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.
Zougam, the cell phone vendor, was known to Spanish police. His name surfaced in an earlier probe into possible Spanish links to the Sept. 11 attacks. Last September, a 700-page indictment detailing al Qaeda operations in Spain characterized Zougam as a follower of Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, who has been imprisoned since November 2001 on suspicion of being the leader of an al Qaeda cell in Spain. Police searched Zougam's house, but he was not indicted or taken into custody.
The Interior Ministry official said Fakhet and Zougam were at the center of an ad hoc but closely knit "compact cell" that drew support from Spain's large North African immigrant community. "The Spanish cell shares al Qaeda's objectives," the official said.
During interrogations of the 17 people now in custody in the case, he said, investigators have developed three distinct suspect profiles.
"Those that were religious fundamentalists, whose motives were purely religious" include Fakhet, the official said, adding that others "were motivated by purely political radicalism, such as Jamal Zougam."
Still other suspects, members of what he called the "lower tier of the cell," were young North African immigrants "who were recruited and brainwashed into participating."
Much of what investigators have learned about militant cells in Spain has come from interrogations of a key member of al Qaeda, Khayata Kattan, a Syrian who was arrested in Jordan and extradited to Spain earlier this year on a warrant issued in an ongoing investigation into the 2001 attacks. Kattan made a lengthy declaration to investigating judge Baltasar Garzon on Feb. 4 and 5, portions of which were made public. Kattan identified Azizi -- the man who allegedly met with the Madrid bomb leader -- as a key al Qaeda operative in Europe. In the declaration, Kattan told the judge that the al Qaeda cell in Spain financed itself through drug-dealing and stealing credit cards from the mail.
Fakhet arrived in Spain eight years ago with a scholarship to study economics at Madrid's Autonomous University. Four years ago, he enrolled in religion classes at a mosque that Spaniards call the M30 after a road it overlooks, according to a report in El Mundo newspaper. He quit after concluding the instruction was too moderate.
At about that time, Fakhet moved into a walk-up apartment building on Francisco Ramiro Street in a working-class Madrid neighborhood and sold real estate. Neighbors characterized him as a devout Muslim and said they occasionally heard him praying, sometimes with late-night guests. Neighbors said Fakhet spoke Spanish and wore Western dress, and they described him as polite.
Last year, he married a 16-year-old Moroccan who neighbors said veiled herself head-to-toe in traditional black Islamic dress.
One day in early March, neighbors said, Fakhet went down the stairs carrying suitcases. The neighbors later recognized him and some of his visitors from newspaper photographs of the leading suspects in the March 11 bombings.
Fakhet's wife has disappeared, but investigators are examining reports that one of her brothers, Mustafa, is in jail in Morocco on suspicion of involvement with last year's suicide attacks in Casablanca.
"We are aware that some of the bombers had relations with other members of terrorist organizations," the Interior Ministry official said. "But up to now this is in terms of 'familiar links,' people that knew each other from the same town or went to the same school. But these links do not directly point to financial or logistical support."
Fakhet and his wife were married at the Estrecho mosque where she took sewing classes on Fridays. Ryad Tatari, the mosque director who signed their wedding registration, said he did not know Fakhet well but described him as a quiet and relatively successful man who was not a regular member of the mosque.
Tatari said many young Muslim immigrants in Spain are experiencing pent-up rage that he said was the product of round-the-clock television images of violence against Muslims.
"It's entirely linked to the images of brutality -- the violence, the repression," he said. "These young people are bombarded by images. A lot of Arabic channels are 24 hours, and they're not just telling you the news but showing you children dead in the streets" in the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Iraq. "It's really graphic," he said.
On April 3, police, acting on a tip, moved in on an apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganes. As officers cordoned off and evacuated nearby buildings, the men inside began shooting and chanting in Arabic before they detonated explosives, killing themselves and a police officer.
The bodies of Fakhet and six other suspects were so mangled from the blast that police could not determine for days how many people had been inside.
In the debris, police found a damaged videotape they said was likely recorded on March 27. Investigators salvaged images from the tape that they said showed militants, their faces covered and brandishing an assault weapon, warning of more attacks unless Spain pulled its troops out of "the land of the Muslims," an apparent reference to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Evoking the history of Christian wars that drove Muslims from Europe, the speaker on the video said, "We all know about the Spanish crusades against the Muslims, the expulsions from Al Andalus and the tribunals of the inquisition," according to a transcript of the recording released by authorities.
The statement echoed aspirations of other Islamic militants, including al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, who in a taped message evoked "Al Andalus," the ancient name for the area. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ended eight centuries of Muslim rule after a long siege of the city of Granada.
But modern Spain has long prided itself on its good relations with the Muslim world, and has often seen itself as a bridge between Europe and North Africa.
"For us Muslims, the history these people refer to is just romantic ideas," said Malik A. Ruiz Callejas, president of the Granada mosque. "We try to address the problems of the present time. The idea these people have makes us look like we are locked in a museum. We have no use looking back in the past."
"In general, in the Arab population, I don't think Al Andalus represents anything," said Josep Ramoneda, director of the Center for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona and an expert on terrorism. He said he believes the willingness of militants to attack in Spain is more a matter of opportunity: its proximity to North Africa, its many Muslim immigrants and the fact that Spanish intelligence services have until recently been more focused on fighting Basque separatists than Islamic militancy.
Special correspondent Maria Gabriella Bonetti contributed to this report.