Monday, March 15, 2004

Bombing arrests lead to al-Qaida suspect

By Andrew Selsky
The Associated Press

MADRID, Spain - One of the three Moroccans arrested in the Madrid train bombings is linked to a suspected al-Qaida member jailed in Spain for allegedly helping plan the Sept. 11 attack in the United States, according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

It was the latest suggestion that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group may have been involved in the bombings.

A Sept. 17, 2003 indictment calls Jamal Zougam, 30, a "follower" of Imad Yarkas, the alleged leader of Spain's al-Qaida cell who was jailed for allegedly helping plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Yarkas, whose alias is Abu Dahdah, remains in Spanish custody.

The indictment targets Yarkas and 34 others, including bin Laden, for terrorist activities connected to al-Qaida. Zougam was not among those indicted.

The indictment, led by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, showed police had searched Zougam's home at least once, turning up a video of mujaheddin fighters in Dagestan, Russia, and telephone numbers of three members of the Madrid al-Qaida cell allegedly led by Yarkas.

Zougam is one of three Moroccans and two Indians arrested in the Thursday attacks, which killed 200 people and wounded 1,500. Officials said phones were apparently used as detonators on the 10 bombs that tore through four rush-hour trains.

Spain's El Pais newspaper, citing the interior ministry, reported all three Moroccans have links to Yarkas. Authorities in Morocco said they could not comment on the report.

Zougam was one of thousands of Moroccans put under surveillance by authorities after May terrorist bombings in the coastal city of Casablanca that killed 33 people and 12 bombers, a Moroccan official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said he was suspected of ties to international terror groups. There were no formal accusations against him, and the official did not say to which groups Zougam may be linked.

European intelligence agencies were also working Sunday to identify a purported al-Qaida operative who claimed in a videotape that the terror group bombed trains in Madrid to punish Spain's backing of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The tape was discovered in a trash bin near Madrid's largest mosque on the eve of Spain's general elections Sunday. An Arabic-speaking man called a Madrid TV station to say the tape was there, Spain's Interior Ministry said.

"You love life and we love death," said the man on the tape, who wore Arab dress and spoke Arabic with a Moroccan accent.

The man said the taped claim of responsibility for the bombing of four commuter trains came from "the military spokesman for al-Qaida in Europe, Abu Dujan al Afghani."

The Interior Ministry released details about its contents, and intelligence agents were trying to identify the man, verify his claims and establish Abu Dujan al Afghani's identity.

"Our reservations about the credibility remain," Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes said Sunday.

In France, which has combated Islamic terrorism for years, an intelligence official said the name al Afghani is likely a pseudonym. The name al Afghani could mean the person is of Afghan origin or has some association with the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was too early to say if al-Qaida was responsible.

Moroccan security experts arrived in Spain on Sunday to help in the investigation. Morocco's Interior Ministry said the experts were members of a team that has already spent nearly a year working with Spanish officials on the investigation into Casablanca's terror bombings.

The Casablanca bombings were blamed on Salafia Jihadia, a secretive, radical Islamic group suspected of links to al-Qaida.

The other two Moroccan suspects, Mohamed Bekkali, 31, a mechanic, and Mohamed Chaoui, a worker, 34, have no police record at home, the official said.

The Spanish interior minister, however, said three of the suspects had previous records, and one was under investigation for suspected participation in murder. He earlier had said that one suspect might also have connections with Moroccan extremist groups. He gave no further details.

The interior ministry identified the two Indian suspects as Vinay Kohly and Suresh Kumar.

The five were arrested after a cell phone and prepaid card were found in an explosives-filled gym bag on one of the bombed trains.

Friends of the Moroccans said the Madrid store where they worked sold cell phones but they insisted that the men would not have been involved in planning or carrying out the attacks.

"People shouldn't be put in jail for selling cell phones. They are hard workers," said Karim, who works in a phone shop near the now-shuttered store where the arrested Moroccans worked. Karim did not want to give his last name.

Police searched five properties overnight, Acebes said.

Authorities have been tracking Islamic extremist activity in Spain since the mid-1990s and say it was an important staging ground, along with Germany, for the Sept. 11 attacks.

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