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Terrorists at the Table

Islamic militants in Europe blend political sophistication and crude violence to influence events, as the bombings in Madrid showed.

March 06, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — The Moroccan wanted to die as much as he wanted to kill.

When Abdenabi Kounjaa helped unleash Al Qaeda's jihad on Europe last March, the drug dealer-turned-holy warrior got both his wishes.

Traces of his DNA were found in a van that terrorists had used before planting backpack bombs that killed 191 people aboard four commuter trains here March 11. And four of his fingers were found in the rubble of a hide-out where seven barricaded fugitives immolated themselves three weeks later, capping a rampage that helped topple Spain's center-right government.

Almost a year later, European investigators are still sifting through the human debris and other evidence to better understand the enemy within. Their findings lead to locales as disparate as Casablanca, Morocco; Paris; Damascus, Syria; and Amsterdam. It traces the rise of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, the organizing force for militants whom police have battled in the wake of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe's modern history.

Many of the extremists are either European-born or longtime residents who immigrated from North Africa. Police see this generation of militants as more improvised and violent, more tactically primitive and politically sophisticated than ever.

Rage filled a letter that Kounjaa, the thick-bearded, 29-year-old militant, wrote to his family in Morocco before the deadly showdown April 3.

"I ask you to have faith in God and that you follow your brother mujahedin in all the world and that perhaps you join them, since that is what I expect of you," Kounjaa told his daughters in the three-page letter found in an accomplice's gym bag, according to an Oct. 17 Spanish police report. "Religion has come with blood and dismembered [bodies].... I cannot stand to live this life as a weak and humiliated person under the gaze of the infidels and the tyrants."

Some fundamental questions remain in the Madrid case, chiefly whether Kounjaa and his bosses followed direct orders or merely an ideological line from Al Qaeda masterminds. In either scenario, the attacks reflect an increasingly calculated political strategy, said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's top anti-terrorism magistrate.

"It's not the result of a command structure giving direct orders, but of people talking: scattered networks in which operatives talk and a strategy develops," Bruguiere said. "It focuses on political agendas of Western nations.... It was as if the terrorists kicked down the door and invited themselves to the table along with politicians and diplomats. It's a sophisticated approach. The paradox is that the methods and the suspects in the field were rustic."

The low-tech, high-impact bombings in Madrid are connected to the November ritualistic assassination of Theo van Gogh, an Amsterdam filmmaker who had denounced Islamic fundamentalism. The young suspects in that case also are charged with planning to assassinate Dutch politicians.

Their crime showed how even a single murder can trigger fitna, an Arabic word for strife, in the West. In the wake of Van Gogh's killing, Dutch society was convulsed by arson attacks on mosques and churches and angry debate about Islam and immigration.

European authorities have responded to the militant threat with unprecedented cooperation, carrying out roundups in half a dozen countries and intercepting a planned bomb attack on Spain's High Court last fall.

But despite political rhetoric, despite the realization that March 11 was a watershed comparable to Sept. 11 in the United States, conflict and fragmentation in Europe's law enforcement systems still exacerbate the region's vulnerabilities, top officials say.

And for better or for worse, Europe has largely refrained from the kind of legislative and security crackdowns that have transformed the U.S. during the last three years. European authorities still emphasize domestic spying and traditional prosecutions over fortifying borders or responses comparable to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Britain is struggling to pass a new law permitting house arrest of terrorist suspects without charges. Spain has approved an amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of them from North Africa. Italian investigators are aggressively exploring an alleged abduction by U.S. spies of a suspected extremist in Milan.

Security services across the continent have been deeply involved in the Madrid case because of its wide-ranging links and implications. Looking in the mirror of Spain's misfortune, they see a frightening potential for the attack to be replicated elsewhere.

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