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Suspect in Madrid Attacks Was Subject of 2001 Inquiry

A search of the Moroccan's home uncovered links to Al Qaeda, investigators say.

March 15, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — 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 complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, according to court documents and interviews Sunday.

Spanish police searched the Madrid apartment of Jamal Zougam in August 2001, according to investigators. The search revealed that Zougam, 30, associated with key figures in a Madrid Al Qaeda cell whose alleged leader, Imad Eddin Barakat, was jailed three months later on suspicion of helping plot the attacks in the United States that year, according to Spanish court documents.

Police determined that Zougam was a follower of Barakat, a Spanish citizen born in Syria, and they wiretapped at least one phone conversation between the two, documents show. Zougam also had ties to Ansar al Islam, the largely Kurdish group now active in terrorist attacks in Iraq, and to suspects in last year's suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed 45 people, including 12 bombers.

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-terrorism magistrate. Zougam sold cellular phone equipment at a store he ran with his half-brother, Mohamed Chaoui, who also was arrested in the train bombings, police and neighbors said. A third Moroccan suspect in the bombings later became a business partner, they said.

The Moroccans are suspected of providing cellphones that served as timers in the backpack bombs that tore apart four commuter trains Thursday, killing 200 people and injuring 1,500.

If the Moroccans were involved in last week's bombings, they would be examples of "sleeper cells," once limited to logistics and recruitment, transforming into front-line killing teams.

It was not clear Sunday whether the three had been under surveillance by Spain's elite counter-terrorism units, which aggressively 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 Sunday, investigators said they believed the Moroccan half-brothers and their business associate, identified as Mohammed Bekkali, 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," the high-ranking Spanish investigator said.

Police are trying to identify three men seen by a witness and taped by a video camera Thursday morning at a train station where some of bombs were probably planted aboard commuter trains.

In addition, investigators 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 Qaeda in Europe, whom he identified as Abu Dujan Afghani.

Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes told reporters Sunday 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 Qaeda's Afghan training camps.

The three Moroccans have criminal records for offenses including battery and involvement in a homicide, Acebes said. That description fits the profile of other Al Qaeda operatives from North Africa. Many were legal immigrants and owned small businesses, but they also moved in an underworld of robberies, credit card fraud and forgery.

Acebes did not provide many new details about the bombing investigation. But two other Spanish law enforcement officials said police were examining possible links between the train bombings and the suicide attacks in Casablanca last May. The random cruelty of the Madrid attacks resembled the Casablanca bombings, which were carried out by inexperienced recruits who were rapidly groomed by Al Qaeda operatives, officials say.

Zougam had contact with two veteran Moroccan extremists arrested after the Casablanca attacks who had extensive ties to the Al Qaeda cell in Spain, documents show. The exploits of the two, brothers Abdulaziz and Salahadin Benayich, in combat against Russian soldiers in Chechnya are featured in an Islamic propaganda videotape found by police at the homes of several accused members of the cell -- and at Zougam's apartment, according to documents.

Police, operating on a tip from French authorities, searched Zougam's ground-floor apartment in an austere complex of six-story buildings in the working-class neighborhood of Ciudad Lineal on Aug. 10, 2001. The French were investigating a Syrian member of Ansar al Islam and a converted French Muslim who was later linked to an aborted plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Both men had lived in Madrid with the Benayich brothers, according to documents.

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