Listening for Signs of Danger
Translators involved in the war on terrorism must interpret nuances of dialect and culture. Often, they're caught between two worlds.
By Sebastian Rotella
Times Staff Writer
December 11, 2004
PARIS — As a crack interpreter for anti-terrorism investigators, "Wadad" fights the war of the words.
She deciphers North African dialects, Middle Eastern accents and the French Arabic slang of jail yards and housing projects. She braves the crossfire during marathon interrogations of suspected terrorists who snarl at the presence of a female interpreter or recite Koranic verses. She cracks the codes of gunslinger theologians for whom "visiting an aunt" means going to prison and "preparing a marriage" means a suicide attack.
Wadad's job with a French anti-terrorism agency requires the skills of a linguist, a detective, a historian. It requires bleary-eyed hours transcribing wiretaps and documents. It carries huge responsibility: An interpreter can detect an imminent attack, put an innocent man behind bars, make or break a case.
Because of the danger involved, Wadad agreed to provide a glimpse of her secretive world only on the condition that her identity be shielded.
"It's certainly delicate work," she said. "I am completely absorbed by it. I have a passion for it. I am aware of how important it is. I know I don't have the right to make a mistake."
In Europe and especially in the United States, anti-terrorism agencies contend with an acute shortage of Arabic-speaking investigators and translators, say veteran European law enforcement officials. As Western security forces strain to confront and comprehend terrorism by Islamic extremists, one of their greatest challenges is the recruitment of skilled, trustworthy linguists.
"The translators are overworked, underpaid and scared," an Italian official said.
In Italy, a North African translator quit a law enforcement job because militants threatened him while he was visiting his homeland. Dutch police recently arrested an intelligence service translator, accusing him of acting as a double agent. This year's deadly train bombings in Madrid revealed overwhelming workloads for translators, delays in listening to and transcribing intercepts, and a lack of specialists with analytical skills or expertise in the many Arabic dialects.
"There are a lot of bad translators," said Alain Grignard, a veteran commander of Belgium's federal police and one of the few senior investigators in Europe who speak fluent Arabic. "The real solution is to team up translators with police analysts who know some Arabic. It's very demanding. You have to understand the religious and historical references. The Islamists talk about events in the Middle Ages as if they had happened yesterday."
Grignard cited a public statement by Osama bin Laden in which the Al Qaeda leader compared President Bush to Hulagu Khan, a Mongol chieftain and grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Baghdad in 1258.
Harried European and U.S. authorities sometimes enlist the help of Arab spy agencies, particularly from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, officials say. But that risks security breaches and manipulation. Similarly, a tendency to recruit non-Muslim Arabs can backfire because some Lebanese Christians or Egyptian Coptics might be influenced by religious resentments, Grignard said.
France probably has the biggest and best cadre of linguists, European officials say. Its population of Arabic origin is the continent's largest, drawing on Francophone diasporas from North Africa and Lebanon. Outbreaks of terrorism here in the 1980s and '90s spurred the French to build a robust security apparatus.
Challenges persist, a senior French anti-terrorism official said.
"It's harder to get Pakistani interpreters," he said. "And with Iranians it is very difficult, because their intelligence service is so good at infiltration."
The Italian proverb "Traduttore, traditore" ("Translator, traitor") apparently became reality in the Netherlands. In September, police arrested a translator for the AIVD spy agency. He has been identified only as Outmar ben A., 34, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent. He had left a post at the immigration service to work for the intelligence agency half a year before his arrest, according to AIVD spokesman Vincent van Steen.
He fell under suspicion after police found classified documents in Utrecht homes raided in connection with a suspected bomb plot, Van Steen said. Outmar allegedly tipped off the suspects, enabling them to get rid of explosives before the roundup.
Police want to determine whether Outmar was already in league with extremists when he was hired, Van Steen said. The case recalls the arrest last year of a Syrian-born translator for the U.S. Air Force who had been assigned to the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was accused of spying.
Faulty translations can also cause havoc. The senior French official cited a hijacking scare last year that led to the cancellation of half a dozen flights from Paris to Los Angeles during the Christmas holidays. The alert resulted partly from a U.S. intercept of a communication in Arabic. After examining the original language, French experts concluded that their U.S. counterparts had interpreted it to seem more menacing than it really was, the senior official said.
"The translation was inaccurate from A to Z," the official said. "And we showed this to the Americans."
Names on the flights' passenger lists that resembled names on terrorism watch lists heightened worries about a plot. But U.S. and French agents found no passengers with ties to extremism. Although U.S. officials acknowledge that there were differences of opinion between French and American investigators and even among U.S. agencies, they have said that the cancellations were based on well-founded concerns.
The West's varying approaches to spelling Arabic names can cause confusion. A Jordanian cleric jailed in London on charges of being Al Qaeda's leading ideologue in Europe is known alternately as Abu Qatada and Abu Katada. The terrorist network's name has been written as Al Qaeda, Al Qaida and Al Qida.
"You can identify the wrong person as a terrorist, or fail to identify a terrorist, because of a single letter," the senior French official said. "It can't be done rigidly. It can't be done by a computer."
