ATbar The Madrid Bombings and Global Jihadism
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The Madrid Bombings and Global Jihadism

17/04/2010 | by Reinares, Fernando (Prof.)  

By Fernando Reinares*

First published in: Survival | vol. 52 no. 2 | April–May 2010 | pp. 83–104 DOI 10.1080/00396331003764629

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC there has been an ongoing controversy about whether the real threat of global terrorism is posed by al-Qaeda, its territorial extensions and affiliated organisations, or by decentralised groups inspired by, but unconnected to, such entities. The 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings are often held up as the archetype of an independent local cell at work, and the perpetrators depicted as self-recruited, leaderless terrorists. Six years after the blasts, however, new evidence connecting some of the most notorious members of the Madrid bombing network with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, along with features of the terrorist network itself and distinctive elements of the likely strategy behind the blasts, suggest that these assumptions are misleading. Judicial documentation now fully accessible at Spain’s National Court and other relevant primary or secondary sources can help us better understand what the attacks can tell us about al-Qaeda and a global terrorism in transition, as well as about the changing nature of the threat to open societies.1

911 days after

Two-and-a-half years, or exactly 911 days, after 9/11, another spectacular act of mass-casualty terrorism took place on the other side of the Atlantic, and against a much softer target: commuter trains on the railway line connecting the historical town of Alcalá de Henares with Madrid’s downtown Atocha station. Thirteen bombs, each containing no less than 10 kilograms of dynamite and about 650 grams of ironmongery, were placed inside plastic bags and backpacks in 12 different carriages on four trains filled to rush-hour capacity.2 Some of the 10 to perhaps 13 terrorists who placed the bombs arrived in two vehicles. One, a van, was found by the national police on the morning of the attacks and the other, a car, was discovered three months later. In the former, detonators and traces of explosives were found next to audio cassettes with recordings of Koranic recitations, while in the latter there was a suitcase with more tapes exalting a bellicose notion of jihad.3 Ten of the bombs exploded almost simultaneously, between 7:37 and 7:41am. They were detonated by means of cellular phones synchronised in the alarm function (the same brand and model of cellular phone had been used in a similar way in the November 2002 bombings in Bali).4 Another two devices placed in the rail carriages, as well as an additional bomb left on a flag-stop platform, failed to explode. Disposal experts successfully defused ne of these bombs in the early hours of 12 March, providing crucial evidence to further the police investigation of the attacks.

As a result of the blasts in the commuter trains, however, 191 people were killed and 1,841 injured.5 Though the attacks caused immediate material damages of €17.62 million, the minimum direct economic cost has been estimated at more than €211.58m.6 The Madrid train bombings were thus not only the most devastating act of insurgent terrorism in modern Spain, but in Western Europe. In lethality, moreover, they were second only to the mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in December 1988 that killed the 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 people on the ground. But the Madrid bombings were not the only attacks intended by their perpetrators. On 2 April, making use of similar explosive substances and detonators, individuals belonging to the same terrorist cell prepared to derail a Seville-bound high-speed train in transit through the province of Toledo. The subsequent police investigation found that they had accumulated information on new targets in and around Madrid, such as a Jewish recreational facility for children and young people, a Jewish school, British educational centres and national public institutions.7 The terrorists had stored weapons and explosives in abundance. They had formally rented their rural operational base in the municipality of Chinchón, in use by cell members since October 2002, on 28 January 2004. On 4 March, they had rented a safe house close to the city of Granada, in southern Spain, and from 8 March a hideout in the metropolitan dormitory city of Leganés, near Madrid.8 They also retained a financial reserve of almost €1.5m. By comparison, the overall cost of the 11 March train attacks was estimated by the authorities at no less than €105,000, although not all possible expenses are included in this calculation.9 The Madrid bombing network was mainly financed through trafficking in illicit drugs, which were also traded for industrial explosives stolen from a mine in Asturias, in northern Spain, by a criminal band of native Spaniards.10

Further terrorist plans were disrupted not so much by the initial arrests on 13 March, but on 3 April, when experts from the then rather small national police intelligence unit devoted to international terrorism discovered the cell’s hideout in Leganés. Of the eight terrorists present, one managed to escape on foot, while the remaining seven, all cornered in the same flat, first fired shots and shouted Islamic slogans, then blew themselves up minutes after 9:00pm. A special-operations agent was killed and several others injured by the explosion, and a complete apartment complex (evacuated by the security forces) was destroyed. This may well have been the first suicide explosion in Western Europe related to the current web of global terrorism.11 Even if this was a reactive incident prompted by the terrorists’ perception of an ongoing police operation against them, among those who perpetrated the commuter-train blasts were individuals willing to become suicide bombers at any time, as suggested by the farewell letters left behind, at least one of which had been written prior to the Madrid attacks.12 The bombings of 11 March 2004 had other serious domestic consequences, both political and social. They occurred three days before the Spanish general elections on Sunday 14 March. Prime Minister José María Aznar’s incumbent liberal-conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) had every reason to believe it would retain its majority in Spain’s bicameral parliament and control over the central government. Reliable surveys conducted in the weeks before polling day, however, registered a gradually narrowing gap and indicated that the PP’s support was statistically very close to that of the moderate left-wing Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE). Regardless of other considerations (including the government’s counterproductive insistence that the Basque terrorist group ETA was behind the attacks, when emerging evidence clearly pointed towards jihadist terrorism) there is little doubt that the mobilisation of a significant additional segment of the electorate spurred by the terrorist massacre and its contentious aftermath secured the Socialists’ victory.13 After the election, Spanish society became deeply divided over who was to blame for the train blasts.

