The mobile, the rucksack and the Moroccan link

A phone in a bomb that failed to explode may have given Spanish police their vital clue. One suspect appears to have links to Islamic extremists. They in turn could be loosely linked to al-Qa'ida ­ the latest example of 'franchise terrorism'
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The Independent Online

A mobile phone found in the only backpack bomb which was not destroyed in Thursday's atrocity in Madrid may have given police the vital clue they needed to trace those responsible ­ and could establish a link between the attack and Islamist extremism.

A mobile phone found in the only backpack bomb which was not destroyed in Thursday's atrocity in Madrid may have given police the vital clue they needed to trace those responsible ­ and could establish a link between the attack and Islamist extremism.

Last night the Spanish Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, announced that five men ­ three Moroccans and two Saniards of Indian origin ­ were arrested "for presumed implication in the sale and falsification of the mobile phone and cards found in the bag that did not explode". He added that one of the suspects "could be related to Moroccan extremist groups".

It was the first sign that the conservative Spanish government, with the interior minister among the most vociferous, was reluctantly conceding that its most bitter adversary, the Basque separatist movement ETA, might not be to blame. That ETA might be responsible was a hope shared by Western leaders, including Tony Blair, who had the support of the outgoing Spanish Prime Minister, for the war in Iraq ­ a stand hugely unpopular with his own countrymen. Mr Acebes's statement instead raises the spectre that none wanted to face: that al-Qa'ida and its elusive leader, Osama bin Laden, have struck at the heart of the West for the first time since September 2001. With the death toll having reached 200 yesterday, the Madrid bombings were the worst terrorist atrocity in mainland Europe in recent decades. The only incident on this side of the Atlantic which claimed more lives was the destruction of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, which killed 270.

Mr Acebes stressed that the investigation was in its early stages. It is entirely possible that the suspects may quickly be released. But, given the desire of Spain's ruling Popular Party to pin the blame on ETA, the admission that suspicion is pointing elsewhere can only be ominous.

Like November's bombing of British targets in Istanbul, the work of Turkish groups loosely affiliated with al-Qa'ida, the Spanish attacks could be another example of what experts call "franchise terrorism". While al-Qa'ida has been weakened by the killing or arrest of some of its leaders, and a renewed hunt is under way on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for Mr bin Laden himself, the focus has shifted to the groups trained by the network in earlier years. Attacks attributed to such groups have taken place in Indonesia, Turkey ­ and Morocco, where 45 people were killed in bomb attacks in Casablanca last May.

Such a link might never have been established, however, but for one unexploded bomb. The backpack contained 10kg of Goma 2 ECO, a highly potent military explosive with the consistency of chewing gum, as well as shrapnel to make the explosion more lethal, a copper detonator and a mobile phone.

Ten others like it exploded on packed commuter trains coming into Madrid during Thursday's morning rush hour, slaughtering office workers, students and schoolchildren. Two more of the deadly bags were destroyed in controlled explosions. In the shock and confusion the undamaged backpack was not spotted immediately. Unlike the others, it was left, not in a carriage, but at El Pozo station, the destination of one of the trains blown apart on Thursday morning, and was only discovered late on Thursday night or in the early hours of Friday. Explosives experts took the bag to Vallecas police station in the south-west of the Spanish capital, where all officers and inmates of the cells were evacuated. At about 5am on Friday they gingerly opened the backpack.

The contents of the "13th backpack", as it is known, may be one of the few means of answering the question: is this by far the deadliest strike ever mounted by Basque separatists or the latest in a catalogue of atrocities by al-Qa'ida?

In most countries blame for such an attack would immediately point in one direction only, but ETA has carried out bombings and assassinations for more than 30 years in pursuit of independence for the northern Basque region. It has a history of staging attacks at election time, and the government knew that Spanish voters could be expected to rally to the ruling party, which has taken a hard line against ETA. A link to Osama bin Laden's network or a recognised affiliate, however, would open the outgoing Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to condemnation for bringing terrorism to Spain.

