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Terrorism trial gives Spain little comfort

Times Staff Writer

Inside a squat, red-brick courthouse here, defendants testified about the casual ease with which they obtained dynamite and then traded it to alleged terrorists in exchange for hashish.

In other testimony, a top police inspector, his face concealed, told the court that Islamist militants chose Madrid for their first act of mass murder in Europe because Spain was seen as an easy target. Another officer acknowledged that “we were always one step behind the terrorists.”

The government had hoped the trial of 29 people accused in continental Europe’s deadliest terrorist attack would console Spaniards by showing them that the culprits had been brought to justice. Instead, it has served as a reminder of how great the risks remain for a country that is still healing.

Three years after bombs ripped through four Madrid trains, killing 191 people and injuring nearly 2,000, Spanish officials and experts say the country is potentially in more danger now than ever before as extremist groups reorganize just beyond Spain’s southern coast.

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As the trial began here last month, more arrests and prosecutions were announced, and senior officials say radicals in Morocco and other parts of northern Africa, many with ties to Spain, increasingly take their cues from Al Qaeda.

Spanish authorities on Feb. 28 indicted Abdelilah Hriz, a 29-year-old Moroccan, as a principal author of the March 11, 2004, attacks, his fingerprints and blood allegedly found in an apartment where seven other key suspects blew themselves up to evade capture. Hriz is in custody in Morocco and expected to be extradited to Spain.

Investigators found DNA in the destroyed apartment that still has not been linked to any of the known perpetrators, indicating that additional suspects remain at large.

Networks organizing

Like Hriz, most of the accused in the train attacks are from Morocco or other parts of the Maghreb, the northwestern tier of Africa that also includes Algeria and Tunisia, a fact underscored by the faces and accents broadcast from the “11-M trial,” so named for the date of the attacks. Nine of the accused are non-Muslim Spaniards.

Maghreb-based networks remain the most serious threat to Spain in terms of Islamic extremism, law enforcement officials said this week. They said militants had begun to set up a centralized command and a string of training camps in southern Algeria and northern Mali, and have launched recruiting efforts targeting their brethren who live in Spain.

“We are seeing the Al Qaeda-ization of the Maghreb militants, and that is the evolution that most worries us,” a senior counter-terrorism official in the Spanish Interior Ministry said in an interview.

This metamorphosis, combined with the start of the 11-M trial and the anniversary of the attacks, has prompted authorities to raise the terrorism alert level nationwide, the official said.

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Nearly 300 suspected Islamic militants have been arrested in Spain since the attacks. Roughly 80% are from the Maghreb, according to a study by Madrid’s Elcano Royal Institute.

Last month, Ayman Zawahiri, the purported No. 2 in Al Qaeda, called on Islamic radicals in the Maghreb to “raise the flag of jihad” over North Africa and Spain “to once again feel the soil of Al Andalus beneath your feet,” according to transcripts. Al Andalus refers to that part of Spain controlled by Muslim forces for seven centuries until their expulsion by a Roman Catholic army in 1492.

It was not the first time that Zawahiri or other Al Qaeda leaders had spoken of liberating formerly Muslim land “from Iraq to Al Andalus,” but officials here say the allusions have increased in recent months, indicating that Spain is seen as part of the endgame and not just a country to be attacked along the way.

Al Qaeda threats were entered in the court record during a session of the 11-M trial this week.

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Spanish ‘occupation’

“It is undoubtedly true that Spain is much more of a target today than before,” Fernando Reinares, former terrorism advisor to the Interior Ministry and senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, said in an interview. He cited the combination of the renewed Al Qaeda threats and what he called the “synergy” between Al Qaeda and the Maghreb groups.

Probably as a recruiting tool, Zawahiri has also begun speaking of the goal of ending Spain’s “occupation” of Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves inside Morocco.

In Ceuta, Spanish authorities in December arrested 11 people suspected of preparing attacks in Spain. Although all were Muslims of Moroccan descent, 10 of the 11 were Spanish citizens, either by virtue of birth in Ceuta or having lived there since childhood.

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Ceuta has long been seen by Spanish law enforcement as a weak border; it is a short boat ride to the Spanish mainland -- and continental Europe -- and serves as a revolving door to thousands of Moroccan nationals who enter every day for work or study.

The suspects arrested in December included two brothers of Hamed Abderrahman Ahmad, known locally as the Spanish Taliban, who spent two years in custody at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He returned to Ceuta after his release in 2004.

In addition to the Ceuta ring, Spanish authorities say, they have thwarted two major plots since March 2004: plans to bomb Madrid’s main court and to destroy two of Barcelona’s most emblematic buildings. The suspects in the Barcelona plot, 11 Pakistanis, went on trial here this week, halfway across town from the venue where the train-bombing suspects are being prosecuted.

Charges in the train attacks include mass murder, terrorist association and supplying the explosives used to blow up the trains. The defendants facing the most serious charges could receive sentences totaling nearly 39,000 years because of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. Under Spanish law, however, each sentence would be capped at 40 years. There is no death penalty in Spain.

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Survivors keep watch

If the 11-M trial is a disturbing reminder for ordinary Spaniards, it is especially painful for survivors and relatives of the dead, many of whom attend the long, often tedious court hearings regularly.

In the courtroom, they sit a few feet from the defendants, most of whom are behind bulletproof glass. In the corridors, they sometimes mingle, silently.

For some of the survivors, psychologists say, it is important to attach a face to the horrors they suffered. Some say the trial has revived nightmares, but others cite a gratifying sense of vengeance at seeing the defendants in captivity.

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Despite a pervasive climate of insecurity, said Myriam Fernandez Nevado, a Madrid-based political sociologist, “Spaniards have lived many years, decades, with terrorism, and they are very good at adapting, at rising from the ashes.”

For at least one survivor, the trial has proved cathartic. Zahira Obaya, wearing an eye patch, arrived at the courtroom and sat as close as she could to the defendants. Her face was mangled and she lost an eye in the bombing.

Obaya, 24, has learned to live with her scars but wanted the alleged culprits to “see what they had done.” Leaving the courthouse, an elated Obaya told reporters she felt as though she had “grown 5 centimeters.”

Acrimonious partisan debate continues over the attacks and investigation. Some segments of the right-wing Popular Party, which was voted out of office days after the attacks, continue to insist that Basque separatists played a key role.

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Popular Party members use the argument, not backed by evidence, in response to those who say the party’s decision to send Spanish troops to Iraq made the country vulnerable to terrorists.

Polls show that about a third of Spaniards still are unsure of who was behind the bombings.

Many here hope the trial will clear up that confusion and allay doubts about the investigation was handled and how widely the planning and execution of the attacks extended.

“Spanish society needs a judgment and sentence from an independent institution,” said Antonio Hernando, a congressman who is the ruling Socialist party’s point man on national security. “This trial should provide that and allow people to definitively turn the page in terms of who was responsible for 11-M.

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“But turning the page on the impact this has had on the country, that’s another thing altogether.”

wilkinson@latimes.com


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