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An al Qaeda operative’s odyssey

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Karim Mejjati was the perfect undercover al Qaeda operative. The former medical student from Morocco could speak several languages, had many passports and excelled at building bombs. He was also good at avoiding attention as he crisscrossed four continents to organize a wave of catastrophic attacks.
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In the post-Sept. 11 world, Karim Mejjati was the perfect undercover al Qaeda operative. The former medical student from Morocco could speak several languages, had many passports and excelled at building bombs. He was also good at avoiding attention as he crisscrossed four continents to organize a wave of catastrophic attacks.

On May 12, 2003, an al Qaeda network that investigators say was put together by Mejjati in Saudi Arabia blew up three residential compounds for foreign workers in Riyadh, leaving 23 dead. Less than a week later, about 3,000 miles away, suicide bombers trained by Mejjati carried out the deadliest terrorist attacks in Moroccan history, killing 45 people in Casablanca.

For the next two years, authorities in the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America pressed a secret but intensive global manhunt for the French-schooled suspect, fearing that he had set up other al Qaeda sleeper cells that had yet to be activated. Saudi Arabia put him near the top of its list of most wanted terrorism suspects. In Morocco, he was sentenced in absentia to 20 years for the Casablanca bombings. The FBI named him in a global anti-terrorism alert, warning that he was suspected of planning attacks in the United States.

According to investigators, his success in organizing terrorist networks in multiple countries is clear evidence that al Qaeda can still order devastating attacks around the world, even though most of its commanders have been killed or on the run since Sept. 11, 2001.

The search for Mejjati, 37, ended last month in a small town in the heart of Saudi Arabia when he was killed in a gun battle with security forces who stumbled on his hideout. Now, investigators trying to retrace his footsteps acknowledge that they still do not know how many more sleeper cells the well-educated explosives expert may have created.

"They need guys like him in the field in order to remain effective," said Mohammed Darif, a political science professor at Mohammedia University in Morocco, who is an expert on Islamic radicals in the country and has studied Mejjati's background. "He was very valuable for them. They could use him in different places and rely on him to complete the job."

U.S. officials have said that the direct threat posed by al Qaeda's central leadership has diminished and that it has taken on a different role of providing encouragement, but little concrete assistance, to local cells or networks that plan attacks on their own. On Wednesday, in its annual report on global terrorism trends, the State Department said the shift illustrates "what many analysts believe is a new phase of the global war on terrorism, one in which local groups inspired by al Qaeda organize and carry out attacks with little or no support or direction from al Qaeda itself."

But an examination of Mejjati's role in organizing cells in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and possibly Spain -- three of the countries hardest hit by Islamic terrorism since Sept. 11 -- challenges that assumption.

In interviews, security officials in Saudi Arabia said that Mejjati was dispatched from Afghanistan by top al Qaeda leaders in 2002 to help recruit and train a network of cells dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi royal family. Saudi officials said Mejjati served as the general strategist to the network's first chief, Yusuf Ayeri, who reported directly to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Starting with the May 2003 bombing in Riyadh, the network has rattled the kingdom with a series of explosions, kidnappings and beheadings that have taken more than 90 lives and contributed to a global rise in oil prices.

In Morocco, counterterrorism officials said Mejjati provided explosives training to a cell of Islamic radicals recruited from the slums surrounding Casablanca. At first, investigators thought the operation was conceived and planned locally. But a suspect who later divulged Mejjati's name to interrogators led them to conclude that those responsible for the attacks were taking their cues from al Qaeda's top leadership.

Some U.S. and European officials say they believe Mejjati may also have been involved in the planning of the March 11, 2004, bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid in which 191 people were killed and more than 1,800 were wounded, although other investigators disagree. Spanish authorities have not issued an indictment against him. A local cell consisting mostly of Moroccan immigrants is believed to have carried out the attacks, but Spanish investigators have been unable to determine whether they acted on their own or took orders from al Qaeda middlemen such as Mejjati.

The son of a French mother and Moroccan father, Mejjati had a privileged upbringing in Casablanca. He attended an exclusive French-language school and, at his father's urging, applied to medical school in France.

He moved to France in the early 1990s to study, but dropped out of school and became more devout as a Muslim, according to neighbors and relatives in Casablanca. When he returned to Morocco a few years later, he dressed in Afghan-style clothes and wore a long beard, a style that made him stand out in his family's cosmopolitan neighborhood, next to the city's old Jewish sector.

‘Always with strange people’
In the late 1990s, he caused a small stir in the neighborhood by loudly berating a young man who had put his arm around his girlfriend in public, neighbors recalled. When visitors came from out of town, he would insist that he and his bushy-bearded male friends sleep in cars on the street while the women stayed in his small two-room apartment.