Yet, on the same day of the bombings, at around 7:30pm local time in London and 8:30pm in Madrid, Al Quds al Arabi, a well-known Arabiclanguage daily published in the British capital received an e-mail claiming responsibility for the attacks. Earlier that evening the editor had been told over the phone by someone in a country in the Gulf to expect this special e-mail. Like other messages sent by Osama bin Laden’s organisation to the newspaper since the late 1990s, it was seen as a genuine al-Qaeda communiqué, and immediately made public.14 It was signed by the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigade/al-Qaeda. This same designation, referring to Mohamed Atef, a former head of al-Qaeda’s military committee who was killed in 2001 in Afghanistan, had been used before to claim responsibility for attacks such as those of November 2003 in Nasiriya and Istanbul. Moreover, two days later, on 13 March, at around 7:30pm, an individual, speaking in Spanish but with a noticeable Arab accent, called the regional broadcasting corporation Telemadrid to let its executives know of a video cassette left inside a litter bin near the so-called M-30 mosque, Madrid’s largest Islamic place of worship and community centre. On the tape, recorded minutes after 5:00pm that same day by the train bombers themselves, a hooded terrorist, dressed in white and holding a Sterling assault rifle, read a statement claiming responsibility for the train attacks on behalf of Abu Dujan al Afghani, presented as the spokesman of the military wing of Ansar al-Qaeda in Europe.

Outside Spain, the issue is certainly not whether the Madrid bombings were an expression of jihadist terrorism or the indiscriminate manifestation of Basque ethno-nationalist terrorism. There is an overwhelming consensus broadly attributing the commuter-train blasts to individuals associated with a radical Islamist orientation. The issue is rather the characteristics of those individuals and whether they are to be conceived as part of an amorphous and leaderless phenomenon or as part of a polymorphous and still more-often-than-not centrally led web of global terrorism. Were the Madrid bombings a case of home-grown, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism or did those who prepared and executed the blasts have international connections with al-Qaeda or any of its affiliated organisations? Analysis of the Madrid bombing network, new evidence available about its ties with al- Qaeda’s command structures in North Waziristan, and an assessment of the strategy behind the commuter-trains blast support the second of these propositions.

Analysing the network

The network behind the 2004 Madrid train bombings came together between September 2002 and November 2003.15 First the desire and then the decision to perpetrate a terrorist attack in Spain led to the coalescing of four relatively small clusters of people. Two of these clusters were particularly interconnected, as they evolved from the remnants of an important al-Qaeda cell established in Spain around the middle of the 1990s. This jihadist cell was substantially, but not completely, dismantled during the months following 11 September 2001, when it was led by the Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, better known as Abu Dahdah.16 A third cluster was linked to the structure established that same decade by the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group (MICG) across Western Europe, particularly in France and Belgium.17 The fourth cluster initially consisted of a gang of delinquents active throughout Spain who specialised in the trafficking of illicit drugs and stolen vehicles.18

Although the number of people directly or indirectly connected to the network may be larger, there are 27 individuals about whom there is both empirical evidence and legal grounds to implicate them in the preparation or execution of the 11 March attacks.19 These individuals comprise the 16 already tried and convicted (13 in Spain, two in Morocco and one in Italy) in relation to the blasts on the commuter trains; the seven who committed suicide on 3 April 2004; and four known fugitives, one of whom was handedbover to the Moroccan authorities after being arrested in Syria in 2007 and finally convicted in Rabat in January 2009 for involvement in the Madrid bombings. Not unexpectedly, all were men, born between 1960 and 1983. More than half were aged between 23 and 33 at the time of the train bombings. Most were native Moroccans, except for three Algerians, an Egyptian, a Tunisian and a Lebanese national.20 All but three were living in Spain, most of them in or around Madrid, when the attacks took place. Two, however, lived in Brussels and one in Milan. Typically, although not exclusively, they were economic migrants, some residing legally and others illegally. Many were single, although a significant number were married and a few even had children. Although their sociological profiles were quite diverse, they tended to show low levels of both formal education and occupational status. But those mobilised in the Madrid bombing network (which can hardly be considered a case of homegrown terrorism) did not all adopt jihadist ideology, become radicalised and be recruited in the same place, at the same time or through the same processes.21

Three of the 27 individuals implicated in the Madrid bombings were involved in the earlier al-Qaeda cell in Spain: Sarhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet (better known as ‘The Tunisian’ because of his country of origin) and Jamal Zougam, both of whom played key roles in the attacks, and Said Berraj, also a prominent member of the network.22 The owner of the property in Chinchón rented by the terrorists as their base of operations was Mohamed Needel Acaid, a Syrian detained in November 2001 for his involvement in that same al-Qaeda cell and convicted in 2005.23 Allekema Lamari, one of the Leganés suicides, had indirect ties with the same cell. Initially arrested in Valencia in 1997 for membership in the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) and later convicted, he was released from prison due to a judicial error in 2002. His GIA cell was led by Salaheddin Benyaich, also known as Abu Mugen, who was close to Abu Dahdah in those years. A classified report from the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI, the Spanish National Intelligence Centre) dated 6 November 2003 mentioned Lamari’s suspicious behaviour and mentioned reliable informants who considered he was likely to organise and execute an imminent act of terrorism in the country.24 A further classified CNI note, dated 15 March 2004, commented that after his release from the penitentiary he had ‘sworn that Spain would pay very dearly for his arrest’ and that ‘he even declared that he would commit acts involving arson or derailment’. The note also stressed that he knew well ‘Valencia, Tudela, Madrid and Alcalá de Henares’.25 Hassan el Haski and Youssef Belhadj, two prominent members of the MICG based in Belgium, were also among the 27 individuals involved in the Madrid bombing network. The former was very close to Abdelkader Hakimi, head of the MICG in Europe, well aware of the terrorist plans in Spain and an acquaintance of Jamal Zougam.26 Youssef Belhadj was also, according to the declaration of his nephew during the judicial investigation of the train attacks, a member of al-Qaeda.27 He frequently travelled to Madrid to meet his associates who had joined the local jihadist cell.28 On 3 March 2004 at 8:35pm, just eight days before the attacks, he flew back to Brussels from Madrid, where he had been for the previous month.29 Indeed, when the Belgian police arrested Belhadj they found two cellular phones in his Brussels bedroom. The one he regularly used operated with a pre-paid card acquired on 19 October 2003, the day after Osama bin Laden threatened Spain in a message aired on the Qatari-based television channel al-Jazeera, although it had been obtained with a false identity, with a fake 11 March 1921 date of birth.30 The second phone found in Belhadj’s bedroom, commonly used by his brother Mimoun, used another pre-paid card purchased shortly after the first and again obtained using a false identity, this time with 16 May as the fictitious date of birth. It may not have been coincidence that 16 May and 11 March were the dates of the 2003 Casablanca attacks – when a Spanish restaurant was targeted – and the planned date for the Madrid bombings, respectively.31 Similarly, 1921 may have been chosen as a reference to Sura 21 of the Koran, which alludes to the time when unbelievers ‘will not be able to ward off the fire from their faces, nor yet from their backs, and no help can reach them!’.

