The New Yorker
August 4, 2004
THE TERROR WEB
by LAWRENCE WRIGHT
Were the Madrid bombings part of a new, far-reaching jihad being plotted on the Internet?
Issue of 2004-08-02
For much of Spain’s modern history, the organization that has defined its experience with terror is ETA, which stands for Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty). ETA, which was founded in 1959, has a clear political goal: it wants to set up a separate nation, comprising the Basque provinces, in northern Spain, and parts of southern France. Although ETA has killed some eight hundred people, it has developed a reputation for targeting, almost exclusively, politicians, security officials, and journalists. Over the years, the terrorists and the Spanish police have come to a rough understanding about the rules of engagement. “They don’t commit attacks on the working class, and they always call us before an explosion, telling us where the bomb is situated,” an intelligence official in the Spanish National Police told me recently in Madrid. “If they place a bomb in a backpack on a train, there will be a cassette tape saying, ‘This bag is going to explode. Please leave the train.’” And so on March 11th, when the first reports arrived of mass casualties resulting from explosions on commuter trains, Spanish intelligence officials assumed that ETA had made an appalling mistake.
At 7:37 A.M., as a train was about to enter Madrid’s Atocha station, three bombs blasted open the steel cars, sending body parts through the windows of nearby apartments. The station is in Madrid’s center, a few blocks from the Prado Museum. Within seconds, four bombs exploded on another train, five hundred and fifty yards from the station. The bombs killed nearly a hundred people. Had the explosions occurred when the trains were inside the station, the fatalities might have tallied in the thousands; a quarter of a million people pass through Atocha every workday. The trains at that hour were filled with students and young office workers who live in public housing and in modest apartment complexes east of the city. Many were immigrants, who had been drawn by the Spanish economic boom.
As emergency crews rushed to the scene, two more bombs demolished a train at the El Pozo del Tío Raimundo station, three miles away. By then, José María Aznar, the Prime Minister, had learned of the attacks, which were taking place at the end of an uneventful political campaign. The conservative Popular Party, which Aznar headed, was leading the Socialists by four and a half points in the polls, despite the overwhelming opposition of the Spanish population to the country’s participation in the war in Iraq. It was Thursday morning; the election would take place on Sunday.
At seven-forty-two, one minute after the El Pozo bomb, a final bomb went off, on a train at the suburban Santa Eugenia station. Emergency workers arrived to find mangled bodies littering the tracks. The Spanish had never seen anything like this—the worst ETA atrocity, in 1987, killed twenty-one shoppers in a Barcelona grocery store. At Santa Eugenia, there were so many wounded that rescue crews ripped up the benches in the waiting area to use as stretchers. In all, there were a hundred and ninety-one fatalities and sixteen hundred injuries. It was the most devastating act of terrorism in European history, except for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Aznar, who survived an ETA car bomb in 1995, had made the elimination of the group his biggest priority. His security forces had decimated ETA’s ranks, but they were aware that remnants of the organization were attempting to stage a retaliatory attack in Madrid. The previous Christmas Eve, police had arrested two ETA commanders who had planted backpack bombs on trains, and in February the Civil Guard intercepted an ETA van that was headed to the capital carrying eleven hundred pounds of explosives. A top Spanish police official, a political appointee, told me that authorities had planned a major strike against ETA for March 12th, the last official day of campaigning. Such a blow might have boosted Aznar’s party at the polls. eta, however, had seemingly struck first.
At 10:50 A.M., police in Alcalá de Henares received a call from a witness who pointed them to a boxy white Renault van that had been left that morning at the train station. “At the beginning, we didn’t pay too much attention to it,” an investigator told me. “Then we saw that the license plate didn’t correspond to the van.” Even that clue, though, struck a false note. When ETA operatives steal a car, they match it with license plates from the same model car. It had been years since ETA had made such an elementary mistake.
The lack of warning, the many casualties, the proletarian background of many of the victims, and ETA’s quick disavowal of the crime all suggested that there was reason to question the assignment of blame. The police no longer considered eta capable of carrying off such an elaborate attack. Moreover, the telephones of known ETA collaborators were bugged. “The bad guys were calling each other, saying, ‘Was it us? It’s craziness!’” a senior intelligence official said.
