Dateline NBC
updated 6/6/2005 1:00:50 PM ET 2005-06-06T17:00:50

Suppose the entire leadership of al-Qaida was found and destroyed? Would that prevent another terror attack in the United States? One way of answering that question is to look closely at the worst attack in the West since Sept. 11.

It began like any other day in the heart of Madrid, Spain. Tens of thousands jammed the station, and then their world was suddenly engulfed in flames. On that day last March, terrorists carrying backpacks full of explosives boarded four trains and killed nearly 200 men and women. The attack was aimed at Spain to punish it for its support and role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now, a year later, have we learned the lessons of Madrid?

Sen. Joe Biden: “I think for the American people, it should have been a wake up call. But a lot of them are still sleeping.”

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who commutes by train to D.C. each morning, worries what bombs could do along America's tens of thousands of tracks.

Sen. Biden: “The potential for carnage is overwhelming.”

Indeed, as early as 2002, the FBI had warned that “al-Qaida has considered directly targeting U.S. passenger trains."

But to many, what happened in Madrid is not just about trains. It's about a growing global threat, an evolving face of terror that can strike anywhere, especially in the United States. They say that in order to learn how to prevent the next attack -- authorities need to study the case of Madrid, March 11, 2004.

It's just before 7 a.m. and train operator Roberto Martin readies his train for another routine run, unaware that the bloodbath at the end of the line is less than one hour away.

John Larson:  “Do you love your job?”

Roberto Martin: “Yes, since I was a kid. I love trains because everyone in my family has been a railroad worker, including my father. For me, this is a dream job.”

At 7 a.m. in Alcala de Henares, a suburb of Madrid, busy commuters are getting on Martin's train.

Larson:  “Did you notice anything unusual that morning.”

The terrorist will board four separate trains, carrying 13 bags all filled with explosives. It is about a 40 minute train ride from here into the heart of Madrid.

The four trains are headed towards Atocha, the main train hub at the heart of Madrid. A quarter of a million people pass through there every workday. It's rush hour. The trains are packed with working class commuters, migrant workers and school children. One of them is a 13-year-old Moroccan immigrant, named San'a, the only daughter of her divorced mother, Jamila.

She spends afternoons playing soccer. But as she grows up, her interest in Islam grows, too.

Yamila: “She told me, ‘Mom, I like my religion because life is not just about living, eating, and working. We must understand there is a God that needs to be in our thoughts and prayers.’”

She prays at Madrid's main mosque. Unbeknownst to her, several young Muslim men who also pray there had been plotting a terror attack against Spain for months.

At 7:05, on the morning of March 11, their lives intersect one more time. They board the same train, at the same station, she, going to school, clutching her journal with plans for the next day. The young men board with backpacks full of screws, nails and dynamite.

Yamila: “When these people entered the trains, they saw faces, they saw people. Some were sleepy, some working, People who had books with them for studying. And they drop off these bags there and leave. They knew those people were as good as dead. They left the bags, looked into those faces and knew that they were all going to die. And they couldn't care less.”

By 7:20, the terrorists exit that train and the three others. The first blast is now just 15 minutes away. Investigators believe the bombs are carefully timed to go off at the exact moment each of the four trains pulls into Atocha station, one by one. The terrorists had hoped to cause this huge glass dome above the station to cave in on itself, killing tens of thousands of innocent commuters.

Larson: “Was there anything unusual about that morning?”

Amparo Ortega Hermosa: “I woke up a little later than usual and I asked my boyfriend if he could take me to work in his car. He couldn't, so, I had to take the train.”

Kindergarten teacher Amparo Ortega, late to work, ran to the station. Barely making it, she squeezed in as the doors were closing. She sat in her usual place: the first car.

Hermosa: “When we approached Atocha, where most everyone gets off that's when the bomb exploded.”

7:38 a.m. After the first train pulls into the station, a security camera captures passengers on the platform noticing smoke coming from the first blast -- and then another blast, and another. A man made inferno.

Hermosa: “I heard the first explosion and the second.”

Larson: “What did it sound like? What did it feel like?”

Hermosa: “It's as if the world were falling on top of you. And then, everything went silent. You couldn't hear anything… everyone ran in a panic, screaming, saying things like, 'We are all going to die.' They were stepping on each other. And I tried to lift people up and calm them down, but it was total chaos.”

Larson: “What was the worst of it? What bothers you still?”

Hermosa: “What continues to bother me is not seeing the light, not seeing the sky, wanting to try to get out and not being able to.”

Two minutes pass. 7:39. The security camera, still rolling, captures the aftermath of four more bombs going off on a second train, just outside the station.

Hermosa: “As soon as we got off the train, another bomb exploded, so we looked upward because we thought the station would collapse.”

Luckily, the trains were two minutes behind schedule that day, so the bombs go off before the trains pull in. The station would survive. But many on the trains would not.

