Exclusive: French Officials Detail “Big Coup” Bust of Key Al-Qaeda Enabler

French counter-terror authorities tell TIME about a Tunisian arrested on suspicion of being a central figure in al-Qaeda's activity on the internet and in the terrorist network's recruitment, and fund-raising.

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Mal Langsdon / Reuters

France's top anti-terror judge Marc Trévidic poses for a portrait in Paris September 1, 2011. Trévidic interrogated the unnamed suspect.

One email confirmed receipt of money used to buy Kalashnikov machine guns. Another message expressed thanks for funds that went to the purchase rocket launchers. Still other missives discussed the recruitment and transport of volunteers to jihad, or sent information about traveling government officials who might be vulnerable targets for terrorist attacks. And those are just a few of countless internet exchanges French security officials are now pouring over following the arrest of a man accused of being a key enabler of communications between extremist groups allied to al-Qaeda around the globe.

“This a very big coup, not only because of what we know from messages we’ve read, but because there are just so many more still waiting to be unencrypted and examined,” says a senior French counter-terrorism official, referring to the June 29 arrest of a 35 year-old Tunisian man in the southern city Toulon for suspected terror activity. “Here’s a guy who, as administrator of one of the biggest radical websites on earth, was the conduit of messages between the main jihadi groups in Yemen, Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, And we’ve got his files. It’s a big deal.”

News of the arrest was revealed July 3 by French prosecutors, who claim they’ve established that the suspect had been involved in a range of activities on behalf of al-Qaeda-linked organizations. Those allegedly included overseeing secure internet communications, raising funds; recruitment and transport of aspiring jihadi for indoctrination and military training; and providing information about bomb-building and potential targets. Following his questioning Tuesday by Marc Trévidic, France’s leading magistrate in terrorism cases, the suspect was placed under official investigation for association with terror groups and related charges—a step akin to being charged under French law.

According to French authorities who spoke with TIME, the suspect’s web activities shuttled encrypted messages between groups that included al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan; the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); North Africa’s al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, and others. French security officials described the Tunisian as the hub of the internet-based wheel of communications that extremists used to stealthily exchange information with one another.

“About three-quarters of the messages we discovered were encrypted, which avoided detection while he recruited people, raised funds in appeals over the net, or relayed requests or alerts between extremist groups,” the counter-terrorism official says, offering some examples. “That could be a tip that a Saudi minister was about to arrive in Yemen, and may be vulnerable to attack. That money was needed for a plot or arms procurement. That recruits were on the way somewhere for training and deployment—the works.”

“This is a very intelligent, well-educated, experienced and organized expert in secure internet communication, and isn’t the kind of professional extremist you turn up every day,” he continues. “And despite working out of Toulon, he isn’t someone whose actions or contacts were primarily in France or Europe. This guy was moving people, money, and messages around the world.”

The Tunisian suspect—whose name is not being disclosed—arrived in France in 2003, where he’s lived since on a valid resident permit. Several years later his alleged visits and activity on radical websites and forums caught the attention of radical leaders abroad, with whom the suspect struck up increasingly close relations. In 2008—apparently impressed with his work on the web, and confident they could trust him—those extremist leaders reportedly tapped the Tunisian to become administrator of the website favored by Islamist radicals. According to investigators, the suspect then assumed that role, effectively aiding the cause of international jihad.

His existence was detected after investigators busted a Paris recruitment network of volunteers for Afghanistan in 2007. When they began scrutinizing people who appeared at the periphery of that bust, they found the Toulon-based Tunisian, who’d had internet contact with the Paris network. Further monitoring of his web activity allowed authorities to identify the suspect’s deepening involvement with extremist websites and forums—and what appeared to be his increasing net-based efforts on behalf of far-flung terror groups, officials tell TIME. By late June, 2011, authorities had enough evidence on his operational role to kick off a yearlong period of intense surveillance and interceptions that ended with his arrest last Friday.

Others preceded it. According to French officials, multiple busts of fellow extremists the Tunisian had been in contact with have taken place in recent weeks. They decline to provide further information on those, however, to avoid compromising sweeps that may still be pending. Pressed for details on how many volunteers and how much money may have been involved in the suspect’s activity, one official replied that the count has only begun.

