Madrid suspect tied to Islamic extremists

Previous investigation uncovered al-Qaida links

March 15, 2004|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - A Moroccan arrested in last week's train bombings here surfaced nearly three years ago in an investigation that indicated he had wide-ranging contacts with Islamic extremists, including a group later accused of being accomplices in the Sept. 11 attacks, according to court documents and interviews conducted yesterday.

Spanish police searched the Madrid apartment of Jamal Zougam in August 2001, according to investigators. The search revealed that Zougam, 30, had associated with key figures in a Madrid al-Qaida cell, according to Spanish court documents. The alleged cell leader, Imad Eddin Barakat, was accused three months later of involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.

Police determined that Zougam was a follower of Barakat, a Spanish citizen born in Syria, and they wiretapped at least one telephone conversation between the two men, documents show. Zougam also had ties to Ansar al Islam, the largely Kurdish group that has staged attacks in Iraq, and to suspects in last year's suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed 45 people.

But Zougam was not among the nearly 50 suspected extremists who were arrested in a post-Sept. 11 crackdown led by Baltasar Garzon, a top Spanish anti-terror magistrate. Zougam sold cellular phone equipment at a store he ran with his half-brother, Mohamed Chaoui, who also was arrested in the train bombing, and then with a third Moroccan suspect in the case, according to police and neighbors.

The Moroccans are suspected of providing cell phones that served as timers in the backpack bombs that tore apart four commuter trains Thursday, killing 200 and wounding more than 1,500.

Their arrests have focused attention on Islamic extremists who were well-known to European law enforcement. If the Moroccans were involved in last week's bombings, they would be examples of Islamic "sleeper cells" that were limited to logistics and recruitment but have been transformed into front-line killing teams.

It was not clear yesterday whether the three had been under surveillance by Spain's elite counter-terror units, which monitor Islamic extremists. A high-ranking Spanish investigator said Zougam had not been arrested during the 2001 crackdown because he was not implicated in specific crimes.

As interrogations continued yesterday, investigators said they believe the Moroccan half-brothers and their business associate, identified as Mohamed Bakaliboutaliha, may have done more than just provide equipment for the bombs.

"We haven't determined whether they were the ones who planted the bombs, but we certainly haven't ruled it out either," a high-ranking Spanish investigator said.

Investigators also have enlisted the help of intelligence services in other countries to analyze a videotape received Saturday that claimed responsibility for the attacks. A man shown in the tape said he spoke for the purported "military chief" of al-Qaida in Europe, whom he identified as Abu Dujan al Afghani.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes told reporters yesterday that police had not yet identified anyone by that name, which suggests Afghan origin, a stint fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s or time spent in one of al-Qaida's Afghan training camps.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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