Plot Leader In Madrid Sought Help Of Al Qaeda

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 12, 2004

MADRID -- Spanish investigators said they now believe that the leader of a cell that carried out the March 11 rush-hour bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid sought the assistance of al Qaeda in the months preceding the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain's history, but said they have no evidence that al Qaeda directly participated in the operation.

The investigators said the cell leader, Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian immigrant, traveled to Turkey in late 2002 or early 2003 and met with Amer Azizi, whom they described as a senior al Qaeda operative in Europe. At the meeting, according to the investigators, Fakhet outlined plans for an attack in Spain but told Azizi he needed manpower and other support to carry it out. Spanish officials declined to say how they learned of the meeting or what was discussed.

Azizi, who had fought alongside Islamic militants in Bosnia and Afghanistan and is now a fugitive, was said to respond that al Qaeda could not offer direct assistance but expressed support for the plan and told the Tunisian that he could assert responsibility for the attack in the name of al Qaeda. Authorities also said Azizi offered the name of a Moroccan immigrant living in Madrid, Jamal Zougam, who co-owned a cell phone business with his half brother.

A senior Interior Ministry official said in an interview last week that Fakhet and Zougam formed the "central nucleus" of the group that carried out the bombings, which killed 191 and injured more than 1,800.

Zougam was arrested on March 13 on charges that he helped prepare 13 explosives-laden backpacks that were placed on the trains. After the attacks, two witnesses told police that Zougam was aboard one of the trains before it was bombed.

Court officials said the main investigating judge in the case, Juan del Olmo, is seeking to determine whether there are any ties between Moroccan immigrants arrested since the bombing and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a militant group blamed for a series of suicide bombings last May in Casablanca that killed 33 people in addition to the assailants. The group has long-standing ties to al Qaeda.

The Interior Ministry official, however, speaking on condition that his name not be used, said, "We have yet to find evidence that al Qaeda directly participated in the March 11 bombings."

In the month since the explosions, Spanish investigators have described how they believe Fakhet, who had no criminal record, orchestrated the attack. They said he carried it out with a core of North African immigrants like himself who had lived in Spain many years, drawing on their knowledge and materials acquired locally to assemble explosives and detonators stuffed into backpacks and stealing the bombmaking materials from a quarry.

The case underscores the challenges for anti-terrorism efforts throughout Europe, where investigators have increasingly uncovered threats from homegrown extremists.

Only a handful of the Madrid bombing suspects had raised the suspicions of security agencies, investigators said.

According to a neighbor, Fakhet, who had lived in Spain for eight years, appeared on the police radar screen just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, when authorities made inquiries about him in the neighborhood.

"The police came after September 11. They asked the postman who lived here," said Andres, a retiree who lives in the building where Fakhet shared an apartment with his 16-year-old bride. "It looks like they were just scouting out people. But there was nothing suspicious here," said Andres, who asked that only his first name be used, for fear of reprisal.

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