Larson: “How many died on your train? How many were wounded?”

Conductor:  “I think there were 65 dead. As for injured, I don't know.  There are days that I cry alone. I mean, as I pass the spot, the tears fall, by themselves.”

Two minutes later, as emergency workers rush to the scene, two more bombs explode on another train approaching the station, three miles away. So far nine bombs have gone off in the span of four minutes. Jesus Ramirez is on board that third train.

Larson: “When the first bomb went off, what did you see? What did you hear?”

Jesus Ramirez: “What I remember is like a big pressure inside my head. I thought it was me who was bursting from the inside. At no moment, did I think that it was a bomb.”

Larson: “And when the second bomb went off?”

Ramirez: “I lost consciousness.”

Sitting exactly where the train split in two, the fireball would burn the flesh off his face, ears and legs. A minute later, at 7:42 a.m., the tenth and final bomb goes off, on yet another train, in another station. There are so many wounded, emergency workers rip out benches to use as stretchers.

Larson: “At what point did you realize this was a terrorist bombing, not some random explosion or a problem with the train?”

Ramirez: “In the hospital, they told me there had been an attack, and I asked innocently if there had been any victims. And the hospital staff responded. Well, there were some.”

More than 1,500 were injured, almost 200 dead, among them a 13-year-old girl, for whom this had been just another day in a life full of promise.

Yamila: “A friend of my daughter's called and told me that there was a bomb in Atocha. I got up running. I went to Atocha and they didn't let me go in. I said ‘My daughter, my daughter. Let me go in to see my daughter, to see if she's alive. Let me help her.’”

Sent from hospital to hospital all night long, it wasn't until morning that police talked to her.

Yamila: “They asked me what my daughter was wearing, what was on her neck, what were on her hands? What size shoes does she wear? What color is her hair? And I knew my daughter was dead.”

All but three of the 13 backpacks explode. The trigger mechanism inside each bag is actually a cell phone -- when a call is made, a circuit is closed and the bomb goes off.

Larson: “One of the bombs on your train didn't go off? Is that correct?”

Hermosa: “In my coach. It didn't explode because the cell phone ran out of batteries.

Larson: “You barely caught the train that day. You had to run to catch it. Do you wish that you had caught the next train?”

Hermosa: “No, if I took the next train I probably wouldn't be here speaking with you today. Because on the next train, the bomb exploded in the first coach, and I always get on that first coach. For a long time, I had the sensation that I had death right here.”

That night, American Security Services flying into Madrid, began combing Atocha's platforms for lessons. For them, this would be a cautionary tale.

Larson: “Could the Madrid scenario happen here?”

Roger Cressey: “Absolutely.”

After the bombing, a chilling discovery was made on the Internet. An unknown terrorist had predicted months earlier that an attack on Spain could topple the Spanish government, and force Spain to pull out of Iraq. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened.

But what America thought was Spanish weakness, Spain saw differently. The Spanish population had long been overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq, more than 90 percent. They blamed the Spanish prime minister for sending troops. Two hours after the train bombing, the president had made a politically unforgivable mistake. He blamed a Spanish separatist group for the bombing. But 16 hours after the bombing, a rookie cop going through the debris heard a cell phone ringing from inside a backpack. Opening it, he found an unexploded bomb.

Through the cell phone memory investigators were able to connect those involved in the case. The Spanish prime minister had blamed the wrong people. This was the work of radical Islamic terrorists.

Spanish authorities now know what happened in Madrid, from the final hour before the explosions right down to the last terrifying minute. But as they worked to find out what happened in the weeks and months before the bombing, they unearthed something new -- an evolving face of terror, a new threat that reaches far beyond this station.

Larson: “What should Americans take away from the tragedy here in Madrid?”

Gustavo de Aristegui: “That there is no such thing as a terrorist that carries an ID of al-Qaida.”

Terror expert and Spanish parliament member Gustavo de Aristegui says what's alarming here is that none of this was planned in secret caves or hilltops in faraway countries, but rather in the bars and barbershops of a three-block area in the heart of Madrid, a 10-minute walk from the final target.

De Aristegui: “There are people that have been living among us for years that can be reached and turned to fight against us.”

People like Sarhane Fahket. The Tunisian migrant was a successful real estate agent, comfortable in the West. But in 2000, he met in Madrid Amer Azizi, who would later be directly linked to Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. Azizi was al-Qaida.

Former White House terror advisor and NBC News consultant Roger Cressey, studied Azizi.

Larson: “Who is Amer Azizi and why was he so important?”

Cressey: “Well, Azizi is the prototypical al-Qaida operative. And he helped the cell form.”

After Sept. 11, Azizi fled Spain. He is still at large today. But by then his effect on the real estate agent was profound, turning him from a man seeking a future in the West to a man seeking revenge on the West.