The human factor is crucial. Intercepts show that extremist groups keep up their fervor with long, sometimes bloodcurdling, conversations about holy war. Translators have to distinguish between mere bluster and bona fide plotting. They listen for key code words and activities, such as the writing of wills and purification rituals, that may precede "martyrdom" attacks.
The capture in Milan, Italy, of an accused mastermind of the Madrid bombings featured round-the-clock teamwork between detectives and translators this year.
After Italian police planted a listening device in his hide-out, the bug caught fugitive Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed admitting involvement in the train bombings and, according to a transcript dated May 28, his exultation as he watched an Internet video of the beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American hostage in Iraq.
"That's the way, Allah is great, Allah is great, Allah is great…. Go to Hell, enemy of God, kill him … cut his head off," Ahmed growled amid sounds of the slaying. "If it was me, I'd have burned him to show him that this is what hell is like."
The surveillance called for a highly skilled interpreter, an Italian investigator said, because it was more challenging than a telephone intercept.
"It's much harder because you have multiple people talking, more noise," the investigator said. "Many translators aren't good at in-house wiretaps."
Police became alarmed as Ahmed and a suspect in Brussels vowed to die as martyrs. In the hide-out and on the phone, they alluded to "the operations advancing," an extremist "in movement" and "the situation tightening." With the help of interpreters, police decided the time had come to make arrests.
The best linguists are bilingual and bicultural from childhood, said Wadad, the French interpreter.
"Otherwise, you might understand the words but not the meaning," she said. "You have to understand the dialect, their mentality, their history. If you don't know the two civilizations, it's very difficult. A North African might constantly mention Allah in his conversations. But that's common. It doesn't mean he's a religious extremist."
Wadad grew up in a Muslim family speaking Arabic and French. As a rookie, she was first assigned to investigations of organized crime. She shifted to anti-terrorism shortly before Algerian-dominated networks unleashed a campaign of violence against the French in the mid-1990s.
In addition to studying regional dialects, Wadad honed her expertise with research on Islam, terrorism and the Middle East. She remains a voracious, critical reader with a quiet self-confidence bred by her mix of street and book knowledge.
"There are Arabists in France who are brilliant intellectuals and know a lot, but I think there are things that escape them," she said. "I think if Arabic is not your mother tongue, if you don't read the Koran from the perspective of a devout Muslim and try to see it with the mind-set of the time when it was written, you miss things. The academics try to make everything fit into their theories."
Wadad describes herself as a Muslim but has distanced herself from the rituals of the religion. She has had a rare, up-close opportunity to study dozens of Islamic extremists over the years. They often memorize the Koran without really understanding it, pulling snippets out of context to justify criminality and mayhem, she said, adding that in some cases, terrorism seems more about status and glory than faith.
"Many are blinded, a few are manipulators," Wadad said. "I have met one who really, really impressed me. A chief. He really knew the Koran. He was very calm. He had a high intellectual level. He spent the interrogation responding with verses of the Koran. He was a big, big manipulator. And that made him very dangerous."
He was convicted, she said.
The cultured, well-dressed Wadad has a smile tinged with melancholy. A personal factor influenced her choice of law enforcement over less harrowing, more lucrative assignments in the private sector: Her family has suffered the brutality of extremist violence.
"Killing innocents is unacceptable," she said. "Whether one victim or 1,000, it's the same. It's abominable."
It's common for translators to have a sense of mission. A veteran British investigator recalled that a police translator told him she was motivated by gratitude because surgeons in Britain had cured her immigrant father of a serious ailment with an operation unavailable in his homeland.
Because many European investigators speak limited or no Arabic, they come to depend on and admire their translators. One law enforcement official marveled at the edgy dedication of a North African translator that led to a confrontation with a suspect. During a judicial hearing, the suspect used a common tactic and challenged the translation, denying that a voice on a wiretap was his. The translator snapped back: "I've been listening to your voice for two years. Don't tell me that's not your voice!"
It is likely to take a generation for anti-terrorism agencies to groom significant numbers of Arabic-speaking investigators, just as NATO governments eventually developed a pool of Russian linguists during the Cold War, officials said. Despite the demand and a well-intentioned desire to promote minorities, the process cannot be rushed, officials said.
Would-be police officers and intelligence agents of Arabic origin encounter problems that are reminiscent of affirmative action debates in the United States, said Grignard, the Belgian police commander. Applicants may have relatives or friends with links to extremism or crime. Moreover, anti-terrorism investigators with Arabic backgrounds endure unique psychological pressures, he said.
"There is always a sense of distrust on both sides," Grignard said. "They think that the routine vetting that is done for all terror cops somehow singles them out because of their ethnicity…. They feel great isolation. They are caught between the two worlds."
For the moment, Wadad has job security. Her colleagues say she is at the top of her craft. Even hidebound fanatics have come to appreciate her.
"There have been a few rare cases when a suspect did not want me to be the interpreter because I am a woman," she said. "They started out by saying they refused to talk. But then they were told, 'Look, it's either this interpreter or none at all.' So they agreed. And with one guy in particular, by the end it was clear that he was reassured, he didn't resent me anymore. He knew I wasn't there to be against him. I was there to do my job."
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