Thursday 27 May 2004

Madrid Bombings Show Old Problems Anew

by Trowbridge H. Ford

The surprise arrest of a Portland, Oregon lawyer early this month as a material witness in the Madrid bombings, and then the complete dismissal of the case against him just now has dramatically demonstrated just how conspiratorial, crude, and complicated the war on terror has become. The case involved just about everything one could think of plaguing today's world - how to conduct counterterrorism on a world-wide scale, the competition between law enforcement versus intelligence gathering in the hunt for terrorists, the role of political and religious hatreds in disputes and their settlement, the reliability of signal intelligence and forensic science in suspects' incarceration and conviction, and the political fallout, especially at election time, when things go terribly wrong.

Information is coming out, bit by bit, which indicates the scope of London's, Washington's, and Tel Aviv's aiding and abetting the terrorism in Madrid on March 11 which ruined any chance of Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Asnar's Popular Party government retaining power in the general election, scheduled for a few days later. While the secret governments of these powers had assumed that there would be at worst a small, expected bombing - in the style the Basque separatists ETA had pulled off so often - this time unsuspected Moroccan terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda did the trick, the counterterrorists badly underestimating the power of the bombs, and the guile of the bombers.

The former Prime Minister admitted as much when he added a Postscript to his Eight Years of Government, though he never acknowledged really why. "Perhaps the successes achieved in the fight against ETA in recent years," he wrote, "had led us to lower our guard against the fundamentalist threat." This seemed quite uncalled for given the attempts by suicide bombers in boats from Northern Africa to blow up ships in the Straits of Gibraltar after the 9/ll attacks - reminiscent of an earlier effort by Al-Qaeda which had nearly sunk the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 - and absolutely reckless after suicide bombers set off 12 simultaneous bombs in Casablanca in May 2003, killing 33 people of Spanish, Jewish, and Moroccan origin.

Eliza Manningham-Buller, the Director General of the Security Service, was so alarmed by the prospect of similar attacks against Jewish targets in Britain that she allowed a kidon, an assassination squad, of Meir Dagan's Mossad to enter the kingdom to help prevent them. It is impossible to imagine that Spanish counterterrorist authorites were not similarly inclined against possible threats, and taking similar action, especially with Moroccan counterterrorists. The reason why they did not pursue the matter further was that they were told by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the National Security Agency (NSA) that intercepts of messages by the two groups indicated that Madrid only had to worry about the Basque terrorists. There was no "chatter" by supporters of Osama bin Laden in the Madrid area which indicated that they were about to do something.

The former Spanish Prime Minister tried to avoid the whole problem - ministers and security officials not taking the Al-Qaeda threat seriously, thanks to baseless assurances by GCHQ and NSA - by blaming the public for the failure: "I must acknowledge, however, that Spanish public opinon was perhaps not sufficiently aware, until March 11, of the extent of the threat of Islamic terrorism, or at least not as much as it was about the threat of ETA terrorism." For the lack of awareness, if this was the case, Asnar was willing to have the government take responsibility. Of course, preventing terrorism is dependent upon the gathering of proper intelligence rather than being in tune with uninformed public opinion. Governments must lead properly in the fight against terrorism if it is ever to succeed.

Asnar belatedly admitted as much when he received the Global Citizen Medal at Chapman University in Orange County, Southern California, the other day, warning that Al Qaeda would try to prevent George W. Bush's re-election by pulling off another 9/11 attack. Of course, given the state of American public opinion, any attack during the run-up to the election would help Bush, not hurt him, but the former Prime Minister was obviously trying to make the best of a bad result. "The results of the elections in Spain," he reminded the audience, "would have been different if not for what happened on March 11."

Given this freedom of movement to terrorists, it was hardly surprising that Moroccan supporters of Abu Dahdah aka Edin Barakat Yarkas were able to put together a most sophisticated conspiracy, one which seemed like the work of suicide bombers, given the simultaneous explosions, but was actually a coordinated use of mobile phones, and detonators attached to explosives in canisters - the hallmark of Al-Qaeda operations. The explosives were left in gym bags on railway cars of the four targeted trains while they were lying idle in the marshalling yard the night before - which the bombers had unlimited access to, thanks to their association with railway workers.

When the explosions occurred, Spanish security officials were panicked by the ministry into believing that they were the work of ETA, thanks to what little evidence they were able to recover about the attacks, and Anglo-American intelligence surprise over them. There were no photographs of passengers of Middle Eastern origin entering the cars with heavy rucksacks from the video cameras monitoring the railway platforms, indicating that it could not have been the work of suicide bombers. "It is understood that neither British nor American intelligence agencies had been expecting an al-Qaeda attack in Spain," Michael Evans explained in The Times the day after the attacks, "and the Spanish authorities were geared up only for a possible Eta strike."

Then the question became: where were American and British counterterrorists expecting an attack?

In the only way that one can explain this bizarre situation was that London and America were involved in a much bigger operation which took precedence over anything that a small cell of Basque terrorists might have had planned against another railway target. The previous November, American and British counterterrorists had put together a plan connecting the "Portland Seven", Oregonians who had gone to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to wage war on the United States, with a group of Britons of Pakistani origin who frequented the PC UK Internet Cafe in Crawley, southwest of London.

