M’Sahel Mohamed Ben Hedi

M’Sahel Mohamed, also known as Mohamed al-Tunsi, was born in Tunis on the 22nd of April 1969. He was arrested in Morocco on the 10th of March 2006 after local authorities understood that he, together with other affiliates, was preparing different terrorist attacks, among which one at the US embassy in Rabat and many others in Europe.

M’Sahel Mohamed was in fact the head and coordinator of a terrorist cell operating in Milan. His cell was affiliated with Ansar al-Islam but had its strongest connections with Al Qaeda and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which was later renamed into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By his admission, M’Sahel had started to radicalise in 2001, when he was attending the mosque in Via Padova in Milan. There he attended a religious course held by Sheikh Abdallah “the Algerian”. He began discussing issues related to jihad and later started going to the Islamic centre in Viale Jenner, a known hot spot for radicals and jihadists, where he had the chance to meet veterans from the war in Bosnia. Both in Via Padova and in Viale Jenner he met those who would later become members of his cell, respectively Koutari Bouchaib and Ghayour Amine, both from Morocco, and Tarkhani Houcine, from Tunisia.
For a time in 2004, M’Sahel also lived in France. In a few recorded contacts between him and another important jihadist in the region of Milan M’Sahel often complained about the situation of Muslims in France, calling the “dogs” and “jews”.
In May 2005, he was also introduced by an acquaintance (who was also involved in a terrorism case) to two other jihadists. The first was Laredj Ameur, an Algerian national who had received military training from the GSPC and who would also later become a member of M’Sahel’s cell. The second was Majrar Anouar.

Together with Majrar, M’Sahel had matured the idea of going to Iraq to fight the coalition’s “occupation” of the country. So in June 2005, M’Sahel reached Damascus (Majrar had been delayed on visa-related issues), but once there his entrance into Iraq was conditioned on his willingness to conduct a suicide attack. As M’Sahel did not feel ready for the sacrifice, he was directed to plan, coordinate, and execute terrorist attacks in Europe, by Majrar, who in the meantime, had himself been instructed to do so by the GSPC leadership. Together with Majrar, M’Sahel had also donated money to be given to the family of mujahiddins, in one particular instance he gave Majrar 400 euros to be given to the Chechen wife of a fighter, who was living in Turkey. Additionally, he was asked by one of the Syrian facilitators for the movement of jihadists into Iraq, to find volunteers in Italy to send to the warzone for suicide operations.

Back in Italy, in November 2005, M’Sahel was involved in coordinating and facilitating the departure of two Algerian nationals, Toufik and Rafik. He informed them of the possibilities and acted as an initial bridge for their communications with the previously mentioned Syrian facilitator, Nabil.
Later, in early January 2006 M’Sahel went to Morocco to meet with two other aspiring jihadists, Touri Abdelhak and Laghlam Adel. He gave them both some money and the phone number of Nabil, Abdelhak also received a passport. He would later go to great lengths to ensure the success of Abdelhak’s trip to Iraq. Initially he had also involved Koutari Bouchaib’s brother to send more money for Abdelhak, testifying to the breadth of his network’s resources, both material and ideological.
While M’Sahel was in Morocco, in a conversation with Tarkhani he asked his associate to send him money from Italy because, as he put it, in Morocco “there is everything, there are the people”. While he and the other members of the cell were often cautious in their wording, especially during phone calls, the context of their operations clearly defined the actual meaning of their conversations. In this case, he meant that in Morocco there were many volunteers ready to leave for Iraq.

Since January M’Sahel was being pressured by Laredj Ameur to come to Algier, in their calls Laredj said the request was to discuss the possibility of marriage, but it was once again clear that he was covering up the real reason. M’Sahel found the occasion at the end of February 2006 when he had to go to Morocco to solve an issue Abdelhak had while in Syria. Since Nabil had been arrested, the man was stranded in the country neighbouring Iraq. M’Sahel therefore tried to arrange another way for him to enter the country and had also asked Ghayour Amine to send money to Abdelhak.
While in Morocco M’Sahel also met with Laredj and Abdelghani Aouiouiche (another radical that M’Shael had met in Italy in 2003), the three discussed their plans for the terrorist attacks in Europe and Morocco. Later, on the 27th, M’Sahel and Laredj travelled to Algier to meet with the leadership of the GSPC, and possibly with Abu Hamza, the link between the GSPC and al-Qaeda. There they planned the training for the newly formed Moroccan terrorist cells and more importantly defined the objectives of the planned attacks in Europe. Attacks were to be conducted in Denmark, in France, specifically targeting a shopping mall and the headquarters of the French intelligence, and in Italy, targeting the church of San Petronio in Bologna – where there is a depiction of the prophet Muhammad in Dante’s hell – and in the metro of Milan. At this meeting, Laredj was tasked with crafting the explosives, and M’Sahel offered to enlist Tarkhani Houcine, as he led a group of radicals in Bologna. It is interesting to note that the attacks in Italy were planned with the intent to influence the upcoming general elections in April so that Italy would withdraw their troops from Iraq in a similar way to what had happened in Spain in 2004. At the meeting M’Sahel was also charged with other responsibilities, such as finding the manpower for the attacks and finding a European citizen who could travel to Pakistan, likely to meet an al-Qaeda contact.

From Algeria, M’Sahel moved together with Laredj back to Morocco where he linked up again with Abdelghani. The man had set up for them a meeting with Abdelfattah Hiddaoui, the leader of the Salafi jihadist current in Morocco. The group once again discussed the plans for the terrorist attacks in Europe, and additionally planned to attack the US embassy in Rabat. Moroccan authorities proceeded, on the 10th of March 2006, to his and others’ arrests following the discovery of these details. M’Sahel was arrested a few days prior to his planned return to Italy, where he should have taken on a new job. It is likely, considering his previous conversations that members of his cell “bought” work contracts just to be able to be legally eligible to stay in the host country, paying the taxes on their work but without undertaking any actual tasks.

It is important to note that many of these activities were financed through two different channels. One was the fencing of stolen cars, which were moved to northern Africa by M’Sahel himself when he conducted his trips there; the other and likely more profitable channel was drug dealing. This particular route was not undertaken by M’Sahel who considered it haram, but was conducted by two other members of his cell and housemates, Koutari Bouchaib, and Ghayour Amine, together with many other accomplices. When the police raided Ghayour’s apartment in Milan, they found 117.000€ hidden away. This money was directly used for both the immediate and living necessities of the group as well as to enable terrorism-related activities.

M’Sahel and his group were found to be very cautious in the conduit of their operations. When making phone calls, they were often cryptic, relying on the other’s knowledge of the topic. They also often made the most sensitive calls not from their personal phones but from phone centres. Lastly, all of the cell members, and M’Sahel most of all, exhibited a high ability to cross borders and move internationally to meet their operational needs.

In 2009, Italian authorities ordered a pre-trial detention order on the grounds that he belonged to a terrorist organisation and that he was helping jihadist volunteers to reach war zones and jihadist camps. But, M’Sahel was already in detention in Morocco.