That afternoon, detectives looked more carefully at the white van. They collected fingerprints, and under the passenger seat they found a plastic bag with seven detonators matching the type used in the bombings. There were cigarette butts, a woman’s wig, and a Plácido Domingo cassette. In the tape player was a different recording—it bore Arabic inscriptions, and turned out to be Koranic recitations for religious novices. By that time, police had learned that the explosive used in the bombings was Goma-2, which ETA no longer used. “We told the government that there was something odd, that it was possibly not ETA,” the intelligence official told me.
That evening, however, Aznar called the editors of Spain’s newspapers. “ETA is behind the attacks,” he assured them. Then he called José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, his Socialist opponent, to tell him about the van with the Arabic tape; at the same time, he insisted that “there is no doubt who did the attacks.”
The case broke open in the middle of the night, when a young police officer, sorting through belongings recovered from the trains, opened a sports bag and discovered twenty-two pounds of Goma-2, surrounded by nails and screws. Two wires ran from a blue mobile phone to a detonator. It wasn’t clear why the bomb had failed to explode.
Police officers realized that a chip inside the phone would contain a record of recently dialled numbers. By tracing these calls, they were quickly able to map out a network of young Arab immigrants, many of whom were known to Spanish intelligence. Data stored on the chip revealed that a calling plan had been set up at a small telephone and copy shop in Lavapiés, a working-class neighborhood near the Atocha station. The store was owned by Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan who had previously been under surveillance because of alleged connections to Al Qaeda. He was soon arrested.
Information began leaking to the public about the direction of the investigation. By Friday afternoon, demonstrators were standing in front of the Atocha station, holding signs that linked the tragedy to the war in Iraq. It was clear that the election would swing on the question of whether Islamists or ETA terrorists were responsible for the bombings. That day, the Interior Minister, Ángel Acebes, insisted publicly that ETA was the prime suspect—even though the police were now certain that ETA was not directly involved.
At twilight, some eleven million Spaniards assembled around the country to protest the violence. In rainy Madrid, the umbrellas stretched for miles down the Paseo del Prado. The anger and grief of the marchers were compounded by confusion about the investigation. “I walked with a million people in Madrid’s streets,” Diego López Garrido, a Socialist deputy in the Spanish congress, told me. “Many people were saying, ‘Who is the author of these attacks?’ And they wondered, ‘Why is the government lying to us?’”
The day of the bombings, analysts at the Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, a Norwegian think tank near Oslo, retrieved a document that they had noticed on an Islamist Web site the previous December. At the time, the document had not made a big impression, but now, in light of the events in Madrid, it read like a terrorist road map. Titled “Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers,” it had been prepared by a previously unknown entity called the Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People (Mujahideen Services Center).
The document, which is forty-two pages long and appears to be the work of several anonymous authors, begins with the proposition that although Coalition forces in Iraq, led by America, could not be defeated by a guerrilla insurgency, individual partners of the Coalition could be persuaded to depart, leaving America more vulnerable and discouraged as casualties increased and the expenses became insupportable. Three countries—Britain, Spain, and Poland—formed the European backbone of the Coalition. Poland appeared to be the most resolute, because the populace largely agreed with the government’s decision to enter Iraq. In Britain, the war was generally deplored. “Before the war, in February, about a million people went out on a huge march filling the streets of London,” the document notes. “This was the biggest march of political protest in the history of Britain.” But the authors suggest that the British would not withdraw unless the casualty count sharply increased.
Spain, however, presented a striking opportunity. The war was almost universally unpopular. Aznar had plunged his country into Iraq without seeking a consensus, unlike other Coalition leaders. “If the disparity between the government and the people were at the same percentage rate in Britain, then the Blair government would fall,” the author of this section observes. The reason Aznar had not yet been ousted, the author claims, was that Spain is an immature democracy and does not have a firm tradition of holding its rulers accountable. Right-wing Spanish voters also tended to be more loyal and organized than their leftist counterparts. Moreover, the number of Spanish casualties in Iraq was less than a dozen. “In order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq, the resistance should deal painful blows to its forces,” the writer proposes. “It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year. We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure. If its troops still remain in Iraq after these blows, the victory of the Socialist Party is almost secured, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its electoral program.” Once Spain pulled out of Iraq, the author theorizes, the pressure on Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, to do the same might be unbearable—“and hence the domino tiles would fall quickly.”
