spain's general election.

A French interior ministry source said last night that Paris had been informed of the allegations, but played down the claim. "Searches carried out [in France] on the basis of information relayed by the investigators have not allowed a potential attack target to be identified," a French police source told the Reuters news agency.

Police in Milan arrested a man Italian officials now identify as Hamed Sayed Osman Rabei on Monday. The 33-year-old man, also known as Mohammed the Egyptian, is suspected of playing a leading role in the Madrid train bombings and is wanted by the Spanish judicial authorities.

On Tuesday, Belgian police, acting on information from Italy, arrested 15 people they said were preparing an attack. An anti-terrorist prosecutor in Belgium said the attack was planned for a foreign country.

The Italian warrant issued for Mr Rabei's arrest shows that much of the evidence against him was gathered from telephone conversations intercepted by Italy's anti-terrorist branch, the Digos.

A Milan anti-terrorist prosecutor was reported yesterday to have provided the US authorities with transcripts of some of Mr Rabei's calls. Mr Rabei was said in the warrant to have spoken to an associate in Belgium and to have asked for information about "the city", which the investigators believe is Paris. He also allegedly inquired about the underground system, checks and inspections.

At one point, the associate in Belgium, identified only as "Mounrad", was quoted as saying "everything is in place". The two men also discussed a third person, referred to as Mohammed, who was already in Paris and was said to be "ready for martyrdom".

Other telephone references were said to show that the suspected terrorists were preparing a rehearsal of the attack using mobile telephones, as in the March 11 Madrid attack.

They planned to use a programme downloaded from the internet that would allow the mobile phones to be activated simultaneously by an SMS text message. Mobile phones work underground in several of the largest Paris metro stations.

In the Spanish bomb attacks, mobile phones were used as detonator timers. But they were activated by the phones' alarm mechanisms, and one was accidentally set to the wrong time. When it did go off, it failed to detonate the bomb to which it was attached, providing investigators with a clue that led, ultimately, to Mr Rabei's arrest.

The SMS system outlined in the Italian arrest warrant would allegedly have got around that key weakness in the Madrid bombers' plot.

France has experienced a bombing campaign on its metro and suburban RER train network - a terror campaign by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group aimed at taking vengeance on the country for its support of the regime in Algiers. The bombing of a packed commuter train at the Saint-Michel station in Paris in July 1995 killed eight people and injured 100. Nine other attacks injured more than 100 others and terrorised the French capital that summer.

The 27-page Italian arrest warrant also includes an extract from a transcribed conversation in which Mr Rabei allegedly boasted of knowing a method that allowed him to change his fingerprints.

"They are never the same. Not even the American intelligence services will find me. So, you will see that today I have some fingerprints and tomorrow others," he is allegedly quoted as saying.

Mr Rabei was arrested

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