A private radio station allied to the opposition Socialists, but known for its investigations, reported Spain's intelligence service was "99 per cent certain" that the evidence pointed to an Islamist group, and that 10 to 15 people left bombs on the trains and fled. "The evidence has wiped out previous indications that led us to believe in ETA," the station quoted one of its sources as saying.

Until last night the main lead appeared to be the evidence of Luis Garrudo, a 57-year-old doorman at an apartment building in Alcala de Henares, a dormitory town outside Madrid. On Thursday morning he saw three young men near a white Renault panel van at the station, from where three of the four bombed trains departed.

"Their faces were covered, even though it wasn't cold. I thought it was very strange," said Mr Garrudo. "They looked like they were going to rob a bank." One, tall and slim, was ahead of him. "He was walking at a great pace. He was obviously in a hurry and he was carrying a bag or a backpack over his left shoulder. I tried to follow him, but he was too fast.

"The other two were smaller than the one walking ahead of me. They were standing by the van and it looked like they were getting things out of the van. When I came back from the station with my paper three minutes later, they were gone."

The van remained in the street, however, and when Mr Garrudo heard about the bombings, he told his employer, who immediately called the police. Inside the vehicle they found seven copper detonators identical to the one in the "13th backpack", and an Arabic tape containing verses from the Koran on the front seat.

From the early response of the Spanish authorities, it appeared that they did not want to play up the discovery. One minister described the tape as "beginner's Arabic", implying, as some terrorism experts speculated, that the van might have been planted to direct suspicion towards Islamist groups.

Like everything else, however, this piece of evidence did not point decisively in one direction, and last night the experts remained divided. The interior minister said autopsies showed no sign of suicide bombing, the method usually employed by al-Qa'ida. On the other hand, simultaneous bombings ­ set off by mobile phones timed to trigger the explosions at 7.39am ­ is an al-Qa'ida trademark. So is the absence of a warning.

The very complexity of the operation, in which more than a dozen bombs were supposed to explode at the same moment, was used as an argument against both organisations. ETA's decline over the past few years has been spectacular: Police have caught 250 ETA members in France and Spain in the past two years, and it killed only three people in attacks last year. Police reportedly believe that only 200 or so activists are left.

Given the level of surveillance to which the remaining members are subjected by the Spanish intelligence service, Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, an intelligence analyst, told the BBC the group would have found it difficult to stage such a co-ordinated effort. "To organise something with this number of bombs requires an amazing amount of legwork beforehand," he said. Another terrorism expert estimated that at least 30 people would have had to be involved. "But would al-Qa'ida have been able to gather that many people together in Madrid without attracting attention?" he wondered. "There was a conspicuous lack of electronic 'chatter' beforehand. If it was al-Qa'ida, you would have expected them to have used their usual method, suicide bombing, because it would have been much easier to organise."

The scale of the carnage is more typical of Osama bin Laden's group than the Basque movement. The deadliest ETA attack was in 1987, when a blast at an underground car park at a Barcelona supermarket killed 21 people, and ETA later said it had made a mistake. Some analysts believe, however, that the very fact that most of the leading ETA militants are in custody may have led to the rise of a new, younger and more ruthless generation in the movement. This would explain why it departed from the police, military, political or judicial targets at which the group has traditionally taken aim.

The Spanish government pointed out that on 29 February police stopped a van about 80 miles south-east of Madrid and found half a ton of potassium chloride compound, titadine, a core fuse and an electrical detonator ­ enough to blow up a tall building. Two alleged ETA members were arrested. Last Christmas an attempt to plant backpacks filled with explosives on a train was also foiled.

The only claim of responsibility for the bombings has been to a London Arabic newspaper by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group which appears to exist mainly on the internet. Taking its name from a senior al-Qa'ida figure killed in Afghanistan in 2001, it has boasted of carrying out an implausible range of attacks, from Indonesia to power blackouts in North America which later turned out to be entirely accidental. Not only is al-Qa'ida usually slow to claim responsibility for its attacks, ETA normally does so fairly promptly, deepening the mystery.

