Taking tea with a terrorist
Moez Garsallaoui in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in 2008. Photo/CNN
October 17th, 2012
04:44 PM ET

Taking tea with a terrorist

By Paul Cruickshank

He didn't look like a hardened terrorist. A short, meek man with a neatly cropped beard and glasses, Moez Garsallaoui was shy and courteous. He served me and a CNN crew sweet Moroccan tea and north African cakes in the living room of the pinewood Swiss chalet he shared with his Belgian-Moroccan wife.

That was in 2006. Fast forward to the present: A posting on the Shumukh al-Islam Jihadist forum Monday said Garsallaoui had been killed in "a cowardly, treacherous raid" somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. He was 44.

In the intervening six years, he had become a jihadist of some standing, and may have influenced the young Frenchman who carried out a string of shootings in southwest France earlier this year.

"We received the painful news about the killing of another hero of the heroes of this Ummah, and one of its best," the posting by a militant calling himself Abu al-Laith al-Waziri stated, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

A European counterterrorism official told CNN the claim appeared to be credible, but said confirmation of his death had not yet been received.

That cold afternoon in Switzerland, we had actually come to talk with Garsallaoui's wife. She was called Malika el Aroud, and was the widow of Abdessattar Dahmane, an al Qaeda operative who had killed the Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan two days before 9/11.

Back then, she was attracting increasing scrutiny from European security agencies for running a pro-al Qaeda website and was earning a reputation as an "al Qaeda living legend" in radical circles because of a book she published about her time in Afghanistan.

Garsallaoui was tech savvy and showed us how he helped el Aroud administer the website from a computer in their bedroom. He was obviously in awe of his wife and her former husband, the al Qaeda hero.

After Garsallaoui traveled from Europe to the tribal areas of Pakistan in early 2008, the bookish Tunisian was transformed. Paramilitary training bulked up his physique and he became a significant operator in his own right amongst jihadists in the mountains of Waziristan.

In early 2008 he sent a picture of himself to his wife back in Belgium posing with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. "I saw the picture," el Aroud replied to him. "You are so beautiful." In another message - intercepted by U.S. intelligence - he told her he had killed several American soldiers in Afghanistan.

He appeared to be trying to prove to her that he was as worthy a Holy Warrior as her former husband.

In the months before he left for Pakistan, the couple had moved from Switzerland to Belgium, where they had worked to recruit militants to travel to Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO troops. Garsallaoui arranged for a group of Belgian and French militants to travel to Pakistan's tribal areas at the same time he did, and when they got there, he arranged for them to receive training from al Qaeda instructors, according to Belgian court documents.

One of the Belgian militants who traveled with Garsallaoui subsequently testified that Garsallaoui's marriage to Malika el Aroud had "opened doors" for him in Waziristan.

According to Belgian court documents, after his arrival, Garsallaoui formally joined al Qaeda by signing a membership document they presented him. He soon connected with senior al Qaeda operatives, including Abu Leith al-Libi, the group's Libyan military chief, and became acquainted with several al Qaeda recruits, including the American Bryant Neal Vinas.

He later told his wife that on January 31, 2008, he narrowly escaped being killed along with al-Libi in a drone strike after he spent the night at the Libyan's house.

'The archetype of the fanatical terrorist'

European counterterrorism officials believe that although he declared his allegiance to al Qaeda, he kept a significant amount of independence, moving between various groups in North and South Waziristan as a sort of jihadist freelancer.

In late 2008 several of the European militants who had traveled with Garsallaoui to Pakistan returned to Europe, sparking a terror alert in Belgium and a wave of arrests. Among those arrested was his wife, el Aroud, who was subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison. Garsallaoui was convicted in absentia, given the same length sentence, and he was made the subject of an Interpol Red Notice.

"He represents the archetype of the fanatical terrorist, disposed to the worst excesses to see his liberty-depriving philosophy succeed. Human life appears to have little value in his eyes," the Belgian judges who sentenced him concluded.

Several of Garsallaoui's proteges shared that fervor. One of the Belgium-based militants Garsallaoui brought to Pakistan - Hicham Bouhali Zriouil, 33, a former Brussels taxi driver - also developed close ties to al Qaeda's top leadership. Last year, senior Libyan al Qaeda operative Atiyah abd al-Rahman entrusted Zriouil with a mission to help set up al Qaeda's operations in Libya, a Western security official told CNN, but he was arrested in Syria before he made it there. Zriouil was subsequently extradited to Morocco and handed a 20-year prison sentence by a Moroccan court for terrorism-related offences.

In the spring of 2009, Garsallaoui posted a message on a jihadist forum claiming he was fighting beside elements of the Taliban, and making cross-border raids into Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan to target American troops. He delivered this message for Western counterterrorism agencies: "If you thought that you could pressure me to slow down through the arrest of my wife, you were wrong. ... Those who laugh last, laugh more."

