Spanish police today arrested 16 suspected al Qaeda operatives in pre-dawn raids that also netted explosives and bomb components, suspected toxic material and manuals on chemical warfare, Spanish officials said. The raids came as police in other European countries have been targeting North Africans whom they suspect of plotting chemical attacks.
Most of the suspects picked up in Spain today were Algerians and had trained in camps in Afghanistan, police said. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said that investigation showed them to be part of the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.
Some European and Arab intelligence officers say the men arrested in past weeks in Britain and France might be part of al Qaeda efforts to use radicals who had focused on establishing Islamic governments in their home countries to instead stage a chemical attack in a Western city.
Thousands of men passed through training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, but only a select minority were inducted into al Qaeda, officials said. The majority, who trained in camps that were based on nationality, were preoccupied with overthrowing governments in such places as Chechnya and Algeria.
Intelligence officials in recent interviews said that since Sept. 11, 2001, the al Qaeda leadership, particularly Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian who is believed to be Osama bin Laden's deputy, was devoting increasing attention to these national Islamic movements as a vehicle to resuscitate the damaged al Qaeda network.
These officials said that Zawahiri recently sent two Yemeni representatives to Algeria for talks on intensifying cooperation between al Qaeda loyalists and radicals there who have fought for 10 years to install a fundamentalist Islamic government.
While there have always been ties and overlap between al Qaeda and such national movements as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, in Algeria, al Qaeda now wants to take them over, according to this theory. Officials said that Chechnya and Algeria were regarded by Zawahiri as the best locations for al Qaeda to reconstitute itself while looking for opportunities to hit Western targets.
"Zawahiri wants al Qaeda to become a kind of holding company" for radical Islamic movements across the globe, said a senior Arab intelligence official. The officials said that based on the interrogation of recently captured al Qaeda members, Zawahiri has made a chemical attack the network's number one priority.
This theory seemed to help explain the toxic materials that authorities reported seizing in Spain.
Still, intelligence officials say that the groups being used now are relatively unsophisticated, and that Zawahiri has in mind much larger, more complex chemical attacks. "Zawahiri is looking at something that will take time, two or three years maybe," said the Arab intelligence official.
Officials in Spain said that today's raids at 12 locations in the northeastern part of the country followed a tip from French intelligence, and that the suspects had been in contact with North Africans recently arrested in both France and Britain.
After the recent discovery of the deadly toxin ricin in a north London flat, British police arrested seven North Africans. In a later raid, a police officer died after allegedly being stabbed by an Algerian suspect. The suspects might have been plotting to put ricin in food delivered to a British military base, according to a senior administration official in Washington. One of the North Africans worked for a commercial concern that served food at the base, the official said, making it a "plausible" scenario.
Because only traces of ricin were found, there remains a "serious concern" about what happened to the bulk of the poison, which was in a granular form, he said. The first tip about the cell came through intelligence gained by the United States from an arrest made in another country, the official said. And though no direct connection has been made between the suspects and al Qaeda, at least one person in the chain that led to London had past associations with bin Laden's group.
Today's arrests took place in Barcelona and other towns in the province of Catalonia. Police said that along with the explosives and suspected toxins, they seized communications equipment that they believed the suspects used to contact Islamic radicals in Chechnya and Algeria.
"Police have broken up a major terrorist network . . . linked in this case to the criminal organization of bin Laden," Aznar told a news conference in La Coruna. "The network had connections with terrorists recently arrested in France and the United Kingdom, and they were preparing attacks with explosives and chemical materials."
Interior Minister Angel Acebes said that some of the suspects had clearly been preparing to commit attacks in Europe. They also provided other terrorist cells with information and infrastructure, he said, noting that police also seized false documents and credit cards.
Spanish police have aggressively targeted suspected al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers in the country since Sept. 11, 2001. Key hijacker Mohamed Atta is believed to have held a final planning meeting in July 2001 in Tarragona, also in northeastern Spain, weeks before the attacks in the United States.
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.