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Last month's arrests near Paris followed several sweeps in November, notably the arrest of Slimane Khalfaoui, a French citizen of Algerian origin. Like many suspects taken into custody at around the same time in France and Britain, Khalfaoui a veteran of fighting in Bosnia and Afghanistan had been linked to others accused of plotting terror strikes in Europe, such as the alleged plan to bomb Strasbourg Cathedral in December 2000.
Recent suspected Islamic radicals arrested in Europe seem to have a number of factors in common: officials say virtually all trained in Afghanistan, the Caucasus or both; most had direct contact with the captured al-Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah or one of his close deputies, such as Abu Atiyya; and, once back in Europe, many received orders at some stage from Abu Doha, a high-ranking Algerian al-Qaeda operative now imprisoned in Britain. Abu Doha is awaiting extradition to the U.S. for his alleged role in directing Ahmed Ressam, the confessed "millennium bomber," whose plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport was thwarted in December 1999.
Virtually everyone linked to the Strasbourg plot a network of people that spanned Ger- many, Italy, Spain, France and Britain has been in contact with Abu Doha. After he was arrested, French sources maintain, the operatives looked to another man, Rabah Kadre, for their orders. But Kadre himself was arrested last November, along with two other North Africans, amid reports officially denied that they were preparing a chemical attack on the London Underground.
Who is commanding the European cells now? According to Jacquard, French intelligence officials say Kadre shared responsibilities in Europe with Abu Mossab al-Sarkaoui, a higher-level al-Qaeda official who left Afghanistan before 9/11, around the same time as Abu Atiyya. Intelligence sources believe al-Sarkaoui is responsible for directing the operatives, including kamikaze sleepers that Abu Atiyya sent to Europe. At some point, many of these people seem to have passed through France. "We're now seeing evidence that a new generation of Islamists has filled al-Qaeda ranks and a good many of them coming from France," says Jacquard. "It's becoming clear that the drama and terrible audacity [of Sept. 11] propelled a lot of fence sitters into the camp of jihad."
While France appears to be a focal point of plotting and transit among al-Qaeda members and sympathizers in Europe, London remains the clandestine center for its logistical, financial, transport and strategic activity. With the latest arrests and the ongoing search for a still-unknown quantity of ricin somewhere in London, fears have increased that the long-dreaded terror attack on the city may be drawing nearer. And experts agree that large numbers of casualties are not needed to meet the terrorists' twisted goals. The spiraling fear factor can wreak havoc as well.