Not much was heard from Garsallaoui in the years that followed apart from the occasional statement under one of his many aliases on jihadist forums, and a few online exchanges with Western journalists. Western intelligence agencies believed he was operating mainly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and acting as a facilitator connecting European militants to al Qaeda and other affiliated jihadist groups. They believed that the rising toll of drone strikes had led to Garsallaoui playing an increasingly senior role.

In October 2011, Garsallaoui released a statement railing against democracy in his home country of Tunisia. Two months later, Garsallaoui again surfaced to post a message in support of attacks by a then-little-known al Qaeda affiliated jihadist group in Kazakhstan called Jund al Khilafah, or JaK, according to Western intelligence officials. CNN has seen the posting.

Suspected links to Toulouse shootings

Weeks later, Garsallaoui was in the spotlight of Western intelligence agencies like never before. In March 2012, a French-Algerian jihadist named Mohammed Merah carried out a series of shootings in southwest France that killed seven people, including three Jewish schoolchildren. Merah was eventually killed in a hail of gunfire during a siege at his apartment.

Before he died, Merah spoke with negotiators through a walkie-talkie over a 17-hour period. Some of his claims were at first treated skeptically by French officials, but subsequent investigations corroborated a significant number of details he provided.

Merah said that when he traveled to the tribal areas of Pakistan in September 2011 he connected with a group of al Qaeda fighters reporting up to Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda Libyan operative. He also claimed he was provided weapons training by a Pakistani Taliban grouping.

But he said it was an al Qaeda figure who had spent time in France who encouraged him to return home to launch an attack.

"He told me, 'Return to France, kill them in France' ... and I thought about it, took some time to think seriously about it, and said to myself, 'Go for it, I'll take my chance,'" Merah told the negotiators, according to a transcript of his exchanges with them.

Merah said that he himself planned the shootings, including selecting the targets, and that he had no communication with al Qaeda after his return to France.

In the weeks after the Toulouse siege, Western intelligence agencies came to suspect it was Garsallaoui who encouraged Merah to bring terror to France, a senior Western intelligence official has told CNN.

"That is the working hypothesis, but it's something that's going to be painstakingly difficult to prove," the official told CNN.

The hypothesis is - in part - based on a series of indicators.

The first, according to officials, was that Western intelligence agencies received specific intelligence that Garsallaoui had joined JaK, the Kazakh jihadist group, whose leadership had moved to the tribal areas of Pakistan after a crackdown in Kazakhstan.

This was significant because in wake of the Toulouse shootings, JaK released two claims of responsibility for the attack. Though the claims were dismissed at the time by some as opportunist, subsequent investigations left French intelligence officials in little doubt they were authentic.

A telling alias?

The second indicator came with the second of the JaK statements, issued April 1. The statement was signed by "Abu al-Qa'qa' Al-Andalusi" a name similar to two of Garsallaoui's known aliases - "Abou Souheil al Andalousi" and "Al Molla al Andalousi."

"I knew the brother (Merah) up close, and sat with him on many occasions, and I was for a short time one of those who guided him," Abu al-Qa'qa' Al-Andalusi wrote on April 1. He also outlined how JaK provided Merah weapons training.

A senior U.S. intelligence official told CNN it could not be ruled out that another North African jihadist in JaK authored the claim, as the jihadist fighting name al-Andalusi is popular with North African jihadists.

The third indicator, according to officials, was that the author of the April 1 statement claimed to have spoken French with Merah, recognized that his accent came from southern France, and acted as his interpreter. Garsallaoui was fluent in French.

The Shumukh al-Islam posting Monday confirmed Garsallaoui's membership in JaK, describing him as the group's "emir," or top leader. It added that he ran a center where he trained Kazakh militants in explosives and other tradecraft so they could return home to wage jihad. In confirming his link to JaK, he provided intelligence services with a fourth, and perhaps most compelling, indicator of a link between the Toulouse shooter and Garsallaoui.

The Shumukh al Islam posting also implicated Garsallaoui in the abduction of a Swiss tourist couple in the Pakistani province of Balochistan in July 2011. The two were kidnapped as they traveled in their camping van, and were subsequently taken by militants to the tribal areas of Pakistan. In March 2012 the couple walked free from their captors. The Swiss government denied media reports that it had paid a ransom.

A European counterterrorism official told CNN that Western intelligence agencies had suspected Garsallaoui of involvement in the kidnapping, and the posting provided a stronger indication of that.

soundoff (43 Responses)
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    March 13, 2013 at 12:58 am | Reply
  2. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

    ура Родины!

