Police detain 16 'al-Qa'ida terrorists' in Spanish raids

Spanish police have detained 16 Islamist radicals, including 11 followers of al-Qa'ida's chief in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who were said to be preparing suicide attacks in Iraq.

Authorities said 11 of those detained in a huge operation in several Spanish cities were thought to have established a network to recruit, train and send young radicals to commit suicide missions against occupying forces in Iraq.

"What the police accuse them of is raising money and recruiting people to do activities abroad related with the international jihad," the Interior Minister, Jose Antonio Alonso said yesterday. The other five are linked to the Madrid train bombings of March last year that killed 191 and wounded hundreds.

"Many of those detained expressed their desire to give up their lives as martyrs for the Islamic cause, which demonstrated how dangerous and extreme they were," Mr Alonso said.

They belonged to "an established Islamist network in our country, linked to the terrorist organisation Ansar al-Islam/Zarqawi network", Spain's interior ministry said in a statement. The network, based in Spain, had links with several Middle Eastern and north African countries and Britain, but was masterminded from Syria by two recruiters and financiers of the Islamist organisation. The two, who controlled all communications with operatives in various countries, including Spain, were detained in May last year by Syrian authorities, and returned to their native Morocco.

Some 500 police officers carried out raids in Barcelona, Valencia, Cadiz and Ceuta, Spain's enclave in Morocco.

The Spanish interior ministry said the apparent leader of the Spanish group's recruitment activities was Samir Tahtah, 28, a Moroccan arrested in a town near Barcelona. He co-ordinated communications with overseas leaders of the network and supervised the sending of recruits to Iraq for terrorist attacks.

The other five detainees allegedly had close ties to ringleaders of last year's bombings in Madrid. They were arrested on Tuesday in Madrid and Barcelona, the statement said. Most had carried out robberies with violence, trafficked drugs and forged documents to finance the terror network, the ministry said.

One Madrid train bombing suspect who eluded police is believed to have died in a suicide attack in Iraq last month, the ministry said. He was named as Mohamed Afalah, who is said to have fled the scene when seven suspects in the train bombing blew themselves up on 3 April last year to avoid police capture in a flat in a Madrid suburb.

In March this year, Afalah apparently bought a telephone that he gave to his father as a "secure phone" on which he planned to bid farewell before carrying out a suicide attack.

One of those detained, the Moroccan Mohamed el-Idrissi, is suspected of having acquired the telephone, acting on the orders of another detainee, Mohamed Larbi Ben Sellam, for whom an international arrest warrant was issued for his links with the Madrid cell held responsible for the train bombings.

Investigations in Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden suggest that Ansar al-Islam - the group linked to Zarqawi before the Iraq war - has become the most prominent militant group engaged in fundraising and recruitment.

German police arrested three suspected members of Ansar al-Islam on Tuesday, saying the men had raised significant sums for the group and acted as couriers for them. A French intelligence chief said last month that five young men from one district in Paris had already died in Iraq, one in a suicide attack.

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