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The Cleveland Plain Dealer

From Tea-Drinkers To Terrorists

Elizabeth Sullivan

Condoleezza Rice once scoffed at the idea that the U.S. attack on Iraq was creating terrorists. Does anybody think these people were just sitting around drinking tea? Rice demanded rhetorically at a Plain Dealer editorial board meeting in October 2004.

America, she argued, had drawn the terrorist malignancy to the surface in Iraq - and was in the process of irradiating it.

Just Saturday, President Bush congratulated the troops: "Every day, you're doing work on the sands of Anbar that is making it safer in the streets of America."

Except that, unfortunately, evidence keeps surfacing that today's terrorists were just sitting around drinking tea.

Many of the latest crop of 20-something suicide bombers and terrorist suspects in Britain, Germany, India, Bosnia, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Jordan and even Iraq previously were just computer nerds, minor delinquents, would-be engineers, or medical students, often from solidly middle-class backgrounds.

Their ambitious, well-educated parents, typically, had no idea about a radicalization that happened after 2003, often out of their view, in basements as their boys viewed gruesome terrorist videos online, or through hard-line contacts at local mosques, or both.

The three men Germany arrested Wednesday on suspicion of plotting massive bombings to kill Americans in Germany were all 20-somethings whose "hatred of U.S. citizens" drove them to go to Pakistan last year for terrorist training.

That hatred didn't arise in a vacuum. It was driven by expert jihadi propaganda and the confirmatory daily dose of negative news from Iraq.

The IntelCenter, a private Virginia outfit that tracks jihadist propaganda, says in a recent report that al-Qaida's As-Sahab Media operation has churned out an average of one video every three days this year, many featuring senior al-Qaida figures.

The production level itself signifies a heavy commitment of resources and energy, but production values also are rising. An Associated Press analysis found increasingly sophisticated formats, dubbing, graphics and other features that show an effort to reach the widest audience possible.

True, Iraq draws its share of opportunists, looters, true believers and simple butchers.

But even worse is the way Iraq is driving al-Qaida wannabes, offshoots and franchisees onto the World Wide Web.

The most important jihadi arrested in Britain recently wasn't one of the suicide doctors or the polite, self-effacing Indian engineer Kafeel Ahmed, who eventually died of his burns after ramming an explosives-laden Jeep into the side of Glasgow's airport on June 30.

No, it was the nerdy son of a Moroccan tourism official whose computer manipulations in the family home in a quiet part of West London caught his own father by surprise. Younis Tsouli never trained in a terrorist camp in Pakistan or anywhere else. He was a homebody who rarely even left the house or his perch before the basement computer.

But at that perch, he apparently perfected the art of terrorist Web-mastering, transforming the amateurish videos of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Iraq beheadings in Iraq into World Wide Web theater, going by the moniker irhabi007 which roughly translates as Terrorist 007.

Tsouli, who said he repented before drawing a 10-year prison sentence at the Old Bailey earlier this year, was caught largely by accident, because of the 2005 arrest of a Bosnian émigré acolyte in Sarajevo. Tsouli reportedly telephoned Mirsad "Maximus" Bektasevic's cell phone in Sarajevo as Bektasevic, a Swedish citizen, allegedly cased places to bomb.

Yet irhabi007 also was being tracked via the Web fingerprints he may inadvertently have left behind him - a mistake the next generation of terrorist Web masters will try to avoid. One possible gimmick that has the experts concerned: using avatars inside the popular "Second Life" game for real-life terrorist recruiting and communications.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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