“So far we’re absolutely sure about five recruits sent to Afghanistan and Yemen, but since we still have a huge amount of emails to unencrypt and examine, it’s assumed those numbers will be considerably higher by the time we’re done,” said the official, noting the same thinking was being applied to funds raised. “We’ve already got two emails from Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon thanking (the suspect) for the money, and saying the funds bought Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. It already seems evident that considerable sums were involved in all this, but whether that’s thousands, tens of thousands, etc. will be impossible to determine until we’ve read all the emails.”

French authorities say the enormous volume of messages seized not only reflects the suspect’s utility and central role in communications between extremist groups. They say it’s also a product of the large number of groups operating across a wide geographical area that became connected through the Tunisian’s efforts. “It’s rare to find an individual acting as an enabler of extremist activity of this scope,” says the first counter-terrorism official. “He’d almost have to be a leader of an operative terror network himself to represent a bigger catch.”

63 comments
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tjweibelzahl
tjweibelzahl

This discussion is off the topic.  Here we certainly have a Muslim man who is a terrorist and who has operated with impunity for these many years.  That he is a Muslim is less of an issue than that he is a terrorist.   There are many wonderful people in this world of ours and many are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and so forth.  It is not religion that is bad or dangerous but rather the politicization of religion for political ends that is dangerous.   Though a wonderful catch in shutting this particular terrorist down, hubris on part of the authorities dictated 'yelling about this coop from the media roof tops' when the authorities ought to have kept it under wraps and exploited the information for all it was worth.

I have a better idea.  Pest control people and gardeners know that when you feed ants (a common pest responsible for the destruction of a lot of property) a certain sugar based poison or the exoskeleton of microscopic diatoms, they will take these substances back to their nest and the whole nest will be destroyed.  That is how we need to deal with terrorists.  Use their systems against them; use their beliefs against them and poison their organizations from within.  Just creating the paranoia that they can not trust anyone from within will destabilize the whole and turn them against themselves.  

Guest
Guest

All the France bashing aside, they seem to be deeply imbedded in the terrorists activities over there. They air their successes, while the U.S. seems to fly beneath the radar on their covert terrorist intel...........................

noleman1
noleman1

Surprised that France can get anything done since they only work 32- 35 hours per week!

Keith Long
Keith Long

I say keep them all out of civilized countries. If the $unnys and the $hittys want to kill each other so be it.

Keith Long
Keith Long

I'm wondering why the European countries and the US too keep allowing these scum to immigrate. Force them to stay in their own countries and let the sunnys and the shittys kill each other as long as they leave civilized people alone.

ArchieDeBunker
ArchieDeBunker

The Frogs have to blow their own horn, because after their performance (uh, lack of, notably) in WWII, they've never had nor deserved any respect.  How many other nations would insist on feeding their monumental ego by posting a "portrait" of their "hero" - instead of the perp?

By the way, France, have you begun to pay back the money you stole from the Food For Oil plan over the 15 years that you helped the U. N.  avoid taking any action against Sadam Hussein?

jambouburgess
jambouburgess

don t you love Mr Murdock and his croonies feeding you lies for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

such a fool you are.

Ananya Morino
Ananya Morino

Amazing how American media will not highlight this achievement of the French, especially Fox. Why is this not on the nightly news? Oh, thats right, the french. They couldn't possibly do as well as us! Lets all go pour wine down a sewer and rename food items into frathouse niknames that are like, ummm super patriotic and stuff.

Bill Flosi
Bill Flosi

Boy there's just talking to so many of you here!!  Muslims ARE the scourge.......a disease on the planet.  So many brain-washed misinformed ignorant fools that think that their 'holy book' actually condones these acts of terrorism.  I don't have to see them, or live with them, or put up with watching them bow down six times a day and kiss the dirt.....well guess where I'd like to tell 'em all to kiss?

