2005-03-10

http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2005/03/10/news/nation/20_38_243_9_05.txt

A year after Madrid bombing, Spaniards realize their county has long been a haven for Islamic militants

MADRID, Spain -- In the year since 10 dynamite-filled backpacks exploded on Madrid commuter trains, Spaniards have shifted some blame away from the Iraq war and onto themselves.

Immediately after the March 11 massacre, most Spaniards saw the attack as al-Qaida's revenge for sending Spanish troops to Iraq. Today there's a realization al-Qaida's footprint in Spain is much older and deeper: the country had long been a haven or transit point for Islamic militants.

The government's counterterrorism chief, Fernando Reinares, said he believes a few hundred Muslims indoctrinated in radical Islam remain in Spain and at risk of being recruited for terrorism. Madrid bombers had plotted to follow up the massacre with suicide bombings, suggesting their goal went beyond punishing the pro-U.S. government then in power, he said.


Since the train attack, authorities have uncovered other plots in Spain, including one to destroy a courthouse that's the hub of investigations into Islamic terrorism cases.

"Spain is safer now, but the threat level has not gone down for Spain or the European Union in general," Reinares told The Associated Press.

Officials now believe the main motive for the train bombings that killed 191 people was not so much Iraq as Spain's arrest of dozens of al-Qaida suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, including three charged with helping prepare them, Reinares said.

Twenty-four suspects arrested in those raids face trial in Madrid, probably next month. The crackdown marked the beginning of the end of Spain's traditional status as a militant haven.

Until the arrests began two months after Sept. 11, "Spain was a place where individuals linked to al-Qaida operated with ease," Reinares said.

The idea that Spain's vulnerability goes back beyond the Madrid train bombing -- and persists still -- is shared by Jesus Nunez Villaverde, an international security analyst and president of a Madrid think-tank, the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action.

"What March 11 shows, and especially what came afterward, is that Spain was, is and will stay on the target list for Islamic terrorists," Villaverde said.

Investigations elsewhere in Europe have also intersected here, bolstering the chilling conclusion that Spain was not just a one-time target for joining President Bush's coalition to oust Saddam Hussein -- but instead a "crossroads" for Muslim extremists, says Jean-Charles Brisard, a French private investigator.

Spain's porous southern edge is a short ferry ride from Morocco, home to most of the suspects jailed in the Madrid attack, and from Morocco's neighbor, Algeria, native country of a ringleader in the train bombings.

Anger at Spain's Conservative government for sending troops to Iraq tipped the balance in the election three days after March 11 and brought a Socialist administration to power.

The new government inherited a counterterrorism system and police woefully unequipped to tackle al-Qaida cells, Reinares said.

For instance, officials say, some Arabic transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations among suspects were thrown away for lack of translators.

The pioneer in tackling Muslim extremists in Spain was Judge Baltasar Garzon, who began a probe in 1996 and eventually broke up a cell accused of using this country as a staging ground for Sept. 11. But even afterward, Spain remained unaccustomed to the new menace.

As part of its security overhaul, the government has moved to boost its intelligence gathering and sharing capability. It has tightened controls on explosives like the high-grade dynamite used on March 11, which had been stolen from a mine in northern Spain. The staff at the police unit probing Muslim extremists also has been quadrupled -- from 100 to 400 personnel -- and Muslim suspects have been dispersed to various jails to disrupt their planning from behind bars, Reinares said.

Last year alone, Spain arrested 131 suspected extremists, and only about half were connected to the Madrid bombings. More than 40 were linked to a plot detected in October to blow up the National Court and assassinate judges such as Garzon.

Twenty-two remain in jail over the train attack, and 52 others were released but are still considered suspects. As many as eight are international fugitives. No formal indictments have been issued and a trial is probably months away.

Seven suspected ringleaders blew themselves up April 3 in an apartment outside Madrid as special forces moved in. These were the ones likely to have plotted suicide attacks in the months after the massacre, Reinares said.

As for a mastermind, Reinares said officials have "three or four" names in mind. He did not identify them. But they are believed to include Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a Syrian fugitive who played a key role in setting up an al-Qaida structure in Spain and was indicted by Garzon over the Sept. 11 attack. Last year, the United States offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

Another is fugitive Moroccan Amer Azizi, believed to be Setmariam Nasar's lieutenant.

Allekema Lamari, an Algerian who was also considered a ringleader, was among the men who blew themselves up in the apartment.

Setmariam Nasar is now believed to be in Iraq fighting alongside Jordan-born terrorist chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said Brisard, the French investigator, who works for lawyers representing Sept. 11 victims in the United States.

Despite the presence of suspected Muslim militants in Spain, Reinares said his country is no more a hotbed for extremists than Britain, France or Italy.

However, Brisard said that even after the arrests prompted by March 11 attack, the al-Qaida structure in Spain proved itself to be more important than any other in Europe in terms of collaboration with other cells.

"We've seen that in every case, all over Europe. People were always in contact with Spanish al-Qaida members," said Brisard, who works with police across Europe and has access to Garzon's huge file on the Spanish branch of the Sept. 11 plot. "It is not the case with other cells."