The Morocco Connection
As three men face 190 murder charges following the Madrid bombings, Lynne O'Donnell reports from Casablanca on terrorist links stretching from the US and England, to Morocco and Spain.
On the dusty outskirts of the southern Moroccan oil-refining city of Mohammedia, in a nameless billiard parlour with blinking pinball machines lining the back wall, young men hit balls around a green baize-covered table and say they do not believe their countrymen are capable of acts of terror.
"They are not Moroccans, they are not real Muslims, Muslims would never do such a thing," a clean-shaven youth in tight jeans says of those behind the bombs in Madrid that killed more than 200 people last week.
"Maybe they are extremists, but they are not from among us," nods another as the cue ball rebounds off a flaccid cushion.
As talk turns to the dim hopes these youths have of finding jobs when they finish school, however, it becomes clear why it is that for many disenfranchised young people in this and other poor north African countries, the draw of an alternative to their own hopeless lives is proving increasingly irresistible.
Amid the poverty and corruption that have blighted Morocco's attempts to develop into a liberal Islamic state, the nation has become a rich recruiting ground for extremist groups that, investigators across Europe and northern Africa are discovering, are inextricably linked to the al-Qaeda network of terrorism.
The atrocity in Madrid could well prove to be the act of terror around which all others pivot, providing vital links between extremist groups and their leaders spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and enabling investigators to piece together the pyramid at the top of which sits Osama bin Laden.
Even as Spanish investigators this week rounded up almost a dozen men in relation to the train blasts, ordinary Moroccans were reluctant to believe that terrorism is flourishing at the grassroots of their society. But they concede that the problems their government has failed to tackle are creating fertile ground for preachers of hate on recruitment drives for extremist organisations.
"We have a deadly mix here," says Aboubakr Jamai, editor of the weekly newspaper Le Journal. "We had a lot of people going to Afghanistan, in the two waves, first to fight against the Soviet enemy and then the Americans. They come back as Rambos with an extremist Islamic mentality.
"Our government is perceived as being a lackey of the West, and American foreign policy as being biased in the Middle East towards Israel," he says. "Social disparity is very widespread in this country, you can sense the rifts between the very rich and the very, very poor. People here at the grassroots are generally poor and ill-educated. All this makes Morocco a rich resource for extremist groups, and especially for those people operating in overseas communities who may not be willing to commit suicide themselves."
This lethal cocktail became apparent in Casablanca on May 16th when 13 suicide bombers simultaneously attacked hotels, clubs and social centres, killing 43 people. Some of the bombers whose explosive vests failed to detonate were captured and provided police with information linking their operation to at least one of the men now charged with 190 counts of murder, 1,400 of attempted murder and membership of a terrorist organisation following last week's Madrid bombing, Jamal Zougam.
According to terrorism experts and Spanish investigators, Zougam has in turn been linked to men suspected of being al-Qaeda linchpins in Spain and Morocco operating under Osama bin Laden's command.
Even after Casablanca, official suspicions remained disturbingly vague and it is only with the Madrid bombings that authorities are beginning to fit missing pieces into the jigsaw. Now it seems clearer by the day that men believed to be behind Spain's 3/11 are part of bin Laden's complex, overlapping mesh of extremist organisations that are ultimately tied directly to al-Qaeda.
While Morocco has become a rich source of vulnerable, angry and willing foot soldiers for al-Qaeda operations, these young men are largely led and directed by others - Saudis, Algerians, Syrians, Kuwaitis, Jordanians - who can be directly traced to the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.
They can also be linked through London, which many experts refer to as the "world centre of terror," directly to bin Laden. Britain's senior police officer, Sir John Stephens, has confirmed that Scotland Yard is investigating what he called a "definite link" to Madrid.
These al-Qaeda groups, spread throughout north Africa and Spain, as well as Britain, France, Belgium, Italy and Norway, and going by a variety of names, are linked in ideology and reality, share members and information, and co-operate in the planning, logistics and execution of terrorist operations worldwide, under the direction of regional al-Qaeda leaders.
Experts in Madrid and Casablanca interviewed this week blame a lapse in communication and trust between the intelligence and policing services of both countries for allowing the groups to grow and thrive in Spain and Morocco. The ability of these groups to cohesively plan, co-ordinate and execute operations on the scale of the Madrid blasts while supposedly under the glare of international surveillance has highlighted a massive intelligence failure, especially between Spain and Morocco which have ties going back hundreds of years.