Another individual involved in the Madrid bombing network was Rabei Osman el Sayed Ahmed (known as ‘Mohamed the Egyptian’), a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (merged with al-Qaeda in 2001). He spent at least five years in the Egyptian army and served in a brigade based in Port Said specialising in explosives. Confidential sources indicated to the Spanish authorities that Rabei Osman had been interned in the maximumsecurity penitentiary of Abu Zaa Abal, where those suspected or convicted of terrorist activities were usually imprisoned. He was an active al-Qaeda recruiter in Western Europe of people likely to become suicide terrorists. The Italian security forces secretly taped and filmed him doing just that in the flat where he lived in Milan before he was arrested in June 2004 because of his close links with some of the commuter-train bombers detained in Spain. Rabe Osman lived in Spain from 2002 to February 2003, during which, together with Fakhet, he was active in radicalising youngsters in and around mosques.32 As one of the Italian films clearly shows, in the course of indoctrinating a potential new recruit he claimed involvement in the Madrid bombings.33 Indeed, he opened and activated an e-mail account in a Yahoo server, inserting fictitious personal data, including 11 March 1970 as date of birth.34 Rabei Osman also knew in advance about the 11 March date. On 4 February 2004, following his return to Italy from a last trip to Spain before the attacks, In addition to the individuals already mentioned, and their associates, the Madrid bombing network also included several former delinquents, individuals who had been part of a gang regularly engaged in trafficking drugs and stolen cars before joining the jihadist network in summer 2003. Their boss Jamal Ahmidan (also known as ‘The Chinese’), however, was not a newcomer to jihadist circles. He had become radicalised by 1996, following four years of internment under a false identity in the Spanish penitentiary of Valdemoro, near Madrid, convicted of drug offences. His attitudes became even more extreme during a further period of imprisonment in Morocco between 2000 and June 2003.35 Prior to this, in 1999, Ahmidan met with Abu Dahdah, then leader of Spain’s al-Qaeda cell, in the Netherlands and expressed the desire to go and fight in Chechnya.36 Loyalty towards ‘The Chinese’, as the band’s lynchpin, seems to have been the key factor in the involvement in the commuter-train plot of this group of petty criminals.

An al-Qaeda connection

The clue that connects the Madrid bombing network to the al-Qaeda hierarchy appeared more than four years ago, although it was only confirmed over the last two months of 2009. It came to light in a remote mountainous location in northwestern Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border. In the early hours of 1 December 2005, a Hellfire missile hit a compound in the village of Haisori, close to Miran Shah, the administrative capital of Northern Waziristan, one of the seven agencies which form the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The core of al-Qaeda’s leadership, most of its commanders as well as many of its members and those of affiliated groups, relocated in FATA and the adjacent North West Frontier Province between late 2001 and the beginning of 2002. Al-Qaeda also relocated a large number of its active militants and most of its training infrastructure to North Waziristan between the middle of 2004 and the beginning of 2005,37 and has benefited from the protection afforded by Talibanised sectors of the indigenous Pashtun communities. The Hellfire, launched by one of the unmanned Predator drones used by the US Central Intelligence Agency to target al-Qaeda leaders and commanders detected along the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, killed five people. Among them was Egyptian Hamza Rabia, then head of al-Qaeda’s external operations command and the man responsible for the organisation’s plots in North America and Western Europe. At the time of his death, Rabia was regarded as one of the top five (possibly top three) people at al-Qaeda’s core. Early in 2002, Osama bin Laden had split al-Qaeda’s operational structure into two commands. The internal operations command was assigned to Mustafa al Uzayti (also known as Abu Faraj al Libi), focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Leadership of the external operations command was initially assigned to Khalid Sheik Mohamed, who masterminded the 11 September attacks in the United States. When Khalid Sheik Mohamed was arrested in Rawalpindi on March 2003, al Libi likewise became engaged in external operations, although command was assumed by Rabia.38

One of the four men who died with Rabia was identified by US intelligence, some weeks later, as Amer Azizi. A Moroccan, Azizi gained prominence as a member of the al-Qaeda cell established in Spain during the 1990s. Abu Dahdah, the leader of that cell after 1995, recruited Azizi and sent him to a training camp in Afghanistan perhaps as early as 2000, but certainly before mid-2001. Azizi was formally prosecuted in absentia by Spain’s National Court for terrorist offences attributed to that cell after he managed to escape from Spain following the police operation which substantially dismantled the cell in November 2001. While active in Spain’s al-Qaeda cell, Azizi forged close ties to individuals who later became key members of the Madrid bombing network. These included the network initiator, Mustafa Maymouni, now imprisoned in Morocco for the Casablanca attacks, as well as ‘The Tunisian’, Zougam and Berraj.