    October 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      Heil the revolution! Heil the war communism!

      October 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  3. Tom Swinburn

    This reads like a Tom Clancy novel. From my perspective it appears Muslim extremists are losing ground. Moderate Muslims are increasingly speaking up & OPENLY denouncing terrorist tactics. I admire that because it takes real courage. BUT, that is what it will take to defeat Muslim terrorism. The extremists are becoming their own worst enemies, thru acts such as the attempted murder of Malala. Muslims have reached the point that they will no longer accept being murdered by their own. The hunting down of terrorists will continue for a while. But I see an end to it, whereas previously I had thought I never would in my lifetime.

    October 18, 2012 at 6:05 am | Reply
    • Saeed Kapoor

      Not until the kashmir and palestinian issues are resolved to the satisfaction of muslims. There will never be peace. take that to the bank

      October 18, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  4. Ethan

    Misguided fools. It's entertaining learning about dead terrorists. Send em to whatever god they please.

    October 18, 2012 at 4:19 am | Reply
  5. jiri pincas

    It is obvious we are going to destroy our planet and every living soul and we won't be happy until we have done it.

    October 18, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
    • Alex

      Maybe we're just seeking quicker reconciliation with reunion with God.

      October 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  6. maestra730

    Tea with a terrorist. Happens at the White House all the time.

    October 18, 2012 at 12:39 am | Reply
    • Wow.

      So turn off Fox News, take off your tin-foil hat, stop whining and GET THE HELL OUT.

      October 18, 2012 at 7:57 am | Reply
    • Alex

      Yes, those people at the White House scare me more than the terrorists in the news.

      October 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  7. Atlanta_Indian

    The guys commenting on india are morons obsessed with india for some reason only they can understand. this article is not on india and india is 50000 miles away from this article. India has Hindu majority but what the dumbheads listing hindu organization doesnt know that india has the largest muslim population in the world after indonesia. To say India is the best secular country in the world would be very logical. Hindu, Muslims, Christain, Sikh, Buddhist all religion not only survive but thrive in India. Yes India is very populated country and moron politicians of india plus moron people shall wait and watch how india is going to rise and thrash them out.

    October 17, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Reply
    • Umar

      Seriously INDIA a secular nation. Please ask muslims of Gujrat , Kashmir, Sikhs of Khalistan, the seven sisters, The Naxalites and Kashmir that if INDIA is secular or not.

      October 18, 2012 at 6:40 am | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA.

      INDIA: S@X WITH COWS
      In many Hindu temples there are sculptures depicting men having s@x not only with women but also cows. What is the meaning of this? Is not the cow sacred? If it is, then it should be worshipped not s@xually assaulted!
      Don't tell me this is secularism, pllease !!!

      October 18, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
    • Owen1710

      The disenchantment of minorities is evident by the recent uprising in India. From Bangalore to Mumbai, to Goa to Kerala and Chennai and Pune not to forget Assam and onto New Delhi ..... this is a premonition of epic proportions. We are witnessing the implosion of India..some will grasp it now while others will need to see it in the rear view mirror.

      October 18, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  8. In the Name of Krishna

    We now need to focus on India. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    October 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  9. Brandon Doggett

    I have one question. If this man is a known terrorist andhis location was known, which is obvious due to the fact that CNN was able to sit and have tea with the man. then why are we not taking action and bringing this guy in? Are we waiting for another tragedy to happen before we take action? I understand there are laws and proticall for these type of situations, but it makes no since to wait until a major catastrophe to happen to take action. That is what we did with Bin Laden and lthe outcome of our lack of action has forever crippled America mentally, physically, emotionally, and econmically.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
    • B

      Can you read? It says they had tea with him in 2006, 6 years ago!

      October 17, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
    • Herpa Derp

      Can't you read? HE'S ALREADY DEAD.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      TERRORIST GROUPS IN INDIA

      • RASHTRIYA SWAYAM SEWAK SHANG (R.S.S.)
      • VISHWA HINDU PARISHAD
      • HINDU MUNNANI
      • ARYA SAMAJ
      • SHIV SENA
      • BHARATIYA JANATA PARISHAD
      • SANT SAMITI
      • HINDU MAHASABHA
      • BAAJRANG DAL

      Drone these b@stards !!!

      October 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  10. Anti_Jihad

    Pakistan is a magnet for all kinds of Islamic terrorist human garbage and the US tax payers get to pay for cleaning up this cesspool called Pakistan.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Reply
    • Carlyle

      With such "Dark Age" culture still in existence in India how can the world be healthy and the neighbors prosperous. India poses a grave danger to the world and its deities and leaders set a bad example. Mahatma Gandhi, a pedophile, needs to be exposed and tried posthumously for his child molestation crimes just like the Penn State crowd Sandusky et al. Gandhi's statutes need to be knocked down everywhere they have been put in USA. The hindu deities need to be shattered and trashed. Disgusting figurines of ugly and scary looking characters with demonic personalities. How can hindu children grow up mentally stable looking at such atrocious representations of evil in its most heinous form.

