Tuesday 30 March 2004

Massive British Counterterrorist Failure Responsible for Deadly Madrid Bombing

by Trowbridge H. Ford

When I left Stockholm for Barcelona on March 11th, right after the 13 canister-bomb attacks on four trains had occurred at three railway stations in Madrid, killing upwards of 200 people, and wounding at least another 1,800, it was with the greatest excitement, trepidation, and concern. The attacks had the potential of changing dramatically not only the Iberian peninsula but also the Western world if part of a clearly coordinated plot.

If they were the result of domestic terrorists, especially the Basque separatists ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna), it could have thrown Spain into a downward spiral of violence - reminiscent of how General Augusto Pinochet seized power from Chile's President Salvadore Allende back in 1973 - which could have been legally strenghtened by the upcoming Sunday, parliamentary elections. The Madrid government, a strong supporter of the risk-seeking Anglo-American Coalition despite the overwhelming opposition to its position by its people, could have seen its position legitimized at the polls.

If the attacks were the work of outside terrorists, especially Israel's Mossad or Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, they could have handed the government of Popular Party's leader José Maria Aznar's successor such an increased majority that pre-emptive strikes against alleged rogue states, and terrorist organizations would have become a matter of course in the war on terrorism.

If this were the case, one could not rule out Coalition complicity in the conspiracy as Washington and London are becoming increasingly desperate over the chances of surviving the growing opposition in the Arab world, and across the West to their counter-productive policies. While allegedly committed to stamping out terrorism, they are only feeding it.

Then, one could not rule out right-wing supporters of General Franco being behind the plot, especially since they have been so upset about how politics have been developing in Spain's democracy, and are in a position, thanks to their prevalence in the intelligence and security services, especially in the Higher Defense Intelligence Center (CESID), to do something drastic about it. Counterterrorists are in an ideal position, as their American counterparts learned during the Iran Contra Affair, to engage, and expand terrorism if they are so inclined. Also, they could have been led astray by their Anglo-American counterparts.

In this case of terrorism, one must also consider the target, and how it was attacked, as one Spanish locale or city is not the same as another, given Spain's regional and cultural differences. Hitting Madrid hard, as opposed to Barcelona, for example, would make much more sense for some possible culprits rather than others. While the Mossad would be the prime suspect if Barcelona had been attacked - what could get the Catalans behind the war on terror - the Spanish capital, esepcially its citizens, would be the ideal target for Al-Qaeda. ETA would be prone to attack hard targets there.

After the attacks of 9/11, Spain was in the forefront of stopping terrorists. On November 18th, Spanish security police raided a house in Madrid, arresting eight men thought to be connected to Al-Qaeda, and planning to attack various high-profile targets in Western Europe, including NATO headqarters in Brussels, and the American Embassy in Paris. The leading suspect arrested was Syrian Abu Dahdah aka Edin Barakat Yarkas who took orders directly from Muhammed Atef, Al-Qaeda's military commander responsible for organizing the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

By the following April, CESID agents clinched their closure of the cell operating out of Majorca by arresting Ahmed Brahim, Al-Qaeda's financial wizard behind the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 220 people, in an apartment of the San Joan Despit secton of Barcelona. Brahim used his businesses on the Spanish island as the cover for such covert operations through stolen credit cards to pay for telephone communications, and false invoices to hide illegal money transfers for agents and equipment.

With the help of National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts, the Spanish police were able to connect Brahim to Mahdouh Mahud Salin, one of the founders of Al-Qaeda in Spain, and with that of German police, to leading hijacker Mohamed Atta a year before the attacks occurred. Salin was later tried, and convicted of conspiring to blow up the embassies. German police found an address book in a Hamburg apartment which connected Atta to Yarkas.

In the process, CESID learned how Spain, a "rear guard base", was able to propagate similar cells around Europe, and connect them in ways which would lead to more destructive terrorisim unless there was more effective counterterrorism by all countries concerned. The only downside of the whole operation was that the United States Air Force - so eager to redeem itself after the humiliations of 9/11 - used the NSA intercepts of calls between Atef and the Spanish base to take him out by an air attack during an Al-Qaeda meeting in Kabal on November 14th. In killing him, the Coalition lost a vital source of information.

The stupid killing to Atef was compounded by the unnecessary assault on Iraq - what threw the war on terrorism into the greatest disarray. Bathasar Garzon, Spain's most dedicated and successful investigative judge, put it this way: "The war against Iraq will not eradicate the threat of terror but perversely, it may bolster it." Unfortunately, he knew what he was talking about, and the deadly Madrid attacks are the best evidence of this being so.

During the build-up of the war with Saddam Hussein, Al-Qadea's recruiter in Britain, cleric Abu Qatada, was apparently recruited by the Security Service as a double agent to keep track of all the visitors, especially from Spain, joining its ranks. Before Christmas 2001, Qatada and his family went into hiding from their home in Acton, his critics claiming that he had fled the country, but operatives in Britain implying that he had switched sides, spilling the beans on all his formers colleagues for London's authorities. In October 2002, he was jailed as a terrorist, but this could just have been to keep up his cover as the war with Iraq came into focus. In January, he sought release from custody, but his appeal was rejected.

Whatever Qatada told MI5 about possible attacks in Britain (was he responsible for all the overkill in counterterrorism last year at Heathrow?), he obviously did not keep Spanish authorities informed of what his disciples did in London, and planned in Madrid, as The Australian reported just the other day in the article entitled, "Al-Qaeda Double Agent Duped MI5:" "Among the scores of young militants who visited him was the chief suspect in the Madrid train bombings." The suspect is, of all people, Abu Dahdah, who visited Qatada no less than 25 times, bringing money and recruits. Obviously, the visits were intended to throw everybody off, MI5 thinking that the targets were in Britain while they were actually in Spain. London must have assured Aznar's government that it had nothing to worry about with Abu Dahdah.

Little wonder that Madrid went berserk when the totally unexpected attacks occurred, blaming ETA, the only likely other source. In doing so, the PP government ruined what little chance it had with the already disbelieving electorate about the war on terror. When Britain realized how it too had played into the hands of Spain's Al-Qaeda network, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, Britain's clean-up man when it comes to botched covert operations, understandably announced that similar attacks in the UK were just a matter of time, and now its forces are arresting all Qatada's visitors that they can lay their hands on. Unfortunately, like actions after the 9/11 attacks, they are simply grabbing at straws.