Cressey: “He became radicalized. He became disenfranchised. And these types of individuals, the educated, relatively successful ones, are probably the most difficult to profile.”

Through 2003, the real estate agent retreated from the West, losing his Spanish friends, quitting his job. In a small barbershop, he slowly recruits over a dozen fellow North African migrants to join him in Holy War against Spain.

De Aristegui: “This is much more sophisticated than one may think.”

Larson: “The looseness of the organization is its strength.”

De Aristegui: “That's right.”

This, warn experts, is a new phase of radical Muslim terror. In Europe, and possibly in the United States, men eager to fight the West, but belonging to no organization, appearing on no list, are influenced by al-Qaida, yet not members, invisible to the law.

De Aristegui: “You could call them sleeping cells if you want. Or cells that don't even know that they are cells. People that have been recruited and fanaticized and not even trained.”

Larson: “To what extent could that be a threat here in the United States?

Cressey: “Well, I think it's probably the biggest challenge for the FBI right now. Director Mueller said as much in his public testimony, where he said, ‘What I'm worried about most is what I don't know.’ And that really means are there sleeper cells today now working inside the United States.”

Perhaps the key lesson of Madrid is that when terrorists keep the whole operation local, it is easier to do and easier to hide. Unlike September 11, which took months if not years to organize, the train attacks in Spain were assembled within weeks.

The former real estate agent cobbled together the team, and got them a hideout location, where they built the bombs themselves.

Larson: “Other than the use of cell phones in Madrid, it was extremely low tech.”

Cressey: “Mmm-Hmm.”

Larson: “What is so dangerous or threatening about a scenario like that?”

Cressey: “It's nearly impossible to track down in advance. They're able to operate below the radar screen, below the focus of law enforcement. And we do not know who these individuals are until it's too late.”

But where did they get the explosives? The answer reveals yet another dangerous development in terrorism, that political radicals are hooking up with common criminals to further their cause. In Spain, it was Jamal Ahmidan, a Morrocan-born playboy, recently released from prison, who smuggled and sold drugs in Spain.

While in prison, he was approached and influenced by radical Muslim preachers. He and the real estate agent become brothers on a joint mission.

Larson: “You would think this being some sort of religious Jihad that they would throw drug dealers out.”

De Aristegui: “They're very pragmatic. They need money and they need soldiers. They need shrewd, ruthless killers, muggers, robbers, criminals to join ranks with them.”

It is a dangerous alliance that may also be forming in the United States.

Cressey: “It's one of the great concerns in our prison system right now. Individuals who are incarcerated somehow are seduced by the call of Jihad.”

The drug dealer used his local connections to trade hashish for explosives. Drug smugglers are key converts in this Holy War, because they know how to get illegal goods be it drugs or explosives into a country. In Europe, they often come from Morocco, Spain's neighbor to the south. So, what about our neighbor to the south?

Larson: “Obviously Mexico is not a predominantly Muslim country.”

Cressey: “Right.”

Larson: “But you do have drug traffickers and you do have a very porous border.”

Cressey: “Mmm-hmm”

Larson: “Could Muslim terrorists take advantage of that?”

Cressey: “That's a great fear right now.  I think the answer is yes.”

In fact, intelligence reports have raised concerns that radical Muslim terrorists will attempt crossing the southern border into the United States through Latin America, an issue brought up by Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice while visiting Mexico this year:

Condaleeza Rice: “We are all concerned about terrorists and how they might use our very long borders, borders that are difficult to police.”

The problem, made evident in Madrid, is that authorities tracking national issues like terrorism, aren't always coordinated with local law enforcement handling run-of-the-mill crime. As many as 17 of the suspected plotters were already known to police, mostly for petty crimes. But no one connected the dots to see the terror threat emerging.

Cressey: “When most people think about how we deal with a terrorist threat, they think about the FBI, or the CIA. But when you're dealing with a home-grown threat, state and local law enforcement are probably more important. So does the beat cop understand the threat picture?”

And there was another problem in Spain, reminiscent of September 11. It turns out the real estate agent was under an anti -terror unit surveillance all along. It seems his phone calls were being recorded, but not understood.

Larson: “We know from Madrid that authorities didn't have the Arabic translators necessary to understand the intelligence they had gathered. What about here in the United States? Do we now have the Arabic translators we need to sift through this mountain of data that's coming in?”

Cressey: “No, we don't. There is still a tremendous gap in the number of translators we need and the volume of information that's needed to be translated.”

What happened to the suspected plotters in Madrid? Several are awaiting trial, insisting they are innocent. As for the drug dealer and the real estate agent, three weeks after the bombings, as police surrounded them in an apartment building, they blew themselves up.

In Spain, the investigation into the bombing continues to turn up new suspects. In late May, three Moroccans were charged with helping finance and provide weapons for the attack. Twenty-four people have been jailed in the case.

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