Originally Published 2004-03-16 12:00:50 Published on Mar 16, 2004
Sections of the Spanish media, quoting the authorities investigating the Madrid blasts of March 11,2004, have reported that the terrorists, who orchestrated the blasts, had used the mobile telephones as timers for the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along with copper detonators, different from the aluminium detonators used in the past by the ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation. According to one report, the IEDs had the alarms set for 7-39 AM.
Al Qaeda: Casablanca & Madrid
Sections of the Spanish media, quoting the authorities investigating the Madrid blasts of March 11,2004, have reported that the terrorists, who orchestrated the blasts, had used the mobile telephones as timers for the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along with copper detonators, different from the aluminium detonators used in the past by the ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation. According to one report, the IEDs had the alarms set for 7-39 AM. Apparently, in the IED which was discovered intact, the alarm haf failed to go off.

The indications till now are that the two persons of Indian origin (some reports describe them as illegal migrants holding Indian passports and not Spanish nationals of Indian origin as earlier reported and genuine Hindus and not Muslims masquerading as Hindus) held in custody had allegedly helped the terrorists in acquiring the mobiles and the SIM cards. While their interrogation is still on, there is no evidence till now to show that they were aware that the persons whom they had helped in acquiring the mobiles were terrorists planning  to use them  as timers.

It is not yet clear on what basis  the Police rounded up the three Moroccans, who are also in custody along with the two Indians. A TV station has alleged that one of the Moroccans was also suspected of involvement in the Casablanca blasts of May last year.

The Spanish authorities have not commented on these reports. While the Casablanca blasts involved the use of suicide bombers, which is the normal modus operandi of Al Qaeda, and not timed IEDs, with whether chemical or mechanical timers, none of the Madrid blasts would seem to have involved suicide bombers, from the evidence available so far. That means, all those who were involved  must be presumed to be alive and at large.

As regards the suspected Moroccan involvement, the following comments made by me in an analysis of the Casablanca blasts written on May 19,2003, ( Paper No.689 available at www.saag.org) are relevant:

"While the Moroccan authorities themselves have initially blamed "international terrorism" for the attacks without naming any organisation, media speculation has blamed Al Qaeda and projected  the blasts, coming so soon after those in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a new global offensive by Osama bin Laden's organisation in retaliation for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The targeting of Spanish interests (My present comment: A Spanish night club in Casablanca was among the targets attacked) is also underlined in this connection.  Spain was one of the NATO countries to have strongly backed the US invasion.

"In explanation of their theory that the Casablanca blasts were Iraq-related, some analysts also refer to Morocco's close relations with the West, the reported location of a US Air Force base there and the alleged transfer of some of the detenus of the Iraqi war to that base for interrogation.(My present comment: According to unconfirmed speculation , Saddam Hussain too was airlifted to the US Air Force base in Morocco for interrogation after his capture on December 13. It is not known whether this is correct and, if so, whether he is still held in Morocco) They see in the blasts ominous signs of more to come in the coming weeks in different parts of the Islamic world, directed at Christian, if not Western, and Jewish lives and interests.

"The blasts also bear some resemblance to the explosions in Bali in Indonesia and in Mombasa in Kenya  last year in that some of the establishments targeted were associated with the tourism industry and there was a Jewish linkage.  It is said that even though the Indonesian authorities had not admitted it, the restaurant in Bali attacked by the terrorists had a Jewish ownership. The Mombasa explosion and the failed attempt to hit at an Israeli plane carrying tourists home  from Mombasa were clearly directed at Jewish lives and at a hotel catering to Israeli tourists. The Casablanca blasts too seemed to have had an anti-Jewish motive and an economic purpose to hit at Morocco's tourism industry at the beginning of the tourist season.  It would, therefore, be incorrect to look at them purely through the Iraqi prism and exclude domestic factors too such as the anger over the trial of some Al Qaeda activists before a Moroccan court.

"There is a strong possibility of Al Qaeda involvement.  Next to the Saudis, the Yemenis, the Egyptians and the Algerians, Moroccans constituted an important layer of the hard core of Al Qaeda.  About a hundred Moroccans are estimated to have participated in the jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. About 40 of them returned to Morocoo after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from there.  Some of the remaining stayed back in Afghanistan and Pakistan and some others went around the world participating in the jihad in Chechnya, Dagestan, Bosnia and Kosovo.  Many of these gravitated towards bin Laden and his Al Qaeda.  Some joined him even in Khartoum in the Sudan where he was based till 1996, while the others joined him  in Afghanistan after he shifted there from the Sudan in 1996.

