Suspected Madrid Bomb Plotter Held

Times Staff Writer

As part of a wide-ranging crackdown on suspected militants, Italian authorities said Tuesday that they had arrested a suspected mastermind of the March 11 Spanish railway bombings -- the continent’s deadliest attack in years and one that brought Islamic terrorism into the midst of Europe.

The arrest in Milan of a man known as “Mohammed the Egyptian” occurred during a sweep across Europe that netted 17 people suspected of ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, some believed to be planning new attacks, officials said.

The raids, which involved law enforcement in at least four countries, may have cracked a major network in Belgium, where 15 people were arrested Tuesday in Brussels.


Spanish officials said they believe the man called Mohammed, whose real name is Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, was an intellectual author of the Madrid bombings, which killed 191 people and wounded at least 1,500. Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said Ahmed and his alleged co-conspirators were planning another operation. The suspect was arrested overnight Monday by dozens of police officers who descended on an apartment where he was staying.

Wiretaps by Italy’s intelligence services revealed a conversation in which Ahmed and a second man detained with him, a 21-year-old Palestinian, said they were “ready to die as martyrs,” authorities said.

“There were some disturbing signs, as well as the danger that they would flee, that caused us to act at this time,” Italian prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli said in Milan.

Spain recently issued an arrest warrant for Ahmed and is seeking his extradition on several counts of murder.

Investigators have been tracking Ahmed -- a 33-year-old alleged explosives expert who reportedly trained in a Taliban-run camp in Afghanistan -- since shortly after the Madrid attacks. They believe he was active in recruiting jihadis, or radical Muslims intent on killing Westerners throughout the Middle East, especially in Iraq.

He has been tagged by authorities as the spiritual master of Sarhane Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian who Spanish officials say was the operational boss of the Madrid attackers. Fakhet and six other suspects died April 3 when they blew up their apartment in a Madrid suburb as police closed in.


Ahmed “is a key figure,” an official with the Spanish Interior Ministry said in an interview from Madrid, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the investigation. “He was not an on-hands executor of the attacks, but we believe he helped design them. He was one of the brains behind the operation. He was definitely linked” to Fakhet, the official said.

Ahmed fled Spain weeks before the railway bombings, the official said. He traveled through Europe, and his trail was picked up in late May in Milan, where he was working as an itinerant house painter, officials said.

Armando Spataro, another Italian prosecutor involved in the case, said phone intercepts conducted after Spanish authorities provided a cellphone number belonging to Ahmed were used to link him specifically to the Madrid bombings.

Spataro did not elaborate, but wiretap transcripts leaked to Spanish and Italian media quoted Ahmed as claiming a role in the Madrid attacks, which helped galvanize Spanish voters to oust the government in national elections March 14. The new government made good on a campaign promise and pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, a significant setback to Washington’s attempts to sustain a coalition in the chaotic country.

“Those who died in Madrid as martyrs were my dear friends, and I feel sad not to go to heaven with them,” Ahmed reportedly said in one of his intercepted conversations, alluding to Fakhet and his associates.

“That was my project,” Ahmed said of the Madrid attacks, which consisted of 10 bombs on four trains during rush hour. “It was a project that required of me much patience and study. It took me 2 1/2 years to plan.”


Ahmed was giving orders to the network whose members were arrested Tuesday in Brussels, Belgian officials said. Those detained were Jordanians, Moroccans, Egyptians and others whose nationalities had not been determined, underscoring the increasingly global nature of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

“There are indications that this group was directed from Italy,” Belgian federal prosecutor Daniel Bernard told reporters. He said Italian police passed along a tip that “a group of foreigners was present in Belgium who could be suspected of preparing an attack.”

Neither guns nor explosives were found when the arrests were made, a Belgian law enforcement official said.

“What we found is a network that was in contact with ‘the Egyptian,’ ” the official said. “This may be more likely a network involved in sending recruits to fight in Iraq, which is now the place people go instead of Afghanistan.”

Suspected links to militants in France were being investigated, the Belgian official said.

Officials would not say where Ahmed and associates might have been planning to strike. Italy has long served as a recruiting and logistical support base for Islamic militants.

Several officials said they hoped the raids reflected better cooperation among European nations in their fight against violent extremism. That cooperation has been sorely lacking, experts agree. On Monday, Italy and Greece were singled out by European Union officials for their poor records in complying with the organization’s counter-terrorism regulations.


Italy, for example, has failed to adopt a streamlined warrant system, which means extraditions routinely take months.

Concern is high in Europe because of upcoming international events, including this month’s NATO summit in Turkey and the Athens Olympics in August.

Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Paris contributed to this report.