In the past there has been speculation that Azizi was the instigator of the attacks. But it was only in December 2008, when a Crown Court in Manchester convicted two British citizens of Pakistani extraction (under surveillance since 2005 and arrested in 2006), of being an important member of al-Qaeda and his acolyte, that indications that a terrorist with Azizi’s background was a key associate of Rabia emerged. This individual, called Ilyas, was mistakenly believed to be Mamoun Darkazanli. A British expert commented during the Manchester trial that Darkazanli was wanted in Spain for the Madrid bombings, which was not the case. Darkazanli, moreover, continues to live in Hamburg, Germany. Ilyas, however, is also one of the aliases used by Azizi. When Rabia was killed, his likely right-hand man Azizi died alongside him.39 According to senior American officials, information on the death of Azizi, as Rabia’s adjutant, was forwarded to the Spanish authorities informally in September 2006 and through a printed report in September 2007.40 Azizi is repeatedly mentioned in no less than 141 of the 241 volumes on the Madrid bombings compiled by the National Court in Spain. His name is also referred to in eight of the 30 supplementary volumes completing the vast judicial documentation on the case. Taken together, these documents, the result of specialised law-enforcement investigations and international police exchanges, reveal on the one hand the close ties between Azizi and the individuals who played pivotal roles in the formation and subsequent development of the local terrorist cell that prepared and placed the 11 March bombs, and on the other hand his links with individuals and groups from North Africa involved in the web of global terrorism. It was through these links that he ended up in positions of importance within al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. In fact, before becoming a key associate of Rabia, Azizi operated alongside Abd al Hadi al Iraqi and was already linked to Said al Masri and Khalid Habib, all senior al-Qaeda leaders.41 Back from his trip to Afghanistan in early summer 2001, Azizi coopted Maymouni, also a Moroccan, who became his closest collaborator. In 2002 Maymouni, at the instigation of Abdulatif Mourafik (also known as Malek el-Andalusi), a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who allegedly became an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (later head of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia), initiated the network that perpetrated the Madrid bombings, and first rented the Chinchón base of operations in October of that year.42 Maymouni was investigated by the Spanish police in 2003 following the Casablanca attacks.43 After he was detained and imprisoned in Morocco in May 2003, other members of the local cell rented the property again in January 2004.44 Another Moroccan, Driss Chebli, and ‘The Tunisian’ came to lead the network when Maymouni was arrested. Chebli himself was incarcerated in Spain four months later, after being implicated in the Abu Dahdah cell case, and ‘The Tunisian’ became the local ringleader of the terrorist network. As the criminal proceedings on the Madrid bombings have shown, ‘The Tunisian’ was also radicalised and recruited by Azizi.45 Azizi and ‘The Tunisian’ had ‘frequent contacts’ and communicated by e-mail in 2002 and 2003.46 A 2005 report from Spain’s central police intelligence unit stated that ‘it is true that Amer Azizi was a friend of Sarhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, and it is possible that he provided advice through the Internet and even interceded in favour of the terrorist project being prepared in Madrid’.47 The court records show close links between Azizi and other perpetrators of the train bombings such as Zougam and the still-fugitive Berraj.48

Following a formal request from the French authorities concerning Zougam, already suspected of jihadist terrorism activities in 2000, the Spanish police searched his home in Madrid in June 2001 and found written contact details for Azizi.49 Berraj was with Azizi in Turkey in 2000, possibly on their way to Afghanistan, when both took part in a meeting with other known jihadists such as Salahedin Benyaich and former Guatánamo inmate Lahcen Ikasrien, all of whom were arrested by the Turkish authorities.50 Azizi’s ties to al-Qaeda’s affiliated North African organisations were consolidated during his stay in Afghanistan. The Martyr Abu Yahyia camp where he trained, around 30km north of Kabul, was run by the LIFG. Members of the MICG were indoctrinated and trained there as well. Indeed, leaders of both organisations agreed, towards the end of the 1990s, to coordinate their activities.51 It was in the Martyr Abu Yahyia camp that Azizi met el-Andalusi and a fellow Moroccan, Karim el-Mejjati, an important al-Qaeda operative and terrorist organiser later killed by Saudi security forces. Indeed, el-Mejjati visited Spain in 2001 and met with Azizi.52 Thus, as a result of his stay in the camp, Azizi became attached to the LIFG while retaining strong links with, if not a kind of dual membership in, the MICG. The MICG became affiliated to, and supported by, al-Qaeda from the beginning of 2001, when its founder Nafia Noureddine met first with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, and then with Mohammed Atef (Abu Hafs al Masri).53 At a training facility established by the MICG near Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, militants acquired expertise in constructing remote-control detonators and in how to use cellular phones to activate improvised explosive devices.54 A meeting that delegates of the LIFG, the MICG and the analogous Tunisian organisation held in Istanbul is of the utmost significance to make full sense of the Madrid train bombings. The Istanbul meeting was held in February 2002, the Casablanca attacks were perpetrated in May 2003 and the Madrid train bombings occurred in March 2004. It was at the Istanbul meeting that it was decided the jihad should not be limited to conflict zones but should be carried into the countries from which members of the groups originated or in which they were residing.55 The identical argument had been disseminated within the emerging Madrid bombing network since at least autumn 2002.56 Several of the individuals implicated in the Casablanca attacks were also involved in the Madrid bombings. Moreover, before el- Andalusi instructed Maymouni to form a terrorist cell in Madrid, he had ordered him to set up another one, also in 2002, in Kenitra, Morocco.57 A Spanish police report prepared with contributions from some foreign security services, moreover, substantiates information on cell-phone exchanges between ‘The Tunisian’ and Abu Abdullah al-Sadeq, emir of the LIFG, then temporarily in East Asia, a few months prior to the attacks.58 Al-Sadeq was later arrested in Bangkok and handed over to the Libyan authorities.