"We thought, well, he's weird, but what can he possibly do?" said one neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he didn't want to antagonize Mejjati's friends or the Moroccan security services. "He was always with strange people, but not to the point where we were worried."

Mejjati married a Moroccan woman, with whom he had two sons, but the family rarely interacted with others. As his sons grew up, Mejjati increasingly spent his time traveling. One resident from his apartment building said he recalled seeing Mejjati only twice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, though he never suspected that he might be involved in militant groups.

That changed after suicide bombers struck several targets in Casablanca in May 2003, including a Jewish community center not far from Mejjati's apartment. Shortly afterward, detectives began interrogating neighbors about Mejjati and set up a round-the-clock stakeout of the apartment building. Neighbors said the police shadowed Mejjati's wife whenever she left her home and kept up the surveillance until last month, when he was reported killed in Saudi Arabia.

Moroccan officials said they assumed that Mejjati had fled the country before the May 2003 attacks, but were unsure how much time he had spent in Morocco training the suicide bombers.

In an interview in March, Moroccan Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa said Mejjati was one of six suspects from the Casablanca bombings who remained at large. He said Mejjati was considered "a big fish," one of the top leaders in the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a local network that has become increasingly affiliated with al Qaeda.

U.S. alert
After the attacks in Casablanca and Riyadh, counterterrorism officials in other countries became increasingly alarmed about Mejjati as well.

In September 2003, the FBI issued a worldwide bulletin warning the public to be on the lookout for Mejjati. The notice said he was "being sought for questioning in connection with possible threats against the United States." The FBI also confirmed that he had entered the country between 1997 and 1999.

A U.S. law enforcement agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mejjati entered the United States on at least two occasions during that period, with each stay lasting several months. What he did or where he went during that time is unclear, the official said.

"We frankly do not have a lot of information about him, and most of what we do have has come from interrogations," the official said. "We knew he had the proven ability to travel here, and that is what was a particular concern about him."

Other counterterrorism officials said Mejjati, who was fluent in English, could easily blend into Western societies. Neighbors in Casablanca said he spoke French better than Arabic, the native tongue for most Moroccans.

Investigators said he also had an uncanny ability to change his appearance. Grainy mug shots of Mejjati released by the FBI show a dark-haired man with a scraggly beard. A wanted poster in Morocco portrays a completely different look: a thinner Mejjati wearing glasses and a red-and-white checkered kaffiyeh, or headdress, with a neatly trimmed mustache and no beard.

Mejjati drew fresh attention in Europe after the Madrid train bombings. Although investigators have not confirmed his presence in Spain, they said he worked closely with a suspected ringleader in the plot, another Moroccan named Amer Azizi, who has been indicted by Spanish officials but remains a fugitive.

The investigators said Azizi and Mejjati trained together at militant camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and are considered top leaders of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which allegedly recruited many of the foot soldiers who carried out the attacks in Madrid.

Threats against Jewish targets
Less than a month after the Madrid explosions, Mejjati's name surfaced again, this time in Belgium. Threatening e-mails sent to several newspapers in Antwerp on April 1, 2004, warned of pending attacks against Jewish targets in the city. The messages were unsigned but contained Mejjati's name in the text and suggested that he had inspired those making the threats.

Belgian authorities said at the time that they did not take the threats seriously, but they became more concerned a few months later when police in a town outside Antwerp arrested a suspected al Qaeda operative named Hussein Mohammed Haski. The arrest set off alarm bells throughout Europe because Haski was known by Moroccan and Saudi officials to be a follower of Mejjati.

Several months earlier, Mejjati and Haski, also a Moroccan, joined 24 others on Saudi Arabia's most wanted list, the only two who were not from the Arabian Peninsula. When Haski surfaced in Belgium, some European counterterrorism officials feared that Mejjati was trying to set up another sleeper cell, this time in their back yard.

The search for Mejjati then shifted to Europe, although some counterterrorism officials speculated that he had sought refuge in more remote areas, such as Pakistan, Iran or along the Syria-Iraq border.

But Saudi security forces last month unexpectedly came across him in the small town of Ar Rass, about 220 miles northwest of Riyadh. After receiving a tip that some militants were in the area, Saudi police surrounded a building and engaged in a fierce gun battle that lasted for three days, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Saudi officials said they killed 15 militants and captured six others. Only after the shooting stopped did they discover that one of the dead was Mejjati. His teenage son, Adam, was also killed.

"He was so good that we had no idea what he was doing," said a Saudi security source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We had no tangible evidence where he was. The thing we do know is how sophisticated he was and what he was able to set up, inside and outside the kingdom."

Staff writers Steve Coll in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and Dan Eggen in Washington, and special correspondent Maria Gabriella Bonetti in Paris contributed to this report.