NEW YORK — A year after terrorists killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500 at two Madrid train stations, both U.S. and Spanish officials say that there is no evidence that al-Qaida leadership authorized or even knew of the plan.
Instead, say officials, their belief is that those responsible, while inspired by al-Qaida, were local Muslims who took an opportunity to carry out an attack that would show their anger over Spanish involvement with the U.S.
In fact, say U.S. officials, the attack marked a significant turning point in the history of radical Islamic terror. It represented a shift from attacks carried out by al-Qaida to "like-minded" and "affiliate" groups with firm links to what the intelligence community now refers to as "al-Qaida Central,” the group led by Osama bin Laden.
Move away from al-Qaida central
"You look at places like Bali, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey, Madrid," one senior U.S. intelligence official said during one of a series of interviews and briefings provided to NBC News over the last several months. "Many of these were conducted by people who had differing linkages to al-Qaida central. In some cases you're getting further and further away from the center.
"So al-Qaida central is plotting and we think they're involved in some of the current plotting, [but] you also have in parallel a global movement of people, not necessarily close to or linked to al-Qaida, but who themselves are plotting as well."
In the days and weeks after the March 11, 2004 attack, U.S. and Spanish officials were quoted as saying that bin Laden or Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or a new Islamic terrorist, Syrian Mustapha Setmariam Nasar, were behind the attack.
In part, that analysis was driven by the knowledge that the 9/11 hijackers had met and planned those attacks in Spain and by the accelerating tempo of terrorist attacks in Iraq at the time.
Al-Qaida provided inspiration and little else
Now, however, Spanish officials in particular rule out any role for al-Qaida and in particular say there is no evidence of any Zarqawi role.
As for Setmariam Nasar, officials say the man, newly outfitted with a $5 million reward on his head, is more of a "pen jihadist...all talk and no action."
Instead, the leadership role most likely can be attributed to Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, aka "The Tunisian" who committed suicide and killed a Spanish counter terrorism officer three weeks after the attack as his apartment was surrounded and an assault was being planned.
Officials say that it was "the Tunisian's" charisma that helped move the plan forward and that any links he may have had with other terrorists played less of a role than initially believed.
"Madrid is the new model. It basically took weeks, no more than a couple of months and had a big political impact," said one senior U.S. intelligence official. "Madrid gives us clues about strategically what we need to worry about over time. That is, localized cells that don't necessary have a central hierarchy that we can target, but who are inspired by the same ideology and who see us as one of their enemies — us and our allies. That's the strategic wave of the future."
The terrorists almost certainly were inspired by the words of bin Laden and others, but inspiration, rather than training, funding and provision of material, was all the Madrid terrorists received from any terrorist group.
U.S. officials have increasingly referred to Madrid as "the turning point" in part because of the role of "like-minded" terrorists and the speed with which the attacks were planned, devised and executed.
Specifically, they note that while 9/11 planning took more than two years, the Madrid attack was set up and carried out within a matter of weeks, used off-the-shelf cell phones as remote detonators and explosives stolen from a quarry.
"Terrorists are looking to Madrid with its quick implementation, its ability to carry out a devastating attack," said a second senior U.S. intelligence official.
Such sophistication and cohesion was previously believed to only be present in terrorist groups that had long histories and deep loyalties.
Moreover, they note that while bin Laden and al-Qaida were not involved, they had to be very happy with the outcome in that al-Qaida was established in the late 1980s as a "base" for Islamic radicals, the idea being that such a "base" would provide resources to groups like the Madrid bombers but not control them. In this way, al-Qaida would more resemble a network than a hierarchy. Al-Qaida, in fact, means "military base" in Arabic.
Therefore, said the senior U.S. official, Madrid is in turn an inspiration for other terrorists.
"Madrid was a major success for them in that they believed it affected the Spanish election," said the official.
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