Unfortunately, for the "Portland Seven", their ambitions had been discovered by the FBI, and Pakistani counterterrorists had captured them before they reached Afghanistan, killing one of them apparently in the process. They were then brought back to Oregon, and tried in November 2003. One of them, Jeffrey Leon Battle, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his efforts. Before this ever started, Battle had sought the services of Brandon Mayfield, a former US Army Captain who had converted to Islam while in the service, in a child custody suit, and law enforcement had obviously not forgotten the connection. American officialdom does not like anyone converting to Islam, especially a former Army officer.

Back in Surrey, England, MI5 and MI6 had started subjecting those who frequented the cafe to constant surveillance, believing that they were seeking advice through e-mails from the same terrorists in Pakistan who the "Portland Seven" had sought out in making their way to the Taliban and Osama's Al-Qaeda, now that Canadian Mohammad Momin Khawaja had purchased fertilizer containing ammonium nitrate for apparently making a bomb, and had stored it in a nearby storage bin. "More will surface on the external aspects (of the plot)," police explained at the end of March to The Guardian upon the roundup of the suspects.

The reason why it took so long for more to surface was because the FBI went to special lengths to make sure that Mayfield could be connected to the bombing. While the Al-Qaeda suicide bombers were making themselves known to Spanish counterterrorists while conducting more operations, they left a van, containing a plastic bag filled with detonators, and on the bag was found a partial fingerprint which Madrid asked the Bureau to check on its owner. After a month of checking all the state and federal collections of prints, and securing the services of Kenneth R. Moses - a recognized authority on the subject - the Justice Department charged Mayfield.

While the general public, like the Bureau, thinks that fingerprints are irrefutable evidence in criminal prosecutions, and the FBI, thanks to its new Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems headquarters outside Clarksburg, West Virginia, thinks that it has a fail-proof procedure for making identifications, the subject is a field of increasing dispute, now that DNA has established itself as a more reliable forensic tool. Moses, now Director of Forensic Identification Services, was also instrumental in getting the City of San Francisco and the State of California to adopt integrated systems of fingerprint identification - the pilot programs for what the Bureau ultimately established. "He has been active in national efforts to establish professional standards in friction ridge analysis," his web site explained about his career in the use of fingerprints.

Actually, the certainty that people have about the unique qualities of fingerprints are little more scientific than believing that leeches can cure diseases like pneumonia, and even the Bureau's vaunted system will fail in 300 cases of out 1,000,000. The tragic case of police detective Shirley McKie while investigating a murder in southwestern Scotland in 1998 demonstrated the difficulties of relying without question upon fingerprints. Her fingerprint was allegedly found at the murder site, and while other police were willing to disregard it, she so persisted in denying it was hers that she was ultimately charged with perjury, and her career and apparently her life were ruined in the process. Michael Specter wrote a most informative article about the whole matter in the May 27, 2002 issue The New Yorker.

After Mayfield's arrest, Moses explainted to the Seattle Times that "problems with fingerprint identification can arise from shoddy work when making comparisons or reaching conclusions on the basis of too few points of comparison" - what he obviously did not think had happened in this case. "The arrest of the lawyer was described by federal law-enforcemnt authorities as a major investigative breakthrough," Michael Isikoff wrote in Newsweek, "that for the first time suggests links between an individual inside the United States and the Madrid bombing." In sum, Mayfield appeared to be in the worst possible circumstances as the fingerprint match seemed certain to convict him.

Fortunately, the whole case collapsed when Spanish authorities came forward with another person,
Algerian Ouhnane Daoud - who was still at-large - who they concluded provided a better match with the partial print on the plastic bag. It does seem strange that Madrid took so long in coming up with the results of a routine records check in such a high profile tragedy. Whether this constituted some kind of revenge on Washington for having helped lead Madrid astray in the leadup to its 9/11 remains to be seen, but Mayfield certainly did not cool suspicions when he was willing to admit upon his release: "There's a story to be told, but now is not the time, and now is not the place."

The Stars and Stripes added to suspicions by adding that the US Navy was scrubbing plans for relocating its operations in the Mediterranean to Spain's Naval Station in Rota - what was in the works before the Madrid attacks. In fact, the Pentagon is cutting its operations there, as Scott Schonauer and Kendra Helmer reported in the May 22,2004 issue: "The Navy will not release figures on how much money is projected for bases in Europe in 2004 and 2005, but the effects of the expected fiscal crunch are beginning to emerge from Spain to Crete." This was just the area ´Washington was concentrating upon before. The Pentagon tried to hide the cut as best it could by emphasizing the increased fees and costs sailors will pay for individual services, like going to the movies or playing golf.

What will happen to Canadian Khawaja, and those remanded in England - Jawad Akbar, Omar Khyam, Waheed Mahmoud, Anthony Garcia, and others - remains to be seen, but it seems that they will be quietly forgotten about after all the hoopla surrounding their arrests has subsided.

As with much about the war on terror, another crucial case has apparently blown up in London's and Washington's face.