An underlying strategy?

The will to perpetrate an act of jihadist terrorism in Spain dates to late 2001 and early 2002.59 It was initially motivated by revenge following a major police operation which dismantled and incarcerated most of the members of the al-Qaeda cell led by Abu Dahdah. It is no coincidence that three prominent members of the Madrid bombing network were tied to that cell. Soon afterwards, the desire to attack was enhanced by the determination expressed by the joint strategic decision adopted at the meeting in Istanbul in February 2002. The invasion of Iraq added a further motivation and provided an opportunity for those wishing to perpetrate a terrorist attack to converge. A good starting point for assessing the strategy underlying the 2004 Madrid bombings is the audio recording by Osama bin Laden aired by al-Jazeera in October 2003, in which he threatened Spain and five other countries (in addition to the United States), for having deployed soldiers in Iraq.60 On 26 October, an e-mail sent to the London-based al-Majallah weekly by Abu Muhammad al Ablaj (referred to by the paper as an important al- Qaeda figure) announced: ‘We are preparing for a great day’ in ‘a place in the Western countries’ mentioned by Osama bin Laden in his message, excluding the United States. A number of observers have been inclined to view the commuter-train blasts as inspired by two jihadist documents. One, ‘Jihad in Iraq: Hopes and Dangers’, contains a sophisticated argument on how to induce the United States’ coalition partners, in particular Spain, then a major European contributor, to pull their troops out of Iraq by striking at their soldiers, so that other countries might be expected to follow. The other document, ‘A Message to the Spanish People’, hinted at the possibility of an attack within Spain.61 However, by the time the former was promulgated in September 2003 and both were published on the Global Islamic Media Centre website in December, the Madrid bombing network was nearly complete and the decision to perpetrate a major attack already made. There are, moreover, no traces of either document having been viewed or downloaded through any of the computers used by the terrorists. The timing, sequence and contents of the communiqués claiming responsibility for the attacks are also interesting. Besides those issued on 11 and 13 March, a communiqué from the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades/al-Qaeda appeared on 15 March (the day after the general election) and a second message from the local terrorist cell, whose members also recorded some unreleased videos on 27 March, was broadcast on 3 April. The 11 March communiqué by the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades/al-Qaeda was sent by e-mail to the editor of Al Quds al Arabi who, on the basis of previous experience with other al-Qaeda claims received by the same newspaper, considered it authentic. The Spanish national police, which rated the communiqué as ‘relatively trustworthy’, corroborated how the e-mail was forwarded from Iran, though it could have technically originated in Yemen, Egypt or Libya.62 The text, written in Arabic, said among other things that: The death squad has managed to penetrate the bowels of Crusading Europe, striking one of the pillars of the Crusader alliance, Spain, with a painful blow. This is part of the settling of old scores with the Crusading Spain, the ally of America in its war against Islam. Where is America, Aznar? Who will protect you, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and other agents? When we struck against the Italian troops in Nasiriya we already sent a warning to America’s agents: withdraw from the alliance against Islam. It thus claimed responsibility for the attacks and justified them by referring to Spain both as an ally of the United States and as a country with which there was a score to settle. This might well allude to the Muslim territory on the Iberian Peninsula lost to the Christians in the fifteenth century, to the persecution and imprisonment of many al-Qaeda members and followers in Spain since autumn 2001, or both. The issue of Iraq is framed in the broader terms of armed religious confrontation, and the Spanish prime minister is mentioned as the personification of that policy. The Nasiriya attacks of 12 November 2003 were also attributed to al-Qaeda by Abu Muhammad al Ablaj in an e-mail sent nine days later to al-Majallah. One of the bombers in those attacks was recruited and travelled to Iraq through the same transnational network that helped some of those implicated in the Madrid blasts to escape from Spain.63 However, there appeared to be no implicit or explicit allusion in this initial communiqué to the general elections to be held on 14 March. The message does include a clear demand, reiterating the notion of a clash between religions, to citizens of the West as opposed to their ruling elites: ‘The people of the allies of the United States should force their governments to end this alliance in the war against terrorism, which means the war against Islam. If you stop the war, we shall stop ours’. Although the invasion and occupation of Iraq were overwhelmingly unpopular in Spain and had became a major electoral issue, the terrorists might have been seeking to affect Spanish public opinion in general, to influence governmental foreign-policy decisions, rather than voting behaviour in particular. The videotape released on 13 March by the local cell included statements such as ‘we declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington’ and ‘we swear by the Almighty that if you do not halt in your injustice and in the deaths of Moslems with the excuse of combating terrorism, we shall blow your houses up in the air and spill your blood as if it were a river. We are prepared for what will fill your hearts with terror.’ Although the terrorists did not refer to the general elections, the tape was hurriedly recorded at around 5:00pm on the eve of election day and delivered in time for nationwide release by the media. After the 14 March election, the extent to which the local cell in Madrid followed the directives issued by Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades/al-Qaeda from the Gulf became clear. On 17 March, a fax signed by the latter organisation and dated 15 March was received in another London-based Arabic-language newspaper, Al Hayat, and also sent by e-mail to Al Quds al Arabiya. This communiqué mentioned both the elections and the electoral outcome when explaining why the initial claim of responsibility had appeared with unusual speed: ‘In the case of the battle of Madrid, the time factor was very important to finish with the government of the contemptible Aznar’, and added that ‘we have given the Spanish people the choice between war and peace, and they have chosen peace by voting for the party that stood up against the American alliance in its war against Islam’. Clearly alluding to Spain’s Islamic past, as well as to the incoming government, it announced that our leadership has decided to halt all operations on the soil of Al Andalus against what are known as civilian targets until we are sure of the direction the new government will take, that has promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, and thereby make sure that there is no interference by the new executive in matters concerning Moslems. For this reason we reiterate the decision to all battalions on European soil to cease operations.

