Al-Qaida fugitive sought in Madrid train bombings

Suspect in 9/11 attacks was sighted in Spain after blasts in March, police say

April 14, 2004|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain - The hunt for the masterminds of last month's train bombings has targeted an al-Qaida operative wanted in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks who may have clandestinely returned to Spain to oversee the train plot, investigators said yesterday.

Witnesses have told police that they saw Amer Azizi, a Moroccan and longtime associate of several suspects in the train attacks, in Madrid after the bombings that killed 191 people March 11, senior investigators said. Communications intercepts detected Azizi last year in Iran, where he allegedly was with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of leading an anti-U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq, according to Spanish investigators.

The recent sightings of Azizi in Spain are a potential breakthrough in the investigation of the train bombings. Since seven suspects blew themselves up during a shootout with police nearly two weeks ago, the investigation has centered on identifying lead figures who could have transmitted directives from al-Qaida abroad to the train bombers.

New evidence suggests that Azizi was daring enough to return from the Middle East, sneak into Spain and oversee an attack by a relentless network that has widened its campaign to Western Europe in order to weaken the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, investigators said. If Azizi was involved, it is likely that the orders came from Zarqawi or others in al-Qaida's core leadership, they believe.

"There are people who have seen Azizi here in Spain after the attacks," said a senior Spanish investigator. "It looks like he came back and may have directed the others. If he was here, his background would make it likely that he was the top guy. We have reliable witness accounts that he was here in significant places connected to the plot. The idea of Azizi as a leader has become more solid."

Sources willing to discuss the case requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.

Spanish authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Azizi last week on general terrorism charges. At the time, police said they did not have direct evidence linking him to the Madrid attacks, though they noted that top suspects - including Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan immigrant shopkeeper now in custody - were his longtime followers.

Until now, authorities have said the operational leaders were Serhane ben Abdelmajjid Farket, a Tunisian real estate agent, and Jamal Amidham, an alleged Moroccan drug dealer. Both died, along with five other suspects and a Spanish SWAT team member, in the explosion as police closed in on a hide-out in suburban Leganes. But authorities remained convinced that the plot was conceived at a higher level by someone with extensive knowledge of Spain and with international ties to al-Qaida warlords.

Azizi fits the profile, police say. Like several other suspects, he was an immigrant married to a Spanish woman and dabbled in export-import ventures in the late 1990s, according to court documents. He is charged with recruiting holy warriors, acting as a point man for fraudulent documents and serving as an accomplice of the Sept. 11 hijackers over a six-year period, according to court documents. Documents referring to him were found in al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan, according to investigators.

Telephone intercepts raised suspicions that Azizi helped set up a key meeting of Sept. 11 plotters Mohamed Atta and Ramzi Binalshibh on Spain's northeast coast in July 2001, according to court documents. During that summer, the suspected head of the Madrid cell was in close touch with Azizi and had conversations allegedly related to the mysterious sit-down with him and with others in which he said "Amer" was handling the arrangements, documents show.

Nonetheless, Azizi escaped a police roundup in late 2001 and fled the country. Subsequently, U.S. agents told Spanish investigators that al-Qaida captives interrogated at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, implicated Azizi as a direct accomplice of the Sept. 11 hijackers, according to a senior Spanish law enforcement official.

The investigation has established ties between Azizi and Moroccans implicated in the train bombings and last year's suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco. Azizi met in Turkey in 2000 with Salahadine Benayich, who was arrested in Morocco after Casablanca, and Said Berraj, an alleged train bomber who remains a fugitive, according to authorities and court documents.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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