April 30, 2006

Intelligence Briefing:
Revolution & Terrorism

Derailing Spain’s 3/11 Investigation

Part 2: Conspiracy Without a Mastermind?
– Continued from Part 1 –

3/11 Bombing Aftermath, Madrid, Spain
© BBC News. All Rights Reserved.
Aftermath of Terror: The 3/11 train bombings, Madrid, Spain (2004).
Just days after the coordinated bombings of Madrid trains in 2004, Spanish police were starting to find themselves sinking into a mire of confusion and dead ends that only seemed to get worse with time. The hot leads pointing to the Marxist ETA, the local terrorists with the obvious experience in mass destruction, grew cold while authorities searched for clues among foreign Muslims with little or no connection to the 3/11 attacks. Between waves of well-organized protests by the Spanish Left and the upset electoral victory of the Socialist Workers’ Party, logic had given way to political pressure to abandon chasing the ETA.

Fake claims of responsibility on behalf of “Al Qaeda” and an Arabic audiocassette in an abandoned van weren’t much to go on. Nor was the “Al Qaeda” hypothesis bolstered by U.S. and Spanish intelligence data; the constant wiretaps on phones everywhere and special surveillance methods hadn’t picked up the slightest suggestion that Islamic groups had been planning anything at all in the days and weeks before March 11. There hadn’t even been a heavier volume of phone conversations by monitored Muslim networks.1 The ETA, in contrast, had been showing clear signs of planning exactly such a massive attack. But that direction of inquiry was out.

Two days after the attacks, authorities did arrest three Moroccans for supplying the cell phones used to detonate the bombs, as well as two Indians for supplying the phone calling cards.2 But none of the suspects could be identified as members of any actual terrorist group, “Al Qaeda” or otherwise. They also weren’t very good Muslims. Several were well-assimilated in Spanish society, speaking accent-free and having Spanish wives. Jamal Zougam, the lead Moroccan Arab suspect, had a well-deserved reputation for regularly breaking Islamic religious rules by drinking alcohol, dancing late nights at Madrid’s discos, and fooling around with the Spanish girls. He and his fellow Moroccans found beards inconvenient for partying, preferring a clean-shaven, jeans-clad lifestyle.3

More puzzlingly, they conspicuously lacked the paramilitary training required of terrorist soldiers. They earned income running small shops selling phones and fax services, spending no time in training camps learning to fire guns or detonate explosives. The only thing that did become clear was their participation in a logistical support network for other terrorists, rather than acting as bombers themselves. Zougam, in particular, had been known to intelligence for several years for his ties to underground support cells operating across European and Middle Eastern borders and having connections to Iran and Syria.4 Precisely such networks had been assisting the ETA and other groups for decades, providing weapons, bomb materials, phony ID papers, cash, and safe houses.

So the suspects may well have supplied some of the bomb components to the 3/11 terrorists, but could hardly have pulled off the Madrid attacks themselves. Based on photographs, one 3/11 survivor possibly remembered seeing Zougam on the same train, but even the police considered that testimony too unreliable.5

Even as several more Moroccans and a Spaniard were rounded up, one fact stood out clearly: Zougam and the other suspects were involved only indirectly. The Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, admitted as much on March 15, pointing out that the ETA was hardly exonerated.6 Without new evidence pointing back toward “Al Qaeda,” the Etarras risked facing the return of the spotlight in their direction.

That evidence conveniently surfaced three weeks after the original train bombings. A new bomb was found planted on train tracks outside Madrid, made of the same explosive material as the 3/11 bombs — except that no trigger had been attached. Unable to explode, the device provided all the “clues” investigators needed to track down more Arabs from Morocco and Tunisia. Apparently no one wondered too much why a terrorist would leave a bomb that cannot explode; some investigators dismissed the question by suggesting the mystery terrorist was too nervous to finish the job. Police were also startled that an Arab network theoretically devastated by numerous recent arrests could somehow recover so easily to try again. But no one asked whether someone might have wanted the bomb to be discovered.7

Badge, Spanish National PoliceBadge, Spanish Federal Police SWAT Team
Badges Under Attack: Spanish police were diverted off the ETA trail.
The odd trail led to an apartment in Leganes, a suburb of Madrid. As a SWAT team surrounded the building and began raiding it, several men inside, seemingly well-prepared for the arrival of law enforcement, made a point of chanting in Arabic before killing themselves and one police officer in a suicide bombing that destroyed the building. With the crucial witnesses now dead, police had nothing to go on but — conveniently located in the building’s ruins — a rich supply of precisely the same type of bomb materials and detonators used on March 11.8

Despite having had a full day to eliminate the evidence from their apartment or to flee, the suicide bombers chose to remain and wait for the SWAT team. They must have even pre-rigged the suicide bombs for the impending police arrival. They were behaving as if under orders to act as a diversion. But by that time the “Al Qaeda” hypothesis had turned to “fact” in the minds of authorities.