It took months for responsibility for the September 2001 to be conclusively pinned on al-Qa'ida, and we may have to wait equally long before a credible claim ­ possibly one of Mr bin Laden's smuggled audiotapes, containing his frequently impenetrable ramblings ­ is made. But if last night's dramatic evidence proves correct, and Islamist extremists have been responsible for the carnage in Madrid, it will underline that the "war on terrorism" is far from over, more than two and a half years after it was declared.

WHO DID IT?

Many questions remained unanswered last night about who was responsible for the Madrid attacks. The Spanish government, on the eve of an election, was revealing little, while terrorism experts were divided. The main suspects remain the Basque nationalist group ETA and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida. The bombings could, however, have been carried out by a splinter separatist group or another, as yet unidentified organisation.

The evidence against ETA

The atrocity came three days before a Spanish election. ETA has a history of attacks at election time.

No suicide bombers were involved, and ETA usually takes great care to ensure the perpetrators of its attacks escape.

The explosive was of a type commonly used by ETA.

ETA had been reconnoitring railway stations, according to the Spanish authorities, who say an attack on a train with rucksack bombs was foiled at Christmas.

Spanish police say a van heading for central Madrid with half a ton of explosives was intercepted late last month, signalling a new willingness by ETA to cause heavy loss of life.

Experts believe that at least 30 people must have taken part in Thursday's operation in Madrid. It would be far easier for local people to pass unnoticed than those of Middle Eastern or North African appearance.

The evidence against al-Qa'ida

The bombings came exactly two and a half years after the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

The loss of life was on a scale unprecedented in previous ETA attacks. Indiscriminate killing is far more characteristic of al-Qa'ida.

Experts say the copper detonators were not of the type usually employed by ETA. A van containing similar detonators and a tape in Arabic has been found.

Simultaneous attacks on multiple targets is a signature of al-Qa'ida.

No warning was given, which is typical of al-Qa'ida but not of ETA.

Thus far, the only claim of responsibility has been by an obscure group linked to al-Qa'ida. However, it has made false claims in the past. ETA, which has historically acknowledged responsibility quickly, has denied involvement in the Madrid bombings.

The North African connection

Radical and armed Islamist groups based in Morocco have become increasingly visible since the late 1990s. Blamed for a series of domestic bomb attacks, including the deaths of 45 people in Casablanca in May last year, they are known to be active supporters of the al-Qa'ida network. Several Moroccans have been in European courts on al-Qa'ida-linked terrorist cases.

The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) appeared in the late 1990s, its members training in Afghan camps run by al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden (right). It is linked to other North African Islamist groups ­ particularly on mainland Europe ­ and its goals include an Islamist state in Morocco. France has put the GICM on the UN Security Council list of groups associated with al-Qa'ida. The US calls it a terrorist group.

Last September, a Moroccan court jailed eight men for up to 20 years for alleged GICM membership, training in Afghanistan and receiving al-Qa'ida support to target US and Jewish interests in Morocco. One man had dual Moroccan-British nationality.

In the same trial, another 10 men were jailed for alleged membership of another banned group, Salafia Jihadia, which is blamed for carrying out the Casablanca attacks by 12 suicide bombers. A Moroccan with British nationality was among those jailed.

Four men allegedly involved in the suicide bombings were sentenced to death last August. Three were believed to have aborted their bombs, and fled in panic, while the fourth man was accused of being a reserve bomber.

Five bombs were used in a coordinated wave of attacks in Casablanca last May, which also left 12 suicide bombers dead. The devices tore through a Spanish restaurant, the Belgian consulate, a Jewish community centre and cemetery, and a hotel.

Spain has arrested two alleged al-Qa'ida members for planning terrorist attacks. Ahmed Brahim was alleged to be an al-Qa'ida financier. Najib Chaib Mohamed, was accused of helping an al-Qa'ida recruiting and logistics unit in Spain.

German courts have tried two Moroccans for Islamist terrorism. In 2003, a Moroccan called Mounir el Motassadeq was convicted for involvement in a Hamburg-based al-Qa'ida cell. In April last year, another Moroccan went on trial for planning to attack Strasbourg Christmas market in 2000.

Severin Carrell

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