This communiqué was posted on the Global Islamic Media Centre website on 18 March, as ‘Notification for the Nation regarding the suspension of operations in the land of Al Andalus’. It was downloaded the following morning at 10:16am to a portable computer found by the Spanish police in the home of Jamal Ahmidan, ‘The Chinese’.64 This explains the second message from the local cell (once more presented as coming from Abu Dujan al-Afgani) on 3 April, hours before the suicide explosion in Leganés. This message was hand-written by ‘The Tunisian’65 and faxed to the national newspaper ABC in Madrid, with the warning that ‘we, the Death Battalion, announce the annulment of our previous truce’, threatening Spaniards with ‘making your country an inferno and making your blood flow like rivers’ unless certain demands, including the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, were met within 24 hours by the ‘people and Government of Spain’.66 But it was not the local cell but rather the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades/al-Qaeda that had declared the truce this message was now terminating. The local cell in Madrid seems always to have accepted the premises transmitted in advance by the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigade/al-Qaeda from the Gulf.67 Whether they directed the local cell to end the truce or the decision was adopted autonomously (though in line with the 15 March communiqué) is uncertain. However, in the message faxed 3 April, the local cell leader established a 24-hour deadline, whereas in a video he and other terrorists recorded on 27 March that was never released, the deadline was fixed at eight days. So at least as early as 27 March, days after the new government expressed its intention to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq but increase the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, the Madrid bombers clearly had it in mind to perpetrate a new act of terrorism on or after 4 April. Al-Qaeda’s leaders seem to have been more restrained than other global terrorists in exploiting the 2004 Madrid bombings for propaganda purposes.68 Osama bin Laden first mentioned them a month later in an audio recording broadcast by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya on 15 April in which he offered a peace treaty to the Europeans. In this message, the commuter-train blasts were interpreted from a Muslim defence angle: ‘There is a lesson regarding what happens in occupied Palestine and what happened on September 11 and March 11. These are your goods returned to you.’69 On 16 November 2005, top al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri alluded to the 11 March attacks in a video praising the suicide bombings of 7 July 2005 in London as ‘the blessed raid which, like its illustrious predecessors in New York, Washington and Madrid, took the battle to the enemy’s own soil’.70 Not until 19 January 2006, when a new video recording was aired by Al Jazeera, did bin Laden again refer to the case, this time indirectly and in conjunction with the London bombings: ‘The war against America and its allies has not remained limited to Iraq, as Bush claims. Evidence of this is the explosions you have witnessed in the capitals of the most important European countries that are members of this hostile coalition.’ 71 Since September 2008, al-Qaeda has frequently introduced graphic material from the commuter-train blasts to illustrate the actions of its global jihad. These images are now being reproduced in propaganda videos by al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as well. * * * It is no accident that the sentence in the Madrid bombing case refers to all those individuals prosecuted and convicted for the attacks as ‘members of terrorist cells and groups of jihadist type’.72 In contrast to the conventional wisdom, in this important judicial document there is not a single mention of ‘local cells’, ‘independent cells’, ‘independent local cells’ or similar concepts. Indeed, what the commuter-train bombings revealed about al-Qaeda and global terrorism two-and-a-half years after the 11 September attacks in the United States, is far more dynamic and complex. In the broadest sense, what happened in Madrid was telling about al-Qaeda’s continued activity in instigating, approving and probably facilitating spectacular acts of terrorism in the West, particularly in Europe. This activity continues, even if there has been a noticeable change in the scope and limitations of al-Qaeda’s capabilities. The commuter-train blasts also shed light on the re-orientation from 2002 onwards of al-Qaeda’s affiliated North African organisations, leading to the recent constitution of an al-Qaeda regional extension in the Maghreb. In a more detailed sense, the attacks spoke volumes about the mobilisation, within open societies, of firstgeneration Muslim immigrants as terrorists. This adds to the radicalisation and recruitment of second- and third-generation immigrants elsewhere. Overall, the Madrid train bombings revealed much about global terrorism as a polymorphous phenomenon, with diverse and heterogeneous interacting components whose leaders recognise a top-down hierarchy of command and control, but which is flexible and adapted to specific circumstances, producing extraordinary combinations when necessary and allowing the strategies of international actors and the aspirations of local activists to converge at the operational level.

But the attacks of 11 March 2004 illuminate not just jihadist terrorism in transition. They also shed light on the changing nature of the threat. They were not planned, prepared or executed by al-Qaeda alone. Neither were they the product of autonomous self-constituted cells. The Madrid bombing network speaks for itself as a complex, composite source of threat, where individuals from different groups and organisations converge. The blasts also point to the terrorists’ lasting predilection for public-transport systems as soft targets, their preference for the use of improvised explosive devices and their suicidal determination. Finally, the Madrid attacks reveal much about terrorist strategy. Al-Qaeda’s broad guidelines, decisions adopted by associated organisations and the subordinate vision of local cells can converge to make the best of favourable opportunities.

*Fernando Reinares is Professor of Political Science and Security Studies at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, and Co-Director of the Program on Global Security and Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Real Instituto Elcano.


1 The criminal proceedings over the Madrid train bombings accumulated 241 volumes and 30 separate pieces, including previously secret records and reserved documents, comprising a total of 93,226 pages of files (Sumario 20/2004). In addition, available documentation includes sentences handed down by the National Court and the Supreme Court, as well as data from related criminal proceedings and sentences delivered in Milan, Italy and Salé, Morocco.