"The Moroccan component of Al Qaeda is believed to have played an active part in the planning and execution of the plot to kill Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary Tajik leader of Afghanistan, a few days before the 9/11 terrorist stikes in the USA.  A Moroccan trace could be seen across many of the Al Qaeda-connected arrests in West Europe last year (2002).  Amongst the detenus undergoing interrogation in US custody at Guantanamo Bay are 17 Moroccans. They and  Abu Zubaida (a Palestinian), the then No. 3 in Al Qaeda, who was arrested in Pakistan in March last year (2002), were believed to have been the source of much of the information relating to Al Qaeda's presence in Morocco.  Al Qaeda's hardcore in Morocco consisted not only of Moroccans, but also of other Arabs.

"The dossier built up through these interrogations led to the thwarting  of a plot in May last year (2002) to strike at US and British naval vessels in the Strait of Gilbraltar.  Three Saudis---Hilal Jaber Aouad al-Assiri, Zuhair Hilal Mohamed al-Tbaiti and Abdullah M'Sfer Ali al-Ghamdi-- were arrested in this connection. Two of them were married to Moroccan women, who too were alleged to have played a role in preparing the groundwork for the plot as couriers of secret communications.  Two other Moroccan associates were also arrested.

"The three Saudis were reported to have told the Moroccan authorities during their interrogation that they had  received instructions from the Yemeni 'Abd al-Rahim Nashiri  alias Mollah Bilal, described as commander of Al Qaeda operations in the Maghreb and the Middle East,  to carry out spectacular attacks in Morocco, including an explosion directed at an American naval vessel. They also reportedly stated that the plans for Al Qaeda operations in Morocco were drawn up by the surviving leaders of Al Qaeda from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

"Since the return of the Afghan-Moroccans after having fought against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, Morocoo---otherwise a pro-Western liberal society--- has been showing signs of a creeping fundamentalism and anti-Americanism, though the fundamentalism is not yet very widespread and not as extremist as seen in Algeria and elsewhere in the Arab world.  Amongst the organisations stressing the need for an Islamic way of life are the Justice and Development Party, the al-'Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) headed by  76-year-old Sheik Abdessalam Yassine, a former regional inspector in the Ministry of National Education, and the Salafi Jihadi movement.

"While the first two organisations do not propagate resort to jihad to achieve their Islamist objectives, the Salafi Jihadi projects bin Laden, the blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman,the founder of the Egyptian Al Gama Al Islamiya, now undergoing imprisonment in the US in connection with the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February,1993, and  the London-based Islamist ideologue  Omar Mahmoud Omar alias Abu Qatada al-Filistini as worthy of emulation.  The Salafi Jihadi is estimated to have a membership of about 400 in Morocco organised into a large number of autonomous cells each headed by an Amir.  Like the Jemma Islamiya of South-East Asia and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba, it calls for the creation of a number of  region-wise Islamic Caliphates, one of them for the Maghreb.  It is believed to have a close association with Al Qaeda, but is not yet a member of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF).  It is headed by Ahmed Raffiki, a  former male nurse of Casablanca.  In the 1980s and the 1990s, he was active as a recruiter of volunteers from Morocco for the jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Bosnia and Kosovo.  He plays the same role in Morocco as Abu Bakr Bashir, now under trial,  does in Indonesia---as the venerated godfather of the local Islamic extremists." (Citation from the previous article on the Casablanca blasts ends).

Many analysts have pointed out, with some validity, that the Madrid blasts seem to have been deliberately timed to take place before the elections to the Spanish Parliament  in the hope of thereby discrediting the outgoing Government, which had actively supported the Iraq-related policies of the US and UK Governments. The manner in which the blasts were planned, timed and executed clearly show that if Al Qaeda is  established to have been involved, its command and control and its ability to communicate with its cadres operating in wide areas either remain unimpaired or had recovered from the damage suffered after the US military action in Afghanistan.

It is not yet clear whether the same command and control is orchestrating the terrorist strikes involving suicide bombings by suspected foreign jihadi elements in Iraq. The apparently total lack of intelligence, human or technical, not only with the Spanish authorities, but also with the intelligence agencies of the US and West European countries and their inability to anticipate and prevent the Madrid terrorist strikes, should be a matter of concern. It indicates that the terrorism-related capability of the Western intelligence agencies continues to have serious deficiencies despite all the measures taken since 9/11 to improve it.

While there is considerable concern over the possibility of more terrorist strikes in  Europe, particularly in those countries which had supported the US-led invasion of Iraq such as the UK, Italy, Poland and Denmark as well as in Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Australia, one should not rule out the possibility of similar strikes in the countries in West Asia such as Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain which had quietly backed the US.

Even though  Malaysia and Indonesia, which shortly go to the elections, had strongly condemned the US invasion of Iraq, their governments are perceived by Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF) as collaborating with the US in its so-called war against international jihadi terrorism and hence apostate. They could, therefore,  be among the targets for attacks in future.(16-3-04)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-mail: [email protected] )

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.