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Madrid Bombing Suspect May Have Been on Train

A witness reports seeing the man allegedly linked to Al Qaeda in one of the cars. Analysts say attacks' success may encourage terrorists.

March 16, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Spanish police are investigating a witness account that a Moroccan suspect with alleged links to Al Qaeda was aboard one of the trains bombed here last week, a high-ranking law enforcement official said Monday.

Although investigators remain cautious of the witness' account because the identification was based on a photograph, the reported sighting adds to suspicions that Jamal Zougam, one of three Moroccan suspects under arrest, played a key role in the bombings, the official said. Zougam's suspected ties to Al Qaeda first surfaced here in 2001, but Spain's interior minister revealed Monday that Zougam and the other Moroccans were not under surveillance before last week's bombings.

In the wake of the attacks that upended Sunday's national elections here and ousted the ruling party that strongly supported the war in Iraq, Europe's security forces are worried about repercussions beyond the toll of 200 dead and 1,500 wounded.

If terrorist groups conclude that the Madrid bombers succeeded in bringing down a government, investigators said, the menace of new attacks will grow.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Train bombing -- A photo caption Tuesday in Section A incorrectly described a scene at a railway station as occurring during "three minutes of silence in Madrid." The photo was taken at Waterloo Station in London.

"It's diabolical because it gives the movements connected to Al Qaeda the conviction that they have the capacity to change a government," said a European police commander with long experience investigating Islamic networks.

"That they can get rid of a government perceived as tough on terrorism. They will see this as a total political success."

Troubled by this extraordinary convergence of violence and politics in Madrid, European security forces have gone on heightened alert. The bombings could encourage emulators, they said. The U.S. allies with troops in Iraq -- especially Britain, Spain and Italy -- are prime targets of Islamic extremist networks, investigators said.

"There's lots of concern," a senior Italian investigator said. Referring to new intelligence about plots in the making, he added: "It's especially difficult because we have to examine the information coming in and select what we think is credible."

Spanish investigators have not yet confirmed that extremists connected to Al Qaeda were behind the bombings. Interior Minister Angel Acebes and other officials cautioned Monday that the possible involvement of Basque terrorists has not been ruled out.

Opponents of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar say his handling of the crisis caused the electoral collapse of his Popular Party, which led handily in opinion surveys before the bombs went off on commuter trains Thursday.

The government's rush to blame the Basque insurgent group ETA, rather than Islamic extremists, triggered a backlash. Voters blamed the attacks on Aznar's support for the war in Iraq and accused the government of hiding the truth. They elected the underdog Socialists.

The danger lies in how terrorists will read the voters' reaction. Some analysts expressed consternation Monday that protesters over the weekend chanted slogans accusing Aznar's government, rather than the bombers, of murder. Some commentators warned that voters played into the hands of terrorists, setting a grim precedent.

"What won yesterday was the pitiful option of surrendering to an adversary ... a thousand times worse than Nazism," wrote columnist Gabriel Albiac in El Mundo newspaper. "This is what was elected yesterday: renouncing the fight; accepting death. Al Qaeda won."

Even some European counter-terrorism officials who disagree with U.S. policy in Iraq were surprised that the Madrid attacks directed the public's wrath toward the Aznar government, which had aggressive anti-terrorist policies, rather than at the bombers.

"I'm not a sympathizer of Bush, but we can't make a mistake about who the enemy is," the European police commander said. "Bush is not the same as [Osama] bin Laden. Strategically, these attacks were designed to punish a government that was seen as hard on terrorism. The goal is to fragment, to destabilize. To divide Europe from the United States, to divide Europeans from Arab immigrants."

Investigators said Monday that the plotters of the Madrid bombings realized that Aznar's party retained solid support but had made itself vulnerable with an insistent pro-U.S. stance on Iraq that defied widespread opposition.

"Whoever did the attacks has to have a profound understanding of Spanish sentiment," a veteran Spanish counter-terrorism investigator said Monday. "This was someone who knew the Spanish mentality."

Zougam and the other two suspects fit that description. They are longtime legal immigrants who owned businesses; a number of their associates arrested in recent years have Spanish citizenship and Spanish wives.

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