Terror’s Tracks

7 minute read

For Spanish investigators, it was a chilling message from beyond. As they searched a bombed-out apartment building in the Madrid suburb of Leganés last week — trying to determine from the body parts exactly how many members of the March 11 train-bombing cell had made their last stand there — the investigators found a videotape in the rubble. On it, an intense man, flanked by two others brandishing Sterling submachine guns, warned of massacres to come. “The Brigades of al-Mufti and Ansar al-Qaeda” — or supporters of al-Qaeda — were in Spain, said Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, 35, to demand that “its troops pull out immediately from the land of the Muslims.” Linking Iraq and Afghanistan to the 15th century expulsion of Muslims from Spain and the Inquisition, he demanded “blood for blood!” and “destruction for destruction!” Days after recording the message, Fakhet and five or six self-styled mujahedin gathered in a circle in the Leganés flat and set off an estimated 20-kg charge of Goma 2 Eco dynamite, atomizing themselves.

Officials believe that blast, which also killed an antiterror policeman, eliminated most of the “material authors” of the train bombings who were still at large. But no one in Europe is resting easy. For though the tape may have been Fakhet’s final testament, it’s hardly the last we’ll hear from the terror groups that may have helped him. Here’s a look at some of the big questions — answered and unanswered — in Europe’s antiterror campaign.

Who headed the Spanish cell? Investigative judge Juan del Olmo believes Fakhet, the man on the tape, was the “dynamizing element” of the Spanish cell. Although most of those involved in the 3/11 bombings were Moroccan, he was Tunisian — hence his nickname “El Tunecino.” His biography has striking parallels to that of Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Hamburg 9/11 cell. After growing up in a middle-class family in Tunis, Fakhet moved to Madrid in 1994, armed with €29,500 in Spanish-government scholarships to study economics. “At first he was gracious and engaging,” says Miguel Pérez Martín, a professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, where he met Fakhet as a fellow student in 1996. Over the next few years the Tunisian withdrew from his studies and the world in general. “He grew incommunicative, and he told me, sometime in 1999 or 2000, that he was having a personal crisis,” Pérez Martín recalls. “He spent more and more time in the mosques, and soon he wasn’t able to listen anymore, only to talk about Islam and the misery of the world.”

According to Spanish court documents, Fakhet’s activities turned more radical once an invasion of Iraq — with Spanish participation — became a prospect. He worked as a sales agent for much of last year, but at the same time was gathering acolytes in Madrid mosques. He stopped showing up at his job in January, and, according to a neighbor, left his apartment in northeast Madrid just three days before the bombing — still owing two months’ rent. His body was in the rubble in Leganés, as was that of his presumed No. 2, Jamal “El Chino” Ahmidan.

Did Fakhet have help from al-Qaeda or other outside groups? Investigators think so. Fakhet was not on any agency’s radar screen even a year ago, but he appears to have linked up with remnants of an alleged al-Qaeda cell in Spain, most of whose members, mainly Syrians, were arrested in November 2001. Among them was Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan who was one of the the first arrested in Madrid for the train bombings. After they picked him up, police found a note in his apartment bearing the cell-phone number of another Moroccan who had long been on their wanted list: Amer Azizi, a veteran of the Bosnian and Afghan wars in the 1990s, who is suspected of helping to organize a key meeting in Spain between Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 operatives in July 2001.

So is AzizI the Madrid mastermind? That’s not clear. He was among the six targets who the police failed to nab during the 2001 roll-up of the al-Qaeda cell. According to a Spanish indictment against him last year, Azizi flew to Tehran before the arrests. Investigators lost his trail, even though he came back to Madrid soon after and sold his car. There are unconfirmed reports that he was aided in getting from Tehran to Afghanistan by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the shadowy Jordanian thought to be the operational leader of Ansar al-Islam who is accused of orchestrating a series of attacks in Iraq.

“Azizi could have been the one coordinating from the outside, but we don’t know,” a Spanish Interior Ministry official tells TIME. “We’re looking for him, but not necessarily for March 11.” But the Spanish News Agency reported last week that in late 2002 or early 2003, Fakhet asked Azizi to bring in jihadists from the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group (GICM) to help execute an attack in Spain. Azizi reportedly told Fakhet that he’d have to recruit locally. Still, the presence of Azizi’s cell-phone number in Zougam’s apartment could mean that Azizi had helped after all.

What is the GICM? The Moroccan group, listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 2002, is believed to have helped launch a coordinated series of suicide bombings in Casablanca last May, killing 33 innocents and 12 bombers. Moroccan political analyst Mohammed Darif sees GICM as “part of al-Qaeda,” but says its role in both Madrid and Casablanca “was to provide the people who would carry out attacks; the people higher up who planned the attacks were not Moroccans.”

A French counterterrorism official agrees that GICM’s “members — if not the organization itself — were at the heart of the Spanish strikes.” And the group may have connections elsewhere in Europe. Last week French police arrested 13 people, and by week’s end they were still holding six of them, including an Afghanistan-hardened Moroccan suspected of being the leader of a GICM cell in France. Investigators say the detainees had been under surveillance for months, but that the Spanish bombings made a defensive roundup seem prudent. “If the GICM decided to attack a target in France, it would be doing so using the kind of people we arrested this week,” says the French counterterror official. “Some of these people have what we’d consider potentially high-level operative status. We can’t say they’d been switched on, but we do think they’re on standby.”

Are there other terror cells around Europe? Yes. British officials last week charged six of nine men arrested between March 30 and April 1 with terror offenses; those six remain in prison. They are mostly of Pakistani origin, and prosecutors will be asking them to explain the 600 kg of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, commonly used as an explosive, found in a self-storage unit in west London. A Hamburg court last week allowed Mounir el-Motassadeq, a Moroccan friend of Mohamed Atta, to leave prison on his own recognizance pending a new trial. The court threw out his February 2003 conviction on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and accessory to more than 3,000 counts of murder, arguing that the court had been unable to consider possibly exculpatory evidence from alleged al-Qaeda member Ramzi Binalshibh, who is in American custody.

Justice, however measured, may be less central to many Europeans’ concerns these days than simple safety. As Leganés resident Juani Lopez waited for her bus last week, she was nervous. The previous day, a man had climbed aboard her bus well before it was due to leave and left a case by the driver. “The driver shouted at us all to get out immediately, but it was a false alarm,” she says. The man had just stepped out to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Leganés and throughout Europe, that wariness is beginning to feel less like a jangling case of nerves and more like a permanent feature of European life after 3/11.

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