      October 17, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Reply
    • Umar

      wow amazing to find out that only Pakistan is the magnet for all terrorists. should i remind u of who is playing a football game in the tribal areas... AMERICA.. please write something useful next time.

      October 18, 2012 at 6:43 am | Reply
  11. pierre le monde petunia

    Sometime back there was an interesting blog on India "The bubble of India has burst: Humpty Dumpty has Fallen”. We here in Haiti continue to monitor the political and cultural turmoil in India as a large percentage of our population are sugar cane slaves from India. As of now, we reiterate our view that Hindu State of India is in a precarious situation and that a geo-political implosion is imminent (if not already in process) and the need of the hour. As you will recall, India was initially broken into pieces by Arabs, Afghanis, Persians, Pakistanis, and lately by Chinese and so on. And rest assured that is not the end. India is mired in poverty and has a suppressive regime with respect to minorities. Substantial aid by the world over the years to India has failed to reverse the downward trends. We can now confirm that India has become unmanageable. If it is not imploded in a controlled manner we are afraid China will chew it up and spit it out. Therefore, we urge the UN general assembly to put this high on their agenda and vote “YES” to further breaking up India. We further propose the following areas be amalgamated with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and China. In God We Trust.

    Kashmir
    Bihar
    Punjab
    Himachal Pradesh
    Uttar Pradesh
    West Bengal
    Uttarakhand
    Rajasthan

    We wish our friends in India God Speed and may the courage of Maoists bless its soul.

    October 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • Umar

      ahem u forgot to mention Assam my friend... :)

      October 18, 2012 at 6:46 am | Reply
    • P

      You sure are jealous! Stop spreading lies and the same goes to all other posts from Pakistanis disguised as Patrick, Carlyle etc.

      October 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  12. George Patton

    "It is no secret that Hitler and his Nazi cronies sought inspiration from Indian extremist groups including the branding of his Nazi Party by adopting the Swastika, a traditionally Hindu symbol and representation of Hindu god Ganesha, as its marketing tool. The thesis being that like the Norwegian massacre the Jewish holocaust orchestrated by Hitler was inspired by the inherently violent cult of Indian Hindus and the manifesto of its then extremist/terrorist groups still in existence today. These groups are now the successors to and carrying out the vision of Al Qaeda all over the world albeit in a clandestine manner."

    Let me quote another instance of this disgraceful disposition:
    It is no secret that Mahatma Gandhi (Hindu leader) was a pedophile. What is very disturbing is his relationship (!) and friendship with Hitler. He is known to have offered advice and encouragement to Hitler and his Nazi Party to undertake the Jewish Holocaust."

    October 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • jc

      Lies! He tried to persuade Hitler to stop the war. He was married to his wife when they were both 13, as was common in that time

      October 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • Chesapeake

        Are you ashamed to identify yourself as an Indian on this forum?

        A few months ago an auction was being arranged in Europe of Gandhi's letters and other artifacts corroborating the foregoing. Apparently, the Indian government with assistance from expatriate Indian businessmen muscled the auctioneers and put a stop to this auction.

        Do you have an answer for this?

        October 17, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
      • Chesapeake

        He left his wife to bang underage boys!!!! Bapu was a boy banger.

        October 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  13. Parick

    I fee the same when I talk to Pakistanis, talking with terrorists. First impression is the last impression.

    October 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      You must be a member of these ku klux klan type terror groups in India.

      TERRORIST GROUPS IN INDIA

      • RASHTRIYA SWAYAM SEWAK SHANG (R.S.S.)
      • VISHWA HINDU PARISHAD
      • HINDU MUNNANI
      • ARYA SAMAJ
      • SHIV SENA
      • BHARATIYA JANATA PARISHAD
      • SANT SAMITI
      • HINDU MAHASABHA
      • BAAJRANG DAL

      LEADERS: L.K. Advani/ Ashok Singhal/ Bala Saheb Devaras/ Bal Thackeray/ A.B. Vajpayee/ Savarkar/ Baikunnth Lal Sharma “Prem”/ Balraj Madhok/ The Shankaracharya of Puri, Niranjan Dev Theerth/ Rama Gopalan/ Variyar – Vishwan Hindu Parishad/ Dharmalinga Nadar/ Cho Ramaswamy

      October 17, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
      • Kelly

        Dude... Did you just type a bunch of random letters? Cause that just don't look right...

        October 18, 2012 at 9:12 pm |

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