'Mastermind' of Madrid bombing goes on trial

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The man accused of masterminding Europe's worst Islamist terror attack took the stand yesterday as the trial opened in Madrid of 29 men accused over multiple train bombings in the Spanish capital on 11 March 2004.

Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as "Mohamed the Egyptian" sat impassively facing three Spanish magistrates while an unprecedented charge list was read out. If convicted, he faces eighteen years jail for membership of a terrorist group, 30 years for each of the 191 people killed when multiple explosions ripped through four Madrid commuter trains; 18 years for each attempted murder of the 1,824 wounded, and a further eight years each for the unborn children of two pregnant women killed.

The figures brought home the massive scale of a massacrethat has left deep emotional and political scars in Spain.

Speaking through his lawyer, Mr Osman denied all involvement: "I never had any relation to the events that occurred in Madrid. I condemn these attacks unconditionally," he said.

The presiding magistrate, Javier Gomez Bermudez, clarified that, under Spanish law, Mr Osman would face a maximum of 40 years and not the potential 40,000 years sentence if found guilty. For the next five months, the trial will bring Spain face to face with the men accused of carrying out the country's worst atrocity in living memory.

Pilar Manjon, who lost her son Daniel and has become a spokeswoman for other victims and their families, stood up and faced the accused as they filed into their armoured glass cage. "I looked them in the eye as I wanted them to know I was going to be their worst nightmare. They avoided my gaze," she said.

Prosecutors argue the plot was the work of a home-grown Islamist cell inspired by al-Qa'ida, who sought to punish Spain for participating in the war in Iraq.

But the three years of investigations summarised in hundreds of cardboard boxfiles lined up yesterday behind the judges will afford a painful reminder of past mistakes - and of just how easily a clutch of religious fanatics was able to exploit enormous security gaps in a country obsessed with combating terrorism.

Spanish security services had no inkling of the plot before the remote-controlled rucksack bombs, triggered by mobile phones, exploded within moments of each other. Prison conversations among Islamist radicals were recorded but never listened to, and police and the paramilitary civil guard investigated the same network of explosives trafficking but didn't share information. The lapses have subsequently produced a shake-up in European anti-terrorism measures.

Some of the bombers got away. Seven ringleaders blew themselves up in a flat in the Madrid suburb of Leganes three weeks after the blasts to avoid capture in a police ambush. At least two remain on the run, and one is thought to have died in a suicide attack in Iraq.

One apparently conclusive piece of evidence was an alleged phone conversation recorded between Rabei Osman and an Islamic sympathiser identified as Yahya, intercepted by Italian police after he returned home to Milan.

"The entire operation of Madrid was my idea," Mr Osman is alleged to have boasted. "They were my dearest friends ... they were martyrs for whom Allah have mercy ... The thread of the operation of Madrid was mine. Understand?... The trains ... they were all my group. In reality, I was not with them the day of the operation but on 4 March I was in contact with them and was abreast of all the details." Mr Osman denies that the voice in the recording is his.

Olga Sanchez, the state prosecutor, tried yesterday to get Mr Osman to confirm his movements in Madrid before the attacks, his contacts with Islamist radicals from the mosque serving Madrid's working class immigrant quarters, and whether he supported holy war. He refused to answer her questions, which hung in the silence of the court.

Mr Osman lived for a year in Madrid with a Tunisian, Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid, an alleged ringleader he met at a Madrid mosque who died in Leganes. Other suspected plottersare Youssef Belhadj, who is alleged to be al-Qa'ida's military leader in Europe, and Hassan el Haski, who is accused of being the leader in Spain of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group.

Further down the pecking order are those who packed the rucksacks full of Goma 2 ECO dynamite and rigged up the phone detonators. The simple device meant the attackers could dump their primed bombs then slip away. Unlike the plane bombers in the US, the Madrid bombers did not need to commit suicide. They planned other attacks.

The chief logistical problem for the cell was procuring the 200kg of explosive needed to make the bombs. It was allegedly obtained from Emilio Trashorras, a Spanish miner accused of stealing it from the Asturian mine where he formerly worked and exchanging it for hashish with Rafa Zouhier, a drug trafficker.

The deal was allegedly struck in a roadside McDonalds near the northern town of Tineo, and the explosive then brought to Madrid in a truck.

In an incident that could have averted the massacre, police stopped the truck for speeding. The drivers were fined on the spot, then sent on their way. Another young alleged accomplice is accused of bringing 15kg of explosives to Madrid on the bus in a sportsbag.

Once in Madrid, the explosive was allegedly taken to a country house near Chinchon, east of Madrid, and assembled, before being taken in a Renault truck to Alcala de Henares station, where the alleged bombers boarded trains to Madrid, left their bags and got off.

One bomb failed to explode. The phone inside was traced to a shop in Madrid's Lavapies neighbourhood run by a Moroccan immigrant, Jamal Zougam. He denies supplying it.

Police found DNA and other evidence linking the bombs to the accused, who were swiftly rounded up. A videotape left in a bin claimed the attack in the name of radical Islam.

Experts believe the threat of Islamic terror will remain acute in Spain regardless of the trial's outcome.

An unprecedented crime

10 backpacks filled with explosives were detonated on four commuter trains. One bomb failed to explode, yielding vital evidence

191 people were killed and more than 1,800 injured

1,300 troops were withdrawn from Iraq by Spain's newly elected Socialist government three days after the attacks

7 suspected terrorists killed themselves using suicide bombs when police closed in on them a month later

29 people were eventually indicted, including 15 Moroccans, nine Spaniards, two Syrians, one Egyptian, one Algerian and one Lebanese

3 people stand accused of masterminding the attack

38,000 Sentence sought by prosecutors for each of the seven lead suspects: 30 years for each killing and 18 years apiece for 1,820 attempted murders

40 years the maximum sentence anyone can serve in Spain

18 suspects are in the courtroom behind bulletproof glass; 11 others are allowed to sit within the main courtroom

600 witnesses and 100 experts will testify in a trial expected to continue until July.