A two-year probe into the Madrid train bombings concludes the Islamic terrorists who carried out the blasts were homegrown radicals acting on their own rather than at the behest of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, two senior intelligence officials said.
Spain still remains home to a web of radical Algerian, Moroccan and Syrian groups bent on carrying out attacks — and aiding the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq — a Spanish intelligence chief and a Western official intimately involved in counterterrorism measures in Spain told The Associated Press.
The intelligence chief said there were no phone calls between the Madrid bombers and al-Qaida and no money transfers. The Western official said the plotters had links to other Islamic radicals in Western Europe, but the plan was hatched and organized in Spain. “This was not an al-Qaida operation,” he said. “It was homegrown.”
Both men spoke on condition of anonymity, the first because Spanish security officials are not allowed to discuss details of an ongoing investigation, the second due to the sensitive nature of his job.
The attack has been frequently described as al-Qaida-linked since a man who identified himself as Abu Dujan al-Afghani and said he was al-Qaida’s “European military spokesman,” claimed responsibility in a video released two days later.
Calls for more progress
Ahead of Saturday’s anniversary of the March 11, 2004 blasts — which killed 191 people and wounded 1,500 — victims’ groups have been clamoring for more progress in the investigation.
Gabriel Moris, whose 30-year-old son died in the bombings, said: “These past two years have done nothing to clear up what happened. My questions are simple: Who ordered the massacre? Who killed my son and the other innocent victims?”
The intelligence official said authorities know more than they have revealed, including the suspected ideological and operational masterminds of the attack.
“We haven’t explained it well enough to the victims because we can’t reveal judicial secrets,” he said, adding the investigation is nearly complete.
Authorities believe the ideological mastermind was Serhan Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian who blew himself up along with six other suspects when police surrounded their apartment three weeks after the bombings, and that Jamal Ahmidan, a Moroccan who also died that day, was the “military planner.”
Law enforcement had focused on another man, Allekema Lamari, as the head of the group. But the official said evidence, particularly from wiretapped phone conversations, indicated it was Ahmidan who gave the military orders. Lamari also died in the apartment blast in a Madrid suburb as authorities closed in.
Some 116 people have been arrested in the bombings, and 24 remain jailed. At least three others — Said Berraj, Mohammed Belhadj and Daoud Ouhane — are sought by authorities, though all are believed to have fled Spain long ago. The intelligence official said the top planners are all either dead or in jail.
While the plotters of the Madrid attack were likely motivated by bin Laden’s October 2003 call for attacks on European countries that supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there is no evidence they were in contact with the al-Qaida leader’s inner circle, the intelligence official said.
Most of the plotters were Moroccan and Syrian immigrants, many with criminal records in Spain for drug trafficking and other crimes. They paid for explosives used in the attack with hashish.
That is a far cry from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States — allegedly planned by al-Qaida leaders like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, and funded directly by the terror network through international wire transfers and Islamic banking schemes.
Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, said the model used in Madrid, and likely for the July 7 London transport bombings fits in well with al-Qaida’s business plan.
“Al-Qaida is not and never was a topdown organization that did everything in terms of attacks around the world. They have a key role in ideological terms ... but they rely on local cells and those that are inspired to carry out these attacks,” he said.
After the fact, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are happy to claim responsibility because they recognize the carnage as inspired by their movement.
Still, Wilkinson cautioned that just because no direct link has been established between the Madrid plotters and al-Qaida, it doesn’t mean none exists. “If security officials knew everything that was going on, we would have caught Osama bin Laden by now,” he said.
‘A lot of moving parts’
Both the Spanish intelligence chief and the Western official said there is reason for concern despite the lack of a direct al-Qaida connection.
“There were a lot of moving parts to the March 11 plot, but we were still not able to detect it, and that is scary because a similar thing could happen again,” said the Western counterterrorism official. “Since March 11, there have been plans for other significant attacks that the Spanish have disrupted.”
Those plans include a scheme in late 2004 to bomb buildings in Barcelona, including the 1992 Olympic village and office towers known as the city’s World Trade Center complex. Police also thwarted a 2004 plot by Moroccan and Algerian militants to level Madrid’s National Court — a hub for anti-terrorism investigations — with a 1,100-pound truck bomb.
And agents specializing in Islamic terrorism have arrested dozens of suspects — all allegedly working to recruit potential suicide bombers for the Iraq insurgency.
At least two Spanish citizens — including March 11 suspect Mohammed Afalah — are believed to have blown themselves up in Iraq, and an investigation by the respected El Pais daily revealed some 80 others have traveled to the country in recent months intending to do the same.
The intelligence official said the March 11 attacks were a wakeup call, and authorities are much better prepared now to stop Islamic terrorism. But he said the bombings show how easy it is for those bent on terrorism to carry out attacks.
He said authorities believe the Madrid bombers learned how to construct the bombs — all connected to Mitsubishi Trium T110 mobile phones — from Internet sites linked to radical Islamic groups. The devices were similar to ones used in the 2002 Bali bombing, he said, evidence that militants in both countries got information on the same radical Web sites.
Spanish authorities were monitoring several of the bombers in the months before the attack — and actually stopped Ahmidan’s car on a highway in late February, unaware he was leading a caravan of other terrorists transporting the explosives used in the blasts.
The intelligence official said authorities had never imagined a group of petty drug traffickers were capable of planning such a massive attack.
“Had we been told a day before (the bombing) that this is what was going on, we would have dismissed it,” he said.