Like any master salesman, Karim Bourti knows how to tailor his pitch to the audience at hand. The product he's selling is Islamist terrorism, and Bourti a self-described Paris-based recruiter for international jihad calls his technique takiya, a two-faced approach that conceals his true beliefs from the uninitiated. When he's talking to a militant "brother," Bourti, 35, a heavy-set French-Algerian man with shoulder-length hair, speaks boldly of his desire to die in the struggle. When his audience is a potential convert still wary of Bourti's violent message, he softens his words. But Bourti may be at his most effective when he's teasing tough, worldly Arab street kids, tapping into their simmering feelings of social exclusion. "He'd see the trendy Yankees caps, the Levis, the Nikes and say, 'Bravo you gave what little money you had to the infidel who hates your Arab blood,'" says Mohamed Sifaoui, an Algerian journalist who says he was recruited by Bourti late last year while posing as an extremist. "He'd say, 'They reject you. Have some pride. Pay them back for punishing you, by becoming a real Muslim.'"
Bourti arranges free courses in Arabic for recruits, Sifaoui says, and punctuates scripture readings with comments glorifying jihad, mujahedin fighters and Osama bin Laden. Later, small groups of the most promising recruits are taken for week-long retreats in the mountains, forests or remote areas for exercise, Islamic discussion and bonding. "It's more like a Scouts' outing than military training," says a senior French terror investigator. "Except Scout masters don't use relationships forged for Islamist activity once they get home." Youths who prove their commitment may be sponsored to attend real al-Qaeda training camps in Chechnya or Pakistan. Sifaoui says Bourti claimed personal responsibility for sending at least two French citizens to al-Qaeda camps: Brahim Yadel, now a prisoner at Guant�namo, and Hervé Djamel Loiseau, who was found frozen and dead in the mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001.
With Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in custody and the noose appearing to tighten around the elusive bin Laden, al-Qaeda may seem to be crumbling. But men like Bourti operate independently of those terror kingpins and French officials worry that a war against Iraq will make it easier for Bourti and his ilk to attract new recruits by further alienating Muslims. Sifaoui, who has just published a book about his experiences with Bourti, My "Brothers," the Assassins, agrees. "Iraq holds the promise of another jihad for Bourti and his Islamist recruits," he says. "'Afghanistan is gone, now God has given us Iraq.'"
Bourti brought his extremism from Algeria to Paris in 1996, and began working among Islamist groups almost immediately. His talents as a recruiter and fund raiser, say French investigators, led the
Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (gspc) to tap him as their main Paris operative. The group linked up with al-Qaeda in 1998, and its members were arrested and charged with planning terror attacks for the 1998 World Cup in France. Bourti was among those convicted, and he served three years. In an on-camera interview filmed last November and aired on TV network France 2 in January, he abandoned the careful calibrations of takiya. "I encourage and incite people to wage jihad," he declared. "The world must be ruled by the word of Allah. The only person following true Islam today is Sheik Osama bin Laden." These days, Bourti is encouraging, inciting and recruiting people in jail French authorities locked him up in January on terrorism-related charges. Though he claims to want to die for jihad, Bourti's French citizenship, verbal skills and multi-tasking abilities make him more valuable alive. "Next to his martyrdom, I'm nothing," Sifaoui quotes Bourti as saying of Loiseau, the recruit who died in Tora Bora. But alluding to his own fund-raising work he added, "You have to remember that a bullet costs 22 francs these days."