2 Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Instrucción no. 6, Sumario 20/2004, vol. 161, pp. 60,764 and 60,771.

3 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 68, p. 20,629 and vol. 161, p. 60,767.

4 Ibid., vol. 161, p. 60,858.

5 Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 65/2007, pp. 229–422.

6 On the immediate material damages, see Sumario 20/2004, vol. 216, p. 84,062. On the direct economic costs, see Mikel Buesa, Aurelia Vilariño, Joost Heijs, Thomas Baumert and Javier González, ‘The Economic Cost of March 11: Measuring the Direct Economic Cost of the Terrorist Attack on March 11, 2004 in Madrid’, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 19, no. 4, Winter 2007, pp. 489–509.

7 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 162, pp. 61,522–4.

8 Ibid., separate piece 29, annex II, document 8, and annex IV, document 2. It should be noted that the terrorists always made rental arrangements using falsified identity documents.

9 Ibid., separate piece 29, annex II, documents 15 and 16. 10 On the financing of the Madrid train bombings, see Sumario 20/2004, separate piece 10.

11 Rogelio Alonso and Fernando Reinares, ‘Maghreb Immigrants becoming Suicide Terrorists. A Case Study of Religious Radicalization Processes in Spain’, in Ami Pedahzur (ed.), Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism: The Globalization of Martyrdom (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 179–97.

12 ‘This is my testament’, wrote a member of the local cell, before the attacks, to his close relatives. In the letter, he insists on jihad as ‘an obligation for the faithful’, adding first that ‘I cannot live in this world, humiliated and weakened before the eyes of infidels and tyrants’, and then a wish for his sons and daughters: ‘My wish is for them to be religiously wise and mujahedeen’. He concludes: ‘I have chosen death as the path for life’. Sumario 20/2004, vol. 61, p. 18,591; vol. 81, pp. 18,634 and 25,176; and vol. 162, pp. 61,529–30, 61,556–8.

13 Ignacio Lago and José R. Montero, The 2004 Election in Spain: Terrorism, Accountability, and Voting, working paper no. 253 (Barcelona: Institut de Ciències Polítiques i Socials, 2006).

14 Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida (London: Abacus, 2007), p. 116.

15 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 97, p. 31,840.

16 This cell was detected by the police at the end of 1994. Among its founding members were Anwar Adnan Mohamed Saleh, also known as Chej Salah, who moved from Madrid to Peshawar in October 1995, and Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, better known as Abu Musab al Suri, who relocated to London four months earlier and then settled close to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The cell was connected to the Hamburg cell that spawned the 11 September attacks. Abu Dahdah had been in contact with Mohammed Atta since the early 1990s. Abu Dahdah and 17 other individuals were convicted of terrorism-related offences by the National Court on 26 September 2005. Fifteen of these convictions were confirmed by the Supreme Court on 31 May 2006.

17 On the MICG and its links with the Madrid train bombings, see the comprehensive police report in Sumario 20/2004, vol. 97, pp. 31,838–72.

18 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 17, pp. 4,426–7 and vol. 191, pp. 74,612–13.

19 For legal and ethical reasons no mention is made here of persons who were detained following the attacks but never charged, or prosecuted but absolved of all charges. Others, convicted for dealing with stolen explosives that ended up in the hands of the terrorists, were not part of the jihadist network as such and are excluded from this analysis.

20 The Moroccans include Hassan el Haski, Youssef Belhadj, Mohamed Larbi ben Sellam, Jamal Ahmidan, Said Berraj, Mohamed Afalah, Jamal Zougam, Othman el Gnaoui, Fouad el Morabit Anghar, Saed el Harrak, Mohamed Bouharrat, Rachid Aglif, Abdelmajid Bouchar, Rifaat Anouar Asrih, Abdenabi Kounjaa, Mohamed Oulad Akcha, Rachid Oulad Akcha, Abdelilah Hriz, Mohamed Belhadj, Hamid Ahmidan and Hicham Ahmidan. The Algerians are Allekema Lamari, Daoud Ouhnane and Nasreddine Bousbaa. The Egyptian is Rabei Osman el Sayed Ahmed. The one Tunisian is Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet and the one Lebanese is Mahmoud Slimane Aoun.

21 Fernando Reinares, ‘Jihadist Radicalization and the 2004 Madrid Bombing Network’, CTC Sentinel. vol. 2, Issue 11, 2009, pp. 16–19.

22 Fakhet, Zougam and Berraj were all investigated by the National Court over the al-Qaeda cell led by Abu Dahdah. See Sumario 20/2004, vol. 163, pp. 61,694–700, 61,735–44 and 61,781–801.

23 The real estate was registered under the name of his wife. See Sumario 20/2004, vol. 161, p. 60,823.

24 Sumario 20/2004, separate piece 11, pp. 790–93.

25 Ibid., pp. 793–4.

26 Ibid., vol. 97, pp. 31,898–9, and vol. 163, pp. 61,580–608. The Madrid bombing sentencing document refers to Hassan el Haski as a ‘leader of the Moroccan Islamic Combattant Group’. See Sentencia 65/2007, pp. 217 and 218. See also Tribunal de grande Instance de Paris, 16eme chamber/1, no. d’affaire 0313739016, jugement of 11 July 2007, p.p 55 and 73.

27 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 163, p. 61,627. Youssef Belhadj is defined in one document as a ‘member of one of the groups which form the al-Qaeda network’. Sentencia 65/2007, p. 215.

28 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 106, pp. 35,601– 14; vol. 115, pp. 39,970–73; vol. 133, p. 48,728–33, and vol. 163, pp. 61,608–24. 29 Ibid., vol. 180, p. 69,863.

