Courtesy Reuters

The Secret Agents: Life Inside an al Qaeda Cell

In This Review

Mes Frères Assassins

By Mohamed Sifaoui
Le Cherche Midi, 2003
173 pp. $0.00

Karim Bourti and Mohamed Sifaoui met in Paris in October 2002, at the trial of Algerian Islamist radicals who had terrorized the city with a series of 1995 bombings. Bourti, himself a militant Islamist, was attending the trial to support the defendants; Sifaoui, a journalist, was covering it for a Luxembourg newspaper. In furtive conversations at the hearings, the two men established that they had strikingly similar profiles: raised in the same neighborhood in Algiers, they had gone to the same high school and now both lived as exiles in France. Bourti took Sifaoui for a potential recruit; Sifaoui saw an opportunity to get a great story by infiltrating Bourti's circle, a cell of the al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym, GSPC).

Bourti was no big fish; he ran a lucrative traffic in fake brand-name clothes and pressured Parisian imams to let him collect funds in their mosques. Still, as a mid-level GSPC operative, he might also have recruited and hosted terrorists traveling through Europe, including the shoe bomber Richard Reid. So for more than three months in 2002, Sifaoui, posing as a fellow radical, attended meetings with Bourti's associates in Paris and in London. Mes Frères Assassins is the diary of his imposture.

Sifaoui sets out to depict the daily workings of a jihadist cell in a non-Muslim country. This might seem like a modest goal, but since many of the operatives involved in the September 11 attacks and in the broader jihad emerged from groups such as Bourti's, the shadowy world of the radical rank-and-file deserves close attention.

In some ways, what Sifaoui finds is underwhelming. Bourti's militants do provide funds and moral support to imprisoned terrorists and logistical help to would-be militants. More often, however, they peddle their dogma like salesmen, distributing free dinners spiced with jihadist messages to the needy or delivering a dose of comfort and militant Islam to the sick in public hospitals. Petty cadres in a vast community of immigrants,

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