European intelligence: Al Qaida sleepers planned attack

Friday, March 12, 2004

LONDON Western intelligence sources believe Al Qaida employed insurgents from North Africa for the train bombings in Spain that killed about 200 people.

The sources said Spanish and other European intelligence and security agencies believe that sleeper cells established by Al Qaida-aligned groups helped designate the targets and provide logistics and safe haven for operatives who detonated 10 backpack bombs aboard commuter trains in Madrid on Thursday. The cells were established by organizations that stem from Algeria and Morocco and employed local insurgency operatives, including Basque separatists.

The North African groups believed to have been involved in the Madrid attacks include the Salafist Jihadiya in Morocco and the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call in Algeria. Salafist Jihadiya was said to have been contracted by Al Qaida for the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca in which 44 people were killed. Algeria's Salafist Brigade has been regarded as the chief subcontractor for Al Qaida in Europe and North Africa.

"These attacks were the result of years of liasion and planning between North African groups aligned with Al Qaida and Basque separatists and other local terrorist operatives," a European intelligence source said. "Everybody knew a major attack was coming, but nobody expected it to be this lethal."

On Thursday, an Al Qaida cell, called "Abu Hafs Al Masri Brigades," asserted that the bombings in Madrid constituted an Islamic attack against U.S. allies in Europe, Middle East Newsline reported. The letter termed the strikes "Operation Death Trains."

"We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance," the letter, sent to the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi daily, said. "This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam. Where is America, O [Spain's prime minister] Aznar? Who is going to protect you, Britain, Japan, Italy and other collaborators from us?"

The Abu Hafs group is named after a late Al Qaida commander. Abu Hafs is a pseudonym of Mohammed Atef, a relative by marriage to Osama Bin Laden and killed in a U.S missile strike in 2001.

"We bring good news to Muslims of the world that the expected 'Winds of Black Death' strike against America is now in its final stage," the letter said.

The Abu Hafs Brigades claimed responsibility for the November 2003 suicide bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey and the August bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Abu Hafs also claimed responsibility for Monday's suicide bombing of a Masonic Lodge in Istanbul.

At first, the Spanish government attributed the explosions to ETA, a Basque separatist group. But on late Thursday Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes appeared to confirm the assessment of Western intelligence agencies that Al Qaida was involved in the blasts.

Acebes said a van found near the scene of the bombings contained seven detonators and an Arabic tape with verses from the Koran. "I have just given instructions to the security forces not to rule out any line of investigation," Acebes said.

Intelligence sources said most Western agencies regard Abu Hafs as a fictitious group used by Al Qaida in its psychological warfare campaign against the West. They said Abu Hafs has been used by Al Qaida in attacks coordinated with local insurgency cells.

Spain, which broke up an Islamic insurgency network linked to the Al Qaida strikes against the United States in 2001, has been a target of Osama Bin Laden since last year, apparently because of Madrid's participation in the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, the sources said. A Bin Laden message on Oct. 18, 2003 cited Spain as a target along with Australia, Britain, Italy, Japan and Poland.

U.S. intelligence analysts dismissed the prospect that ETA was behind the Madrid bombings. They said ETA appeared to lack the capability and motivation for such an attack, but added that an emerging young leadership was believed to be forming links with Islamic insurgency groups aligned with Al Qaida.

"Neither ETA nor Grapo [another Spanish insurgency group] maintains the degree of operational capability it once enjoyed," the State Department said in its annual report on terrorism released in 2004. "The overall level of terrorist activity is considerably less than in the past, and the trend appears to be downward."

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