And another thing.....feds, if you know they have all of these websites, why don't you take 'em down??  They don't deserve the privilege of using a system so worthwhile....get them some paper and a pen and tell them to go visit a nearby cave!

nana1954
nana1954

Still waiting CNN for information on :"

State Department investigating shipment of computers and other sophisticated equipment to North Korea and Iran by way of an obscure United Nations agency, despite ongoing UN and US sanctions against both governments aimed at blocking their development of nuclear weapons."On Iran threatening US bases and a few other stories you are choosing to ignore - why is that????

Mark Mende
Mark Mende

OK, I expect a level of illiteracy on CNN, but Time???

"One email confirmed receipt of money used to buy Kalashnikov machine

guns. Another message expressed thanks for funds that went to the

purchase rocket launchers."

In the first paragraph?????? Does online journalism now mean we don't care about grammar, spelling errors, typos, etc?

MeJustMe
MeJustMe

It could be a poor translation from French especially if the reporter/editor used a computer translation program.

idoubt
idoubt

Time does what it has been doing ever sine: spreading zi onist lies and spins.

solly61
solly61

instead time should be arming their reporters with shoe bombs, underwear bombs, acid vials to throw at idoubts children and poison to throw in idoubts well but only after murdering french children, burning churches in nigeria and kenya and destroying buddhist and muslim historical sites.......oooooooooooooooo "zionists"! Coo Coo!!

taxedmore
taxedmore

Too bad France does not have the death penalty.

Frankie Moon
Frankie Moon

You allowed a MUSLIM into your nation knowing perfectly well that they worship ALLAH. In their eyes, THERE ARE NO LAWS OTHER THAN THE LAWS IN THE QURAN and the word of ALLAH. Get it? Also the fact that ALLAH tells "ALL" Muslims that if they befriend ANY non Muslim then they are ONE OF THEM. In other words, their God, Allah who states in the Koran that all non Muslims are Vile and unclean and if any Muslim befriends a non Muslim then Allah will curse them!

In case you haven't figured out why they all live together and wont have anything to do with filthy infidels. NOW YOU KNOW WHY! THEIR GOD FORBIDS IT! So how in the he11 do you propose to INTEGRATE THESE SAVAGES into a FREE NATION? Not to mention they get REWARDED BY THIS GOD FOR KI11ing non believers who wont convert! This is just a drop on the OCEAN of reasons to BAN ISLAM FROM THE WEST!

Just those few facts right there are MORE THAN ENOUGH reason to BAN ISLAM and Muslims from ANY FREE COUNTRY!

That's just plain ol COMMON SENSE!

Ananya Morino
Ananya Morino

thank goodness you cleared that up for me. I just don't know what I would do without  anonymous cyber authorities deciding 'how it is' for the rest of us. Thank you so much for enlightening all of us. i am so glad you have all the universal truths. 

You would be much better served injecting your bloodstream with bleach. I pray your children are gang-raped by HIV poz muslims who slash their throats in front of your eyes you ignorant piece of filth. DIE.

Bill Flosi
Bill Flosi

 You are 'thee' most idiotic ash-hole on these blogs!!

ED4
ED4

There are Christians that will tell you the bible is the word of god and any deviation from it is a path straight to hell. Not much different than Muslim thinking. If people would just ask "Does this make sense", the world would be a better place.

Emil Posavac
Emil Posavac

But the New Testament does NOT say to attack them. "Thinking" is not the same as buying and using weapons. Then we could  ask whether you understand what the New Testament says.

Keith Long
Keith Long

 I think pretty much all Christians would leave the muslims alone if they would leave us alone. Unfortunately, they are taught that anyone in the world who is non-muslim is not worthy of life.

GemgirlT
GemgirlT

But the vast majority of those Christians aren't willing to kill you for your non-belief.  They may want to try to convert you, but normally if you tell them 'no thanks' they stop - or you can just walk away while they're talking (my favorite, I can read fiction thank you very much).