The document specifies that the attacks would be aimed at Spanish forces within Iraq—there is no call for action in Spain. Nonetheless, the authors’ reading of the Western political calendar struck the Norwegian researchers as particularly keen. “The relation between the text and the bombings is unclear,” Thomas Hegghammer, a researcher at Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, told me. “But, without the text, we would still be asking, ‘Is this a coincidence?’”
That day, Hegghammer forwarded a copy of the document to Haizam Amirah Fernández, a colleague at Madrid’s Real Instituto Elcano. Amirah was shocked. Until now, the announced goals of Al Qaeda had been mainly parochial, directed at purging the Islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia, of Western influences; overturning the established Arabic governments and restoring the clerical rule of the ancient caliphate; and purifying Islam by returning it to the idealized time of the Prophet. In an audiotape aired on the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera in February, 2003, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had identified Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen as “the most qualified regions for liberation.” (Iraq was notably absent from his list.) And yet he offered no political platform—no plan, for instance, for governing Saudi Arabia on the morning after the revolution. As for the rest of the world, bin Laden’s goals seemed to be motivated mainly by revenge. In 1998, he had decreed that it was the “duty of every Muslim” to kill Americans and their allies. The spectacular violence that characterized Al Qaeda’s attacks was not a means to a goal—it was the goal. Success was measured by the body count, not by political change.
The Internet document suggested that a new intelligence was at work, a rationality not seen in Al Qaeda documents before. The Mujahideen Services Center, whatever that was, appeared to operate as a kind of Islamist think tank. “The person who put together those chapters had a clear strategic vision, realistic and well thought out,” Amirah says. He told Hegghammer, “This is political science applied to jihad.”
Although the document was posted on the Internet in December, 2003, the authors note that a draft had been written in September. In October, assassins shot a Spanish military attaché in Iraq, José Antonio Bernal Gómez, near his residence; in November, seven Spanish intelligence agents were ambushed and murdered south of Baghdad. Photographs of the killers standing on the agents’ bodies circulated on Islamist Web sites. Another Internet document soon appeared, titled “Message to the Spanish People,” signed by the Information Commission for the Help of the Iraqi People (Department of Foreign Propaganda), which threatened more attacks. “Return to your country and live peacefully,” it demands, or else “the battalions of the Iraqi resistance and its supporters outside of Iraq are able to increase the dosage and will eclipse your memory of the rotten spies.”
Variations in the Arabic transcriptions of English words in the “Jihadi Iraq” document suggested to Amirah that writers of various nationalities had drafted it. For instance, in some cases the “T” in Tony Blair’s name was transcribed with the Arabic “ta,” but in the section about Spain the author used the “dha,” which is more typical of the Moroccan dialect. Also characteristic of Morocco is the use of Arabic numerals (the style used in the West) in place of the numbering system that is common from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Those clues, plus certain particularly Moroccan political concerns expressed in the document, such as the independence movement in Western Sahara, suggested that at least some of the authors were diaspora Moroccans, probably living in Spain.
The link between the Internet document and the bombings soon became clearer. There is a reference early in the document to Abu Dujana, a companion of the Prophet who was known for his ferocity in battle. His name had been invoked by other jihadis, notably in the suicide bombings at the J. W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta in August, 2003. On Saturday evening, a television station in Madrid received a call from a man speaking Spanish with a Moroccan accent, who said that a videotape had been placed in a trash bin near the city’s main mosque. “We declare our responsibility for what has occurred in Madrid, exactly two and a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington,” a masked speaker on the videotape said. He identified himself as Abu Dujan al-Afghani, “the military spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe.” He continued, “It is a response to your collaboration with the criminal Bush and his allies. You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said. If you don’t stop your injustices, more and more blood will flow.”