30 Ibid., vol. 163, pp. 61,622–3; see also Sentencia 65/2007, pp. 216–17.

31 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 163, pp. 61,621–2.

32 Rabei Osman es Sayed Ahmed had been investigated by the national police’s antiterrorism branch in 2002 (Sumario 20/2004, vol. no. 17, p. 4,412; vol. 79, p. 24,154; vol. 81, p. 25,039, and vol. 163, pp. 61,643–63.

33 On 26 May 2004, while indoctrinating a young acolyte in his Milan apartment, he was taped as saying: ‘Listen, Yahya, be careful and do not speak. The whole Madrid operation was an idea of mine. They were among my most loved friends, fallen as martyrs, may Allah have mercy on them … This operation required many lessons and lots of patience over two and a half years.’ During the same radicalising speech, Ahmed asserted: ‘You have to join the al-Qaeda ranks. This is the solution, since the doors of al-Qaeda are open.’ Sumario 20/2004, vol. 163, pp. 61,650. Also Corte d’Assise di Milano, Sentenza 10/2006, p. 44.

34 Ibid., vol. 79, p. 24,191; vol. 163, p. 61,654. Also Corte d’Assise di Milano, Sentenza 10/2006, pp. 21–22.

35 Ibid., vol. 14, p. 3,632.

36 Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 65/2007, p. 201.

37 Rohan Gunaratna and Anders Nielsen, ‘Al Qaeda in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Beyond’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 31, no. 9, September 2008, pp. 786–8.

38 Ibid., pp. 780, 783.

39 Oral confirmation to author by CIA sources present in Pakistan during the Haisori strike, and written confirmation from Spain’s police intelligence in November and December 2009.

40 Confirmed by personal oral communication from a senior CIA official on 23 December 2009 and in writing from Spain’s national police central counter-terrorism branch on 2 March 2010.

41 Written communication from Spain’s national police intelligence chief, 26 November 2009.

42 When Azizi escaped, Maymouni was ordered by Mourafik to go to Morocco, where Azizi’s wife, Raquel Burgos (a Spanish convert) had moved shortly after the disappearance of her husband, and help her to rejoin him, first in Turkey and then in Pakistan. See Sumario 20/2004, pp. 74,600–01. During its autumn 2009 offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistani Army found and exhibited to the international press a passport belonging to Raquel Burgos, next to the passport of Said Bahaji, a German citizen and associate of the lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. See http://afpak. daily_brief_passports_linked_to_911_ found_in_northwest_pakistan_military_ operations.

43 Investigated under Sumario 9/2003. See Sumario 20/2004, vol. 17, p. 4,423 and vol. 21, p. 5,583.

44 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 161, p. 60,823 and vol. 163, p. 61,726.

45 Ibid., vol. 163, pp. 61,740.

46 Testimony of a protected witness during the Madrid bombing trials at Spain’s National Court, Sumario 20/2004, vol. 114, p. 39514, and vol. 163, pp. 61,923-4.

47 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 161, p. 60,875.

48 Ibid., vol. 17, p. 4,414.

49 Ibid., vol. 163, pp. 61,784 and 61,679.

50 Ibid., vol. 17, p. 4,414 and vol. 193, p. 61,685.

51 Evan F. Kohlman, ‘Dossier: Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’, The NEFA Foundation, 2007, pp. 13–15, http:// nefalifg1007.pdf.

52 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 97, p. 31,345.

53 Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I know (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 279.

54 See Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 16eme chamber/1, no. d’affaire 0313739016, jugement of 11 July 2007, p. 38, and Sumario 20/2004, vol. 191, p. 74,612.

55 An intelligence note of 17 December 2004 about this meeting and the strategic decision adopted is incorporated in the Madrid bombings criminal proceedings. See Sumario 20/2004, vol. 97, pp. 31,848 and 32,316

56 Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Instrucción 6, Auto of 5 July 2006, pp. 64–5.

57 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 97, p. 31,840.

58 Ibid., vol. 233, pp. 90,742–6.

59 This idea was also stressed by the public prosecutor’s office during the Madrid bombings case, as reflected in its final report submitted on 4 June 2007 by the public prosecutor to the Sala de lo Penal (Criminal Hall) at the National Court, pp. 12 and 13.

60 The other five countries were United Kingdom, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy.

61 Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer, ‘Jihadi Strategic Studies: The Alleged Al Qaeda Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 27, no. 5, September– October 2004, pp. 355–75.

62 Sumario 20/2004, vol. 17, p. 4,405.

63 See Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Primera, Sentencia 3/2010, p. 7.

64 Ibid., vol. 13, p.59,062; vol. 149, p. 56,763; vol. 156, p. 9,062, and vol. 161, p. 61,016.

65 Ibid., vol. 161, p. 60,872.

66 It also explains the contents of several video recordings made by the local cell on 27 March but not made public, where its ringleader announced the ending of the truce. See ibid., vol. 161, p. 60,873 and vol. 162, pp. 61,538–40. 67 In their general report on the Madrid bombings, the Spanish police state: ‘There is an assumed relationship between the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades and the terrorist commando itself which acted in Madrid’, since there is an observable coincidence not only in ‘the form they called the operative group’ but also because in ending the truce ‘the terrorist commando of Madrid acted in consonance’ with the 17 March communiqué. Sumario 20/2004, vol. 161, p. 60,920.

68 Manuel R. Torres, ‘Spain as an Object of Jihadist Propaganda’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 32, no. 11, November 2009, pp. 940–41.

69 A translation of this audio recording is available at bin/articles.cgi?Area=sd&ID=SP69504.

70 See middle_east/4443364.stm.

71 A translation of this audio recording is available at latestnews.cgi?ID=SD107406.

72 Sentencia 65/2007, p. 172.