Most thinking people can differentiate between what is right versus what is morally wrong.  Why can't extremist followers of Islam??

pauln
pauln

Religion - what a joke it is! Islam follows Christianity in the same was Christianity follows Judaism. Allah is just arabic for "god". Hebrews called god "Jehova". You need to read your bible, mate - and the Koran. Number 1 person int he Koran is Mohammed. Number 2 is Moses. Number 3 is Jesus of Nazareth. All religion is bad.

Aiman Zayed
Aiman Zayed

Actually Mohammad is mentioned only twice, Jesus is the most mentioned prophet in the quran and virgin Mary is mentioned a few times as well

Gussssss
Gussssss

 Common sense, insane bigotry... six of one, half dozen of the other, really.

Bill Flosi
Bill Flosi

 How the hell do you call a person who hates terrorists a bigot??  Wake up!

InFormed98
InFormed98

Just like the Irish with their Catholic worshiping and their damn extremist group the IRA. We need to ban the Irish from entering the UK.

Keith Long
Keith Long

 If the UK had stayed out of Ireland the IRA would never have existed.

JJBust
JJBust

Or Brittain can just get out of Ireland

WallyGeez
WallyGeez

Unbelievable: France (and Europe) have imported all of their major troubles by opening their doors to the Muslim world.  Scandinavia is next: 10% of their population is now Muslim, the breeding ground for trouble.

Stephen
Stephen

My ńeighboŕ's mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė laṖt0Ṗ for a ƒew hours. Gŏ to this web siṫe and ŕead morė.. CashLazy.com

Stephen
Stephen

My bestfriend is making $50/HR online. It’s been 1 year that she has no work wow the other day she made $1000 for a few hours. I think the site was CashLazy.com

 

 

InFormed98
InFormed98

 Just like the Irish with the IRA. We need to ban the Irish from entering the UK.

Ananya Morino
Ananya Morino

Don't they have hobbies over there in the UK for you to preoccupy your stupidity with? In fact, I hear there might be some male divers in tiny speedos getting ready to compete. Maybe you can salivate over the sight of that and touch yourself in all the dark dirty ways you fantasize about you feral minded closet case. Go make love to a shot gun.

JJBust
JJBust

Had the Irish banned the Brittish from Ireland in the first place there never would have been the "troubles".

Stephen
Stephen

My ńeighboŕ's mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė laṖt0Ṗ for a ƒew hours. Gŏ to this web siṫe and ŕead morė.. CashLazy.com

Stephen
Stephen

My ńeighboŕ's mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė laṖt0Ṗ for a ƒew hours. Gŏ to this web siṫe and ŕead morė.. CashLazy.com

Stephen
Stephen

My ńeighboŕ's mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė internet for a few hours. Here's the site to read more CashLazy.com

Stephen
Stephen

My ńeighboŕ's mŏther-iń-ląw Maḱes $8O houŕly on the laptoṗ. She has bėėn out of w0rḱ for 7 months but last Ṁonth her ińcome wąs $8734 just worḱińg on thė laṖt0Ṗ for a ƒew hours. Gŏ to this web siṫe and ŕead morė.. CashLazy.com

JJBust
JJBust

In response to PaulN:  Yes, I see, invading with armies makes all the difference in the world.

pauln
pauln

What a load of old crap! The british invaded ireland, with armies. There were battles (Battle of the Boyne being the famous one). It all happened hundreds of years ago. The french aren't putting up signs saying "muslims please come and invade us", they're just following the international laws and letting people with a right to live there - live there!

Frankie Moon
Frankie Moon

 The part that blows my mind is THEY ARE STILL IMPORTING THE SAVAGES! They should be DEPORTING THEM! and BANNING ISLAM!

InFormed98
InFormed98

 Ban the Irish! (Except the pretty red-headed girls, they can stay)

Stephen
Stephen

My bestfriend is making $50/HR online. It’s been 1 year that she has no work wow the other day she made $1000 for a few hours. I think the site was CashLazy.com

 

Stephen
Stephen

My bestfriend is making $50/HR online. It’s been 1 year that she has no work wow the other day she made $1000 for a few hours. I think the site was CashLazy.com

 

Ananya Morino
Ananya Morino

You are a homosexual that hangs out in urine filled alleys.