- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

NIIGATA, Japan — To his Japanese neighbors, Lionel Dumont was a mystery.

When police and immigration officials asked about the Frenchman, Dumont’s landlord had no idea who he was, though the landlord lived right across the street and had only 36 tenants in his apartment building.

“They showed me a black-and-white picture and asked if I remembered him,” Jubei Sato said. “I couldn’t place him at all. I don’t think I saw him once the whole three months he lived here. He blended right in, never caused any trouble. But I found out after he left that he’d only paid half his rent.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Sato — and the rest of Japan — found out why authorities were interested in the 33-year-old Dumont.

He may be the first al Qaeda operative to have infiltrated Japan since the September 11 attacks, police said, and he did it with amazing impunity, entering on a faked passport and repeatedly leaving and re-entering the country before slipping out again for good a year later.

Dumont’s arrival in July 2002 should have raised red flags. He was put on an international wanted list in 1999 after he escaped from a Sarajevo prison, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for the murder of a Bosnian policeman during a robbery. He was in Bosnia fighting alongside other Muslims.

Dumont also was convicted in absentia by a French court in 2001 for a string of violent crimes and was sentenced to life in prison.

Though he was arrested in December at a Munich hotel, his case made headlines only last week when he was extradited to France.

A convert to Islam, he is now jailed in the northern French city of Douai. He will be retried in keeping with French law on absentia convictions.

It is too early to say how he will plead, according to the office of his lawyer, Dominique Sapin, who was unavailable for comment. Dumont has yet to go before an investigating judge.

Why Dumont came to Japan remains a puzzle. Scrambling to find answers, police last week raided several businesses in and around Tokyo and arrested five men who were contacted by Dumont after he left Japan.

The five — three Bangladeshis, an Indian and a Mali national — were arrested and charged with immigration violations or the falsification of documents.

The Dumont case has prompted calls from the highest levels for heightened vigilance, including an order by Public Security Intelligence Agency chief Takashi Oizumi for authorities to act as if “Japan were at risk of being the target of a terror attack tomorrow.”

Niigata would seem an unlikely place for a foreign fugitive. Located on the East Sea/Sea of Japan coast, it is far from the anonymous crowds of Tokyo. Surrounded by rice paddies and lush green hills, it maintains the feel of a small, provincial capital despite its population of 480,000.

However, a short drive to the eastern outskirts of town reveals a very different atmosphere.

In this neighborhood, called East Port, crowds of Muslims gather each day at a makeshift mosque in a prefabricated building on a hill not far from the docks.

Unlike his low profile in town, Dumont was well-known here.

“We all called him Samir,” car dealer Nadeem Abdul said. “He was a gentleman. Very devout, a very hard worker.”

Dumont is suspected of trying to establish an al Qaeda cell to carry out a terrorist attack, Japanese media have reported, quoting anonymous police officials who called him a “senior al Qaeda member.”

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