Monday, March 07, 2005

Terrorists at the Table

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

The bombers cobbled together a multiethnic alliance of recently radicalized drug traffickers, remnants of a longtime Al Qaeda cell in Madrid, and extremists linked to Morocco's GICM. Only a few of the 74 suspects, from accused bosses to peripheral accomplices, underwent "formal" training at Al Qaeda's Afghan camps. The four commuter trains from the working-class suburbs were targets that were difficult to predict or protect.

The plot required two key elements: the expertise to assemble remote-control bombs and, as one victim told police, an implacable will to slaughter random people face to face.

The victim, a female immigrant from Romania, boarded a crowded train bound for Madrid's Atocha station along with a fellow countrywoman, a senior Spanish investigator said. A young man with a backpack sat down near them. The women found him handsome; he exchanged flirtatious smiles with them, the investigator said.

A few minutes later, the man got off. He seemed not to hear when the women called to him that he had forgotten his backpack. At about 7:37 a.m., the first explosion erupted in another car, then a second one. Amid the bedlam, the women realized the backpack had contained a bomb. They bolted just as it exploded. The blast killed one of the women instantly; her body shielded her companion, who survived with serious wounds.

Days later, police showed the survivor pictures of suspects. She quickly picked out Basel Ghalyoun, 25, a Syrian immigrant now jailed here, the Spanish investigator said.

"She identified him right away," the investigator said. "She said she would never forget that face, that smile, as long as she lived."

The timing was highly calibrated: three days before national elections. The center-right government worsened public uproar by blaming Basque separatists while also hinting at the involvement of Muslim extremists. The Socialists won in an upset victory and quickly fulfilled their promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.

It is inaccurate to paint the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq as a capitulation to terrorism, said Gijs de Vries, the European Union's counter-terrorism coordinator. "I want to dispel the myth that because the Spanish people elected a Socialist government, Europe is soft on terrorism," he said.

But investigators say events may have left that impression.

"I don't think the attack caused the pullout, but the message sent to public opinion was that a terrorist act can affect the political decisions of a country," said former anti-terrorism prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso, now Italy's judicial attache to the United Nations in Vienna.

It is hard to say whether the Madrid bombers intended or expected to have such an impact. Authorities have identified no mastermind, only jailed or slain field-level leaders of a quintessentially local group.

"A terrorist act is like a work of abstract art," said Spanish Sen. Ignacio Cosido, a former senior official of the paramilitary Guardia Civil. "Sometimes there is less to it than you might think. It might be more accidental, more haphazard. It's like Sept. 11: Did Bin Laden really expect to bring down both the twin towers?"

A possible ringleader is Amer Azizi, a Moroccan suspected to have ties to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a leader of Al Qaeda's faction in Iraq. Azizi fled to Iran in 2001 after being indicted on charges of being a member of a support cell of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but prosecutors think he may have returned secretly to oversee the Madrid bombings because of his "experience and technical preparation," according to court documents.

Another name in the case file: Karim Mejatti, a GICM leader on the run from Moroccan, European and U.S. agents. Mejatti could be "Abu Dujana al Afghani," the nom de guerre of a mysterious Al Qaeda chief in Europe invoked by the Madrid cell in communiques, a top French intelligence official said.

"The important thing is this: Madrid first seemed to be a purely autonomous cell," the official said. "But we now think it was controlled by Al Qaeda leaders because of the links the investigation has found. That does not mean Osama bin Laden pushed a button. It does not work like that anymore. There is no evidence of a direct order from outside."

In the late 1990s, Azizi and Mejatti attended the Martyr Abu Yahyia training camp in Afghanistan, the forge of the GICM, whose founders have also spent time at Koranic schools in Syria, according to documents.

The GICM went into action May 2003, with suicide bombings in Casablanca. It operates in Europe, Turkey and Syria, a crossroad through which jihadis can reach Iraq.

Raids across Europe last year revealed strong ties between the Madrid attacks and the GICM. In December, police in the Canary Islands arrested Hassan Haski, a top GICM operative who had shuttled between Paris and Belgium and, according to an accomplice's testimony, knew in advance about the train bombings.

"The Moroccans are much more important than we thought," said Bruguiere, the French anti-terrorism magistrate. "They have significant finance and logistics cells. And they turn out to be more structured and organized than other networks."

The ferocity of the train bombers stunned police. Stocked with drug profits, guns and explosives, they planned a wave of follow-up attacks and blew themselves up when cornered, killing a policeman. Similarly, two Dutch suspects linked to the network defied police in a standoff in November, wounding three officers with a grenade before a SWAT team stormed their hide-out in The Hague.

"This is a new aggressiveness not just in the terrorist attack itself, but the determination not to be arrested, the readiness to become martyrs," said Dambruoso, Italy's U.N. attache. "In Madrid, the aftermath was almost more alarming than the attack itself."

As Spanish security forces prepare for a grim anniversary, they are haunted by memories of Madrid. And by voices of men who massacred to reach paradise.

"If my enemies jail me it will be my retreat and if they free me it will be tourism and if they kill me it will be martyrdom," Kounjaa wrote in his farewell letter. "I prefer death to life…. May God curse the tyrants."
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