More suspects identified in SPain attacks

Authorities seek five

some are Moroccans

Bombing death toll rises to 201

Probe traces complex ties of al-Qaida, local militants

March 17, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - Spanish investigators have identified five new suspects in the Madrid train bombings and said at least some of them are Moroccans who might be affiliated with radical Islamic groups that have aligned themselves with al-Qaida.

The suspects have connections to several extremist groups that have been active in Spain, authorities said, underscoring not only the difficulty in apprehending all those responsible for Thursday's attacks but also the danger posed by groups only loosely associated with al-Qaida.

"This is going to be a complex investigation," Spain's interior minister, Angel Acebes, told a news conference. "It is going to be a long investigation." Of reports in the newspaper El Pais about the search for the new suspects, he said, "I would not say it's untrue."

Yesterday the death toll from the bombs that exploded on four trains Thursday rose to 201, and Queen Sofia attended a memorial service for victims.

Since the 2001 attacks on the United States, Spain has arrested dozens of alleged terrorists in nearly every part of the country. Some are suspected of having close ties to al-Qaida, including to Mohamed Atta, who visited the country twice before apparently piloting the plane that struck the first tower of the World Trade Center.

Businessmen have been indicted on charges of funding al-Qaida operations and students have been arrested on charges of manufacturing passports and money laundering.

But most of those who have been arrested have only tenuous ties with al-Qaida, with their allegiance pledged to such groups as the Morocco-based Salafia Jihadia, which has been blamed for killing 43 people in bombings last year in Casablanca, or to a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group long established in Egypt that used to be active in Syria.

Spanish officials said they have been working with other countries to follow a series of leads that touch all of these militant groups. FBI agents are helping Spanish police in using fingerprints and names to seek a full picture of Jamal Zougam and four other suspects already in custody, a senior U.S. law enforcement official in Washington told the Associated Press.

Circles around al-Qaida

Spanish authorities arrested five people Saturday in connection with the bombings, including three Moroccans. Among them was Zougam, who a French investigator told wire services was linked to Salafia Jihadia and had previous contact with Atta and other al-Qaida members responsible for the 2001 attacks against the United States.

"There are terrorist groups that run in concentric circles around al-Qaida, and there's kind of a franchising of groups that become affiliated with members of al-Qaida and support its message but aren't, strictly speaking, al-Qaida," said Matthew Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute and a former FBI counterterrorism official.

"A number of cells, a number of these groups, have been broken up in Spain, so the attacks there really shouldn't have been such a surprise."

Since the attacks against the United States, Spanish authorities have indicted a steady stream of suspected Islamic militants, most of them from Syria and Morocco.

Last month two Algerians were arrested in southeastern Spain on charges of manufacturing passports. Authorities say the two had ties to Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected of being a key planner of the attacks on the United States. He was arrested in Pakistan. And five North Africans were arrested last month on charges of possessing explosives.

Porous borders

Others have been arrested on charges of money laundering, and still others for alleged connections to a plot to poison British troops.

"It's not surprising, given how porous Europe's borders are," said Charles A. Kupcha, senior fellow and director of Europe Studies in Washington and a former National Security Council official under President Clinton. "If terrorists want to move freely from one place to another, to link up and share information and hatch plots, Europe's a good place to do it."

In the largest single case here, a Spanish judge issued a 690-page indictment in October against 35 people suspected of being part of a Spanish cell of al-Qaida but with many of its roots sprouting from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among the 35 people indicted was Osama bin Laden, in connection with the 2001 attacks.

When Zougam was arrested Saturday, he also had been identified in the indictment as a follower of Imad Yarkas, the alleged leader of Spain's al-Qaida cell who is jailed in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a demonstration of how the groups intersect, French investigator Jean-Charles Brisard told wire services that he has found a direct tie between Zougam and Mohamed Fizazi, a spiritual leader of Salafia Jihadia, who is serving a jail sentence in connection with the Casablanca attacks.

Fizazi previously preached at a mosque in Hamburg, Germany, frequented by some of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

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