Tunisian organized bombings, Spain says

Posted in Terrorism | 02-Apr-04 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

5 other countries arrest 53 suspects in antiterror sweep

MADRID - The police identified a Tunisian man on Thursday as the mastermind of the March 11 train bombings here, as security forces in five other countries engaged in a major terror crackdown, arresting 53 militants they said were linked to dozens of bomb attacks in Turkey over three decades that appeared to be unrelated to the Madrid carnage.

The militants, who were identified as members of an outlawed far-left Turkish group, were swept up in a series of predawn raids in Turkey, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. They were said to be key members of the Revolutionary Liberation People's Party Front, known as DHKP-C, which has been blacklisted by the European Union as a terrorist group since 2002.

In the separate action in Spain, the judge in charge of the March 11 investigation, Juan del Olmo, issued a European arrest warrant for Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, a Tunisian man he described as the "leader and coordinator" of the Madrid attacks, which killed at least 191 people and wounded more than 1,900.

The court warrant called him the "catalyzing agent" in the attacks, and said he had "raised awareness about Jihad" in his circle and "had manifested specifically since 2003 that he was preparing a violent act in Spain." Like the other five suspects identified as still at large, he had not turned up at work or home since March 25, the police said.

In the photograph sent out with the arrest warrant, Fakhet, who the authorities said was known as "el Tunecino," or the Tunisian, is of fair complexion and has brown hair in a clean trim. He appears to be holding a mobile phone to his ear and has a distracted look. Miguel Angel Acebes, the acting interior minister, said on Tuesday that the investigation was focusing on the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, which is believed to have killed more than 30 people in a suicide bombing in Casablanca last year.

Like the Turkish authorities, who are working closely with partners in other European countries, Spanish investigators have cast their net well beyond their own borders, consulting with the British, German and Moroccan police to establish whether the Spanish cell of the militant Moroccan group has external cells that may have helped prepare the deadly attacks.

Three weeks to the day after the Madrid bombings, there were signs that European governments were increasingly joining forces to combat terrorism across the continent.

Accused of complacency after it was found that the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. were largely coordinated from Germany, European governments have been jolted into action by the Madrid event, analysts said.

"There is no question that the Madrid bombings have focused the mind of political leaders," said Daniel Keohane, security expert at the Center for European Reform in London. "Fighting terrorism has become a political priority and we're beginning to see that today."

At a summit meeting in Brussels a week ago, European leaders agreed to an antiterrorism package to be implemented by their next gathering in June. They appointed the former Dutch interior minister Gijs de Vries as EU terrorism czar and pledged to build more complete pan-European databases of criminal records, visa applications and lost and stolen passports. Europol, an underdeveloped body of continent-wide investigators, is to be beefed up in a bid to pool national police activity, resembling the FBI.

In Spain, del Olmo also issued European arrest warrants for five Moroccans: Jamal Ahmidan, Rachid Oulad Akcha, his brother Mohammed Oulad Akcha, Agdenabi Kounj and Said Berraj. Ahmidan, who according to Spanish press reports is known as "El Chino," lived in a house outside of Madrid that investigators have identified as the place where the bombs for the March 11 attacks were made.

In a raid last Friday on the house in the town of Morata de Tajuña, some 20 miles, or 32 kilometers, southeast of Madrid, the police found traces of explosives and fingerprints.

Photographs of the faces of the six sought-after suspects appeared in the newspaper El País and various Web sites on Thursday within hours of the arrest warrants being issued. The men were spotted near the site of the bombings on March 11, according to several witnesses. Also on Thursday, Turkish police detained 37 DHKP-C members inside the country, while 16 others were arrested in different European countries. The group, which claims Marxism as its ideology, opposes the U.S. and Turkish membership of NATO and is believed to be responsible for at least 180 deaths. It has no known links to Islamist terrorists, but Turkish investigators did not completely rule out a possible connection. "As far as we know there are no connections with Islamic terrorism, but this is only the beginning of the operation and we have a lot to learn," said a prosecutor, Nicola Miriano, at a news conference in Istanbul, Reuters reported. In the central Italian town of Perrugia, police detained five Turkish suspects and one Italian man believed to be the link between DHKP-C activists in Turkey and anti-capitalist militants in Italy.

In the future, the challenge for European security services will be to focus more on preventing attacks, rather than dismantling groups after the fact, Keohane said.

"The key is intelligence, and that's where Europe has been weakest," said Keohane. "The U.S. has gone through this process after Sept. 11. Europe is only just waking up to it."