Until this tape appeared, even those investigators who were arguing that the train bombings were perpetrated by Islamic terrorists, not eta, had been troubled by the fact that there were no “martyrs” in the attacks. It is a trademark of Al Qaeda to sacrifice its killers; this practice has provided a scanty moral cover for what would otherwise be seen simply as mass murder. But, when the investigators saw that the man calling himself Abu Dujan al-Afghani was dressed in white funeral robes, they realized that suicide was on the horizon.
The Al Qaeda cell in Spain is old and well established. Mohamed Atta, the commander of the September 11th attacks, came to Spain twice in 2001. The second time was in July, for a meeting in the coastal resort of Salou, which appears to have been arranged as a final go-ahead for the attacks. After September 11th, Spanish police estimated that there were three hundred Islamic radicals in the country who might be affiliated with Al Qaeda. Even before then, members of the Spanish cell had been monitored by police agencies, as is evident from the abundant use of wiretaps and surveillance information in indictments that were issued in November, 2001, when eleven suspects were charged with being Al Qaeda members—the first of several terrorist roundups. And yet, according to Spanish police officials, at the time of the Madrid attacks there was not a single Arabic-speaking intelligence agent in the country. Al Qaeda was simply not seen as a threat to Spain. “We never believed we were a real target,” a senior police official said. “That’s the reality.”
At four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, sixty hours after the attacks and the day before the elections, Interior Minister Acebes announced the arrest of Jamal Zougam and two other Moroccans. Still, he continued to point at ETA. But by now the Socialists were publicly accusing the government of lying about the investigation in order to stay in power.
Polls opened the next morning at nine. Thirty-five million people voted, more than seventy-seven per cent of the electorate, eight per cent more than expected. Many were young, first-time voters, and their votes put the Socialists over the top. As José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero declared victory, he again condemned the war in Iraq and reiterated his intention to withdraw troops.
Four days later, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda, sent a bombastic message to the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, avowing responsibility for the train bombings. “Whose turn will it be next?” the authors taunt. “Is it Japan, America, Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia, or Australia?” The message also addressed the speculation that the terrorists would try to replicate their political success in Spain by disrupting the November U.S. elections. “We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections,” the authors write. Bush’s “idiocy and religious fanaticism” are useful, the authors contend, for they stir the Islamic world to action.
On April 2nd, two weeks after the election, a security guard for the ave, Spain’s high-speed train line, discovered a blue plastic bag beside the tracks forty miles south of Madrid. Inside the bag were twenty-six pounds of Goma-2. Four hundred and fifty feet of cable had been draped across the security fence and attached, incorrectly, to the detonator. Had the bomb gone off when the ave passed by—at a hundred and eighty m.p.h., carrying twelve hundred passengers—the results could have been far more catastrophic than those of March 11th. Spanish citizens asked themselves: If the bombings of March 11th had accomplished the goals set by Al Qaeda, what was the point of April 2nd?
Gustavo de Aristegui is one of the leaders of the Popular Party in Spain’s Basque country. For years, he represented Donostio-San Sebastián, the region’s capital, in the Spanish congress. A lawyer and former diplomat, Aristegui has been preoccupied for many years with the rise of Islamic terror. His father was Spain’s Ambassador to Lebanon and was killed in Beirut in 1989, when Syrian forces shelled his diplomatic residence.
“Al Qaeda has four different networks,” Aristegui told me in Madrid, the day after the Socialists took power. “First, there is the original network, the one that committed 9/11, which uses its own resources and people it has recruited and trained. Then, there is the ad-hoc terrorist network, consisting of franchise organizations that Al Qaeda created—often to replace ones that weren’t bloody enough—in countries such as the Philippines, Jordan, and Algeria.” The third network, Aristegui said, is more subtle, “a strategic union of like-minded companies.” Since February, 1998, when Osama bin Laden announced the creation of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews—an umbrella organization for Islamist groups from Morocco to China—Al Qaeda has expanded its dominion by making alliances and offering funds. “Hamas is in, or almost in,” Aristegui said. “Bin Laden is trying to tempt Hezbollah to join, but they are Shia, and many Sunnis are opposed to them.” Finally, there is the fourth network—“imitators, emulators,” who are ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda but are less tied to it financially. “These are the ones who committed Madrid,” Aristegui said.
