The man they called Mohamed the Egyptian was in his room in Milan, watching a video on his computer. By his side and glued to the screen was Yahia Ragheh, the young Egyptian he was grooming for kamikaze martyrdom.
Playing on the computer was a video of the decapitation of Nick Berg, the American hostage in Iraq.
On the video, the abductors announce their sentence of “execution”, and as Berg screams in agony as the knife bites into his neck, Mohamed the Egyptian yells: “Go to hell, enemy of God! Kill him! Kill him! Yes, like that! Cut his throat properly, cut his head off! If I had been there I would have burnt him, to make him already feel what hell is like. Cut off his head! God is great! God is great!”
The discomfort of Yahia Ragheh is palpable. “Isn’t it a sin?” he asks. Ahmed says: “Who said that? It is never a sin. We hope even their parents will come to the same end. Dogs, all of them, all of them. You simply need to be convinced when you make the decision.”
Mohamed’s real name is Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed. Today he is in jail in Milan, and in January he goes on trial accused of international terrorism. But transcripts of his conversations with his young protege give a chilling insight into what makes a professional Islamist terrorist tick.
For five years Ahmed had run rings round European police, long enough to build contacts with fellow Islamic terrorists all over western Europe. On the tapes, he boasts to his disciple that he was the brains behind last year’s Madrid train bombings in which 191 people died, the worst jihadi atrocity on European soil.
Born in Egypt in 1971, he had been in Italy for five months when his mobile number was retrieved by Spanish police from three of the men accused in the Madrid bombings. The Spanish passed the number to the Italians, and they tapped Ahmed’s phones, wired his Milan apartment and monitored his post and e-mails. Excerpts from the transcripts appeared this week in The New York Times.
Ahmed told Ragheh: “It is a shame we young people must be the first to sacrifice ourselves. There is one solution, join al-Qa’ida. We see death every day; let us hope that God gives us the courage to win. The reward for those who choose death has no limit.” He adds: “I am the thread behind the Madrid plot. Five died as martyrs and eight of them were arrested. They are my best friends, soulmates, faithful. I was ready to blow myself up, but they stopped me, and we obey God’s will.”
Of the ease with which he moved across Europe he boasted: “I know who they are but they don’t know who I am. You confuse them; they won’t know where you came from. You’re clandestine, but you move around with no problem.”
He spoke eagerly of what sounds like a planned attack. “Rome, Rome; if God wishes we are entering, even entering Rome. We are opening Rome with those from Holland.”
The Italians spied on Ahmed for two months but felt compelled to arrest him in June 2004, when his conversations indicated another attack was imminent.
But even in jail he was unable to keep his mouth shut. After denying all involvement with terrorism, in his bugged cell he told Ragheh he was worried officers had “found the internet stuff”, an apparent reference to the vast library of jihadi material he had downloaded.
* An audiotape purportedly from the head of al-Qaida in Iraq said its suicide bombers did not intend to hit a Jordanian wedding party in last week’s Amman hotel bombings that killed 57 people, mostly Muslims. But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi threatened more attacks against hotels and tourist sites and military bases in Jordan and threatened to kill King Abdullah II.
Words of hate
* “You see what they are doing to our brothers in Iraq; you see what they do to Arabs; you see the prisons; you see the humiliation. Isn’t it better to die rather than to stay in prison there?”
* “Our war is very different from all wars. They have always believed in their nuclear arms, in their power, but it won’t help them … They have big things but they are not efficient like our little things. For example, I have seen something in the form of a hair dryer that shoots only air, and with this air it suffocates … With our little things we will create devastating things. The Americans believe in their airplanes and ships, but with us a little thing creates a thousand problems …”
* “Know that I have many friends who died as martyrs in Afghanistan, who also died in jail. The Madrid attack was my project and those who died as martyrs, they are my very dear friends.”