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The World

Ties Run Deep in Probe of Spain Blast

Suspect in the Madrid train bombings may have been part of a small, autonomous cell with links to global Al Qaeda operations.

March 21, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — It seems clear now that Jamal Zougam had dangerous connections.

During a trip from Madrid to Tangier in August 2001, Spanish police wiretaps tracked the Moroccan-born shopkeeper's movements into the heart of an extremist underworld girding for a global offensive.

In his hometown of Tangier, Zougam joined a fellow Moroccan who had just helped arrange a meeting in Spain of plotters preparing the Sept. 11 attacks, according to court documents. Zougam also spent time with hard-core jihadis, or so-called holy warriors, who would be arrested after suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, last year, documents show.

And Zougam made a pilgrimage to Mohammed Fizazi, a radical imam whose words were his weapons. Fizazi's anti-Western sermons in Tangier and Hamburg, Germany, are a thread linking the Sept. 11 attacks, the Casablanca blasts and the recent train bombings in Madrid.

But until the morning of March 11, when 10 backpack bombs tore through four trains here, killing 202 people and wounding more than 1,500, investigators say they saw few signs that Zougam intended to hurt anyone.

Now he is in custody as their primary suspect in the attack. The trail of phone equipment used as remote detonators leads to the 30-year-old Zougam, who witnesses say was aboard one of the trains.

During the six years that Spanish investigators monitored the daily lives of dozens of Al Qaeda's men in Madrid, they decided that Zougam was a third-tier associate of a classic logistics cell. If the accusations against him are true, the remnants of that cell underwent a lethal transformation. As Islamic networks reconfigured after the war in Iraq, a deep-cover support team stepped up to become front-line killers, investigators say. The "sleepers" awoke.

The investigation so far suggests a locally driven plot of limited scope and resources. Unlike previous grand schemes that were managed from afar by Al Qaeda's inner circle, the new reality of Madrid seems more frightening: Small terrorist groups don't need much guidance to inflict devastation. As Al Qaeda evolves into an elusive and fragmented threat that is more ideology than organization, the case shows how difficult it has become for law enforcement to identify the enemy before it is too late.

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Assimilating in Spain

The suspects' longtime familiarity with their adopted homeland didn't mitigate their cruelty, investigators say. The railway slaughter three days before national elections was as calculated as it was indiscriminate. It helped topple the Spanish government and weaken the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, producing Al Qaeda's biggest "victory" since the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"I still find it hard to believe," a Spanish law enforcement official said. "In some of these countries that are logistical bases -- Germany, France -- you see extremists who don't have roots, who are lumpen. Angry at the society. Many of our suspects have businesses, Spanish wives, kids in school. They speak Spanish impeccably, without an accent. They are very polite, cultured. In interrogations, even the ones who don't have formal education are polite and well-spoken."

Zougam and three other Moroccan suspects in the train bombings are believed to have been on the fringes of a cell of entrepreneurial Syrians and streetwise Moroccans that was largely dismantled by authorities in late 2001.

Until then, the Madrid cell had a remarkable reach. Its leaders allegedly recruited holy warriors and helped them get to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Indonesia. They met with ideologues in London, Germany and the Middle East. They allegedly furnished documents and logistics for the Sept. 11 plotters.

Yet the Madrid suspects seemed comfortable in a society that is Western Europe's closest to the Arab world in its culture, history and geography. The Spanish good life rubbed off. Although a fervent Muslim, Zougam smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol and occasionally made the rounds of Madrid's late-night discos, acquaintances say.

Omnipresent wiretaps here -- and high-tech surveillance by U.S. and European intelligence -- did not pick up threatening talk directed at Spain, authorities say. Although Islamic terror had struck close to Western Europe with recent attacks in Morocco and Turkey, the region's security services gave the impression that the menace was under control. Despite breathless headlines, occasional plots broken up in London, Paris and elsewhere rarely got close to drawing blood.

Spain seemed an unlikely target because it was valuable to the extremists for recruitment, finance, access to North Africa and plotting violence elsewhere. Besides, Zougam and the other alleged train bombers were aware that they were known to police.

After Zougam's name surfaced in connection with the Casablanca attacks last year, police lacked enough evidence to prove a crime or warrant physical surveillance, investigators said. But they did monitor him, according to officials.

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