Yet even the police remained stumped by an explanation that created more questions than it answered. None of the Arab suspects was an experienced terrorist, and certainly the entire bunch of them didn’t seem to have any ringleader. “Could a handful of immigrant shopkeepers have done it on their own?” was the question on the minds of puzzled law enforcement.9

Investigators tried to connect the plot to a shadowy Islamic Combatant Group in Morocco or to the network of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Iranian-supervised agent supposedly working in Iraq. But nothing fit the evidence.10 “‘It’s logical that the order came from a top leader,’ [one] high-ranking investigator said. ‘But it’s all deduction, speculation. Direct ties to top people haven’t come out yet.’”11

In the strangest manner, such a mastermind finally did step forward in June of 2004, nearly two months after Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero had taken power in Spain. Italian intelligence was able to listen in on a cellphone conversation by Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, an Arab coordinator of logistics for terrorist groups. Even though the terror support network has long been fully aware that all cellphone communications are tapped — a fact well publicized in the news media, against which the terrorists have adopted sophisticated countermeasures — Ahmed nevertheless bluntly and explicitly claimed to be the ringleader of the entire 3/11 plot, not even bothering to conceal his “confession” in code language. Ahmed’s ruse worked perfectly; he allowed police to trace his phone, and he was arrested shortly thereafter in Milan.12

Yet the evidence did not support his so-called “confession.” All the best information available to police could, at best, only link Ahmed loosely as some kind of “spiritual master” to the Moroccans charged in the Madrid bombings.13 In other words, neither Ahmed nor the Moroccans could be shown to have carried out the 3/11 attacks themselves. That gap remains large and mystifying to this very day.

The Basque ETA, on the other hand, has for decades played a major role in the international Soviet-sponsored terror apparatus. It is considered an extremely high-priority revolutionary organization by the Communists, who would gladly sacrifice a number of Arab logistical supporters as diversions to throw police off course and protect the ETA. Taken together, the evidence still points to the Etarras.

– Continued in Part 3 –


1. Rotella, S., “Madrid bombing suspect may have been on train,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2004, p. A10; Rotella, S., “Police hunt more Madrid bombing suspects,” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2004, p. A13; Rotella, S., “Ties run deep in probe of Spain blast,” Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2004, pp. A1, A10.

2. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda now focus of Spain’s bombing probe,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2004, pp. A1, A15; Rotella, S., “Madrid bombing suspect may have been on train,” Op cit.; Rotella, S., “Police hunt more Madrid bombing suspects,” Op cit.

3. Rotella, S., “Ties run deep in probe of Spain blast,” Op cit.

4. Ibid.; Rotella, S., “3 Moroccans charged in Madrid blasts; police find ties to Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2004, p. A3; Rotella, S., “Police hunt more Madrid bombing suspects,” Op cit.

5. Ibid.; Rotella, S., “Madrid bombing suspect may have been on train,” Op cit.

6. Ibid.

7. Wilkinson, T. & Mateo-Yanguas, C., “Spain finds, dismantles train bomb,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2004, p. A3.

8. Mateo-Yanguas, C. & Wilkinson, T., “Lead Madrid terror suspect among those killed in blast,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2004, p. A3.

9. Rotella, S., “Ties run deep in probe of Spain blast,” Op cit.

10. Rotella, S. & Mateo-Yanguas, C., “Arrest warrants issued for 6 in Spain bombing case,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004, p. A6; Rotella, S., “Spain hunts fugitive tied to Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2004, p. A3.

11. Rotella, S. & Mateo-Yanguas, C., “Arrest warrants issued for 6 in Spain bombing case,” Op cit.

12. Wilkinson, T., “Suspected Madrid bomb plotter held,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2004, p. A3.

13. Ibid.