Sources in Madrid close to the intelligence community say that the poor methodology of the Moroccan police - including widespread and mostly useless round-ups and torture to extract confessions - caused a credibility lapse that led the Spaniards to disregard much of their information. "Now it appears the information was good, but the Spanish did not credit it, a fatal mistake," says one of the Spanish sources.
But, says the experts, the evidence already known to investigators on both sides of the narrow strait separating the two countries links a large number of extremists, and some of the men in custody in connection with last week's murders, to al-Qaeda, to 9/11, to the Casablanca bombings and, now, to the Madrid attacks.
Add to this mix the murder of Spanish intelligence agents in Iraq, the bombings in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last year, and the missile attacks on the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad earlier this week, and the strands of the web appear to be converging.
For Prof Mohamed Darif, a terrorism expert at the law school of Hassan II University in Mohammedia, there is little difference between the many outfits that operate under al-Qaeda's umbrella. As he sips a short black coffee in Casablanca's Café de France and speaks in a rapid-fire patois of French and Arabic, Prof Darif neatly draws the groups together with a fine line that leads to Osama bin Laden.
He names Ansar al-Islam, a group chased by US forces across the mountains of northern Iraq during the war that began a year ago and known to be behind assaults in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. It is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is now suspected of masterminding the Madrid attacks, as well as the attacks in the Iraqi city of Kerbala last month, and has a $10 million (€8 million) price on his head.
He links this group to the north African extremists of Salafia Jihadia and Morocco's homegrown Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group, which he says is "more conceptual than organisational, not Islamist but Salafist," adhering itself to the Saudi Wahabi sect of Islam.
The link here, Prof Darif says, is a Syrian man called Edim Barakat Yarkas, also known as Abu Dadah, who is in custody in Spain, where he is being interrogated about involvement in planning the attacks in the US on September 11th, 2001. The judge in charge of investigating extreme Islamist cells in Spain, Baltazar Garcon, believes Yarkas is the senior al-Qaeda operative in Spain.
It was Yarkas, Prof Darif says, who brought Ansar al-Islam together with the Moroccan Islamic Combatants to plan the Madrid attacks. He has already been linked by Spanish investigators to Zougam, who Prof Darif identifies as the leader of Morocco's Salafia Jihadia.
Zougam (30) ran a mobile phone shop in the melting pot Madrid suburb of Lavapies, where phones used to detonate the train bombs purportedly came from, and he has been under police surveillance since being named by the failed Casablanca bombers. Videotapes of Islamic fighters in the Russian region of Dagestan were found in a police search of his home.
Another Spanish official, who does not wish to be named, says that only with the help of an international network could the perpetrators of the Madrid massacre have secured enough explosives and detonators for an operation of such scale.
Also named by the failed Casablanca bombers was Karim Mejati, identified in Thursday's Moroccan daily Moroccan Events newspaper, along with Khalid Changiti, as being behind the Casablanca and Madrid atrocities and now on the run from Moroccan authorities.
Prof Darif names Mejati as "the missing link," wanted by Saudi authorities for the Riyadh bombings last year. "There is some information that he was in Madrid last week, before the bombings there," he says.
Changiti, he says, was involved with a Saharan organisation called the Salafist Group of Preaching and Combat, which had operated in Senegal, Mali and Liberia for six years with the principal aim of overthrowing the Algerian government.
"Changiti uses this group to co-ordinate recruitment for al-Qaeda and to reinforce their presence in Algeria and extend it beyond the southern Sahara," he says, adding the name of Saad Houssaini, "a principal co-ordinator of al-Qaeda and number two in the Moroccan Combatants."
Like many of the men wanted worldwide for their involvement in terrorist outrages, Houssaini "joined the Chechen resistance, and has about 30 fake passports and identification cards so no one knows who he is, or what name he is going by, or where he is really from," Prof Darif says.
"The network is still alive and capable of striking again. They are becoming more sophisticated, using fewer suicide bombers in their operations, as shown by the Madrid operation where they used remote control with mobile phones to explode their bombs. Before the Madrid attack, the kingpins were long gone by the time of the action, and it was the kamikazes who carried it out. But now they can use remote methods.
"These methods can only be met with sophistication from the investigators," he says. But he warns that as long as the threat remains the focus of international investigations, it will escalate.
"These organisations were created to achieve a goal," the professor says. "The Salafists are not anti-occidental, they want to change the regimes in the Arab world and the Islamic world. But as the occidental world, especially the United States, helps these regimes, the Salafists react against the United States.
"It's a vicious cycle and the next goal will be other countries in Europe, like Italy," he says.