Until the Madrid attacks, the Al Qaeda operations—in Dhahran, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Aden, New York, Washington, Jerba, Karachi, Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta, and Istanbul—had been political failures. These massacres committed in the name of jihad had achieved little except anger, grief, and the deaths of thousands. Soon after September 11th, Al Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan and, along with that, its singular role in the coördination of international terror. New groups, such as the bombers in Madrid, were acting in the name of Al Qaeda, and although they may well have had the blessings of its leaders, they did not have the training, resources, or international contacts that had bolstered the previous generation of terrorists. Some operations, such as the 2003 attack on Western compounds in Riyadh, which killed mainly Muslims, were such fiascos that it appeared that Al Qaeda was no longer able to exercise control.
“Al Qaeda is not a hierarchical organization, and never was,” Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, a former C.I.A. case officer, and the author of “Understanding Terror Networks,” told me. “It was always a social movement.” The latest converts to the cause didn’t train in Afghanistan, and they approach jihad differently. “These local guys are reckless and less well trained, but they are willing to kill themselves, whereas the previous leaders were not,” Sageman said. Moreover, as the Spanish attacks showed, the new generation was more interested in committing violence for the sake of immediate political gain.
The kind of short-term tactical thinking displayed in the “Jihadi Iraq” document and the March 11th bombings is decidedly out of step with Al Qaeda’s traditional world view, in which history is seen as an endless struggle between believers and infidels. It is the mind-set of fundamentalists of all religions. This war is eternal, and is never finally won until the longed-for Day of Judgment. In this contest, the first goal is to provoke conflict. Bold, violent deeds draw the lines and arouse ancient resentments, and are useful even if they have unsought consequences. Polarization is to be encouraged, radical simplicity being essential for religious warfare. An Al Qaeda statement posted on the Internet after the March 11th bombings declared, “Being targeted by an enemy is what will wake us from our slumber.” Seen in this light, terrorism plays a sacramental role, dramatizing a religious conflict by giving it an apocalyptic backdrop. And Madrid was just another step in the relentless march of radical Islam against the modern, secular world.
Had the Madrid cell rested on its accomplishment after March 11th, Al Qaeda would properly be seen as an organization now being guided by political strategists—as an entity closer in spirit to ETA, with clear tactical objectives. April 2nd throws doubt on that perspective. There was little to be gained politically from striking an opponent who was complying with the stated demand: the government had agreed to withdraw troops from Iraq. If the point was merely humiliation or revenge, then April 2nd makes more sense; the terrorists wanted more blood, even if a second attack backfired politically. (The Socialists could hardly continue to follow the terrorist agenda with a thousand new corpses along the tracks.) April 2nd is comprehensible only if the real goal of the bombers was not Iraq but Spain, where the Islamic empire began its retreat five hundred years ago. “Spain is a target because we are the historic turning point,” Aristegui said. “After this, they are going to try to hit Rome, London, Paris, and the U.S. harder than they did before.”
Juan Áviles, a history professor at Madrid’s Autonomous University and an adviser to the Civil Guard, told me, “From our Western point of view, it doesn’t make sense that the killings of Atocha are meaningless. In Spain, we expect ETA to behave in certain ways. With Al Qaeda, the real dimensions of the threat are not known. And that produces uneasiness.”
In the weeks after the March 11th attacks, Spanish police combed the immigrant neighborhoods outside Madrid, carrying photographs of suspects. “We didn’t have them perfectly located, but we knew they were in Leganés,” a police official told me. Leganés is a bland suburb of five-story red brick apartment complexes. The wide streets are lined with evenly spaced, adolescent oaks. In the mornings, the sidewalks are full of commuters rushing for the trains; then the place is vacant, except for grandmothers and strollers. In the evenings, the commuters return and close their doors.
At three o’clock on the afternoon of April 3rd, the day after the discovery of the bomb on the ave tracks, police approached an apartment building on Calle Carmen Martín Gaite. They saw a young Moroccan man with a baseball cap on backward who was taking out trash. He yelled something in Arabic, then ran away at an impressive pace. (He turned out to be a track champion; the police did not catch him, and he remains at large.) A moment later, voices cried out, “Allahu Akhbar!,” and machine-gun fire from the second floor of the apartment house raked the street, scattering the cops. Over the next few hours, the police tactical unit, Grupo Especial de Operaciones, evacuated the residents of nearby apartments. Tanks and helicopters moved in, and the siege of Leganés began.
Inside the apartment were seven young men. Most of them were Moroccan immigrants who had come to Europe seeking economic opportunity. They had gone through a period of becoming “Westernized”—that is to say, they had been drinkers, drug dealers, womanizers. They hung out in cybercafés. They folded into the ethnic mix of urban Madrid. But they also lived in the European underground of Islamic radicalism, whose members were recruited more often in prison than in the training camps of Afghanistan.
Their leader was Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, who was thirty-five years old and had a round, fleshy face and a patchy beard. He was a real-estate agent who had come to Madrid eight years earlier on a scholarship to study economics. His boss told the Spanish press that Fakhet was “a wonderful salesman,” who held the record for the number of apartments sold in a month. Yet he did not talk to his co-workers or make friends with other Spaniards; he remained sequestered in his Muslim world.
“He was very soft and well educated,” Moneir Mahmoud Aly el-Messery, the imam at the principal mosque in Madrid, told me. The mosque—a massive marble structure, built with Saudi money—is the center of Muslim cultural life in the Spanish capital. It overlooks the M-30, one of the main freeways feeding into Madrid. When Fakhet was a student, he worked in the restaurant that is attached to the mosque, and he sometimes came to Messery’s weekly religion class. In the beginning, the imam noticed that Fakhet spoke familiarly to women as well as to men. “Then, for three or four years, I sensed that he had some extremist thoughts,” Messery recalled. After class, Fakhet would ask telling questions, such as whether the imam believed that the leaders of the Arab countries were true believers, or if Islam authorized the use of force to spread the religion. Last year, he married a sixteen-year-old Moroccan girl who veiled her face and dressed entirely in black, including gloves. His performance at work declined, and he eventually stopped showing up altogether. According to police, he attended meetings with a small group of fellow-Muslims at a barbershop in Madrid, where the men would drink holy water from Mecca. Police believe that this ritual was aimed at absolving the men of the sin of suicide, which is condemned by Islam.
Soon after the attacks of September 11th, the imam had a dream about Fakhet. “Sarhane was in his kitchen, cooking on the stove,” he recalled. “I saw what he was cooking was a big pot of worms. He tried to give me a plate of the food to eat. I said no. I said, ‘Please clean the kitchen!’” Days later, the imam confronted Fakhet. “This is a message from God!” the imam said to him. “The kitchen is the thought, and the thought is dirty.” Fakhet didn’t respond. “He’s a very cold person,” the imam told me.
Fakhet was not the only young man in the M-30 mosque who had taken a turn toward extremism. Amer Azizi, a thirty-six-year-old Moroccan who was a veteran of jihad in Bosnia and Afghanistan, had been indicted in Spain for helping to plan the September 11th attacks. (He was accused of setting up the July, 2001, meeting between Atta and other conspirators in Salou.) Among people who frequented the mosque, Azizi had the reputation of being a drug addict, although he attended some classes on Islam along with Fakhet. In June, 2000, when the Arab countries’ ambassadors to Spain came to the mosque to mourn the death of the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, Azizi insulted them, yelling, “Why do you come to pray for an infidel?” Police charge him with being a senior member of Al Qaeda and the leader of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, which was responsible for five bombings in Casablanca in May, 2003. He fled Spain just before his indictment.
Another of Fakhet’s friends was Jamal Ahmidan, a drug dealer who police say financed the March 11th bombings with seventy pounds of hashish. Messery blamed an Islamist cleric in London, Abu Qatada, a radical Palestinian from Jordan who emigrated to Britain as a refugee in 1994. After September 11th, police in Hamburg found eighteen tapes of Abu Qatada’s sermons in Mohamed Atta’s apartment there. British authorities arrested him in October, 2002, but he still wields great authority among Islamists around the world. The imam told me, “It was as if there were black hands behind a curtain pushing these young men.”
At six o’clock in the evening on April 3rd, three hours after the start of the Leganés siege, a handwritten fax in Arabic, signed by Abu Dujan al-Afghani, arrived at ABC, a conservative daily in Madrid. Referring to the bomb found beside the ave tracks the day before, the author argues that it failed to explode because “our objective was only to warn you and show you that we have the power and capacity, with the permission of Allah, to attack you when and how we want.” The letter demanded that Spain withdraw its troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan by the following Sunday. Otherwise, “we will turn Spain into an inferno and make your blood flow like rivers.” On the surface, the fax represented another turn toward tactical political thinking; more likely, it was an attempt to salvage a bungled operation.
Outside the Leganés apartment, the police attempted to negotiate, but the cornered terrorists cried out, “We will die killing!” Phone calls that they made to relatives during the siege confirmed their intentions. They also attempted to call Abu Qatada in London’s Belmarsh Prison, apparently seeking a fatwa that would morally sanction their suicide.
Instead of turning off the electricity and waiting them out, the police decided to storm the apartment. They ordered the terrorists to come out “naked and with your hands up.” One of the occupants responded, “Come in and we’ll talk.” At 9:05 p.m., the police blew the lock on the door and fired tear gas into the room. Almost immediately, an explosion shattered the apartment, killing the terrorists and a police officer. The blast was so intense that it took days before the authorities could determine how many people had been in the apartment. The body of Jamal Ahmidan was hurled through the walls and into a swimming pool. One of the seven bodies still has not been identified.
In the ruins, police found twenty-two pounds of Goma-2 and two hundred copper detonators that were similar to those used in the train bombings. They also found the shredded remains of a videotape. These fragments were painstakingly reassembled, to the point where police could view the final statement of Fakhet and two other members of the cell, which called itself “the brigade situated in Al Andalus.” Unless Spanish troops left Iraq within a week, the men had declared, “we will continue our jihad until martyrdom in the land of Tariq ibn Ziyad.”
Al Andalus is the Arabic name for the portion of Spain that fell to Muslim armies after the invasion by the Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad in 711. It includes not only the southern region of Andalusia, but most of the Iberian Peninsula. For the next eight hundred years, Al Andalus remained in Islamic hands. “You know of the Spanish crusade against Muslims, and that not much time has passed since the expulsion from Al Andalus and the tribunals of the Inquisition,” Fakhet says on the tape. He is referring to 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella completed the reconquest of Spain, forcing Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave the Iberian Peninsula. “Blood for blood!” he shouts. “Destruction for destruction!”
Were these the true goals of Al Qaeda? Were the besieged terrorists in Leganés simply struggling to get Spain out of Iraq, or were they also battling to regain the lost colonies of Islam? In other words, were these terrorists who might respond to negotiation or appeasement, or were they soldiers in a religious fight to the finish that had merely been paused for five hundred years?
Less than a month after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, had appeared on Al Jazeera. “We will not accept that the tragedy of Al Andalus will be repeated in Palestine,” Zawahiri said, drawing an analogy between the expulsion of the Moors from Iberia and the present-day plight of the Palestinians. The use of the archaic name Al Andalus left most Spaniards nonplussed. “We took it as a folkloric thing,” Ramón Pérez-Maura, an editor at ABC, told me. “We probably actually laughed.” This January, bin Laden issued a “Message to the Muslim People,” which was broadcast on Al Jazeera. He lamented the decline of the Islamic world: “It is enough to know that the economy of all Arab countries is weaker than the economy of one country that had once been part of our world when we used to truly adhere to Islam. That country is the lost Al Andalus.”
The Muslims who were expelled from Al Andalus took refuge mainly in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Some families, it is said, still have the keys to their houses in Córdoba and Seville. But the legacy of Al Andalus persisted in Spain as well. Up until the Victorian era, the country was considered to be more a part of the Orient than of Europe. The language, the food, and the architecture were all deeply influenced by the Islamic experience—a rival past that Catholic Spain, in all its splendor, could never bury. “In modern Arabic literature, Al Andalus is seen as the lost paradise,” Manuela Marín, a professor at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, in Madrid, told me. “For Spain, the history of Al Andalus has a totally different meaning. After all, what we know as Spain was made in opposition to the Islamic presence on the peninsula. Only recently have people begun to accept that Islam was a part of Spain.”
Although many Spanish historians have painted Moorish Spain as something other than paradise for Jews and Christians, for Muslims it remains not only a symbol of vanished greatness but a kind of alternative vision of Islam—one in which all the ills of present-day Islamic societies are reversed. Muslim tourists, including many heads of state, come to Spain to imagine a time when Islam was at the center of art and learning, not on the fringes. “The Alhambra is the No. 1 Islamic monument,” Malik A. Ruíz Callejas, the emir of the Islamic community in Spain and the president of Granada’s new mosque, told me recently. “Back when in Paris and London people were being eaten alive by rats, in Córdoba everyone could read and write. The civilization of Al Andalus was probably the most just, most unified, and most tolerant in history, providing the greatest level of security and the highest standard of living.”
Imams sometimes invoke the glory of Al Andalus in Friday prayers as a reminder of the price that Muslims paid for turning away from the true faith. When I asked Moneir el-Messery, of the M-30 mosque, if the Madrid bombers could have been motivated by the desire to recapture Al Andalus, he looked up sharply and said, “I can speak of the feeling of all Muslims. It was a part of history. We were here for eight centuries. You can’t forget it, ever.”
The fear that the “Moors” would one day return and reclaim their lost paradise—through either conquest or immigration—has created a certain paranoia in Spanish politics. Construction of the mosque in Granada was delayed for twenty-two years because of the intense anxiety surrounding the growing Islamic presence. In 1986, Spain joined the European Union; generous E.U. subsidies ignited an economic boom, drawing thousands of young men from North Africa. “The Muslims are young, and male, and they come by themselves,” Mohammed el-Afifi, the director of press relations at the M-30 mosque, told me two years ago, when I visited him. “They don’t speak Spanish, and they don’t have much information about Spain. And they arrive with a different religion.” At the time, Afifi placed the number of Arab immigrants in Spain at three hundred thousand. Now the number of Arabic-speaking immigrants is five hundred thousand, not including half a million illegals. The Spanish government has encouraged official immigration from South America at the expense of North Africa, but smugglers in high-speed power boats make nightly drop-offs on the ragged Spanish coastline, and the frequent discovery of corpses washing up on the beaches testifies to the desperation of those who did not quite get to shore.
Muslim immigration is transforming all of Europe. Nearly twenty million people in the European Union identify themselves as Muslim. This population is disproportionately young, male, and unemployed. The societies these men have left are typically poor, religious, conservative, and dictatorial; the ones they enter are rich, secular, liberal, and free. For many, the exchange is invigorating, but for others Europe becomes a prison of alienation. A Muslim’s experience of immigration can be explained in part by how he views his adopted homeland. Islamic thought broadly divides civilization into dar al-Islam, the land of the believers, and dar al-Kufr, the land of impiety. France, for instance, is a secular country, largely Catholic, but it is now home to five million Muslims. Should it therefore be considered part of the Islamic world? This question is central to the debate about whether Muslims in Europe can integrate into their new communities or must stand apart from them. If France can be considered part of dar al-Islam, then Muslims can form alliances and participate in politics, they should have the right to institute Islamic law, and they can send their children to French schools. If it is a part of dar al-Kufr, then strict Muslims must not only keep their distance; they must fight against their adopted country.
The Internet provides confused young Muslims in Europe with a virtual community. Those who cannot adapt to their new homes discover on the Internet a responsive and compassionate forum. “The Internet stands in for the idea of the ummah, the mythologized Muslim community,” Marc Sageman, the psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer, said. “The Internet makes this ideal community concrete, because one can interact with it.” He compares this virtual ummah to romantic conceptions of nationhood, which inspire people not only to love their country but to die for it.
“The Internet is the key issue,” Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques, in Paris, told me recently. “It erases the frontiers between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Kufr. It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet Sharia and fatwa system.” Kepel was speaking of the Islamic legal code, which is administered by the clergy. Now one doesn’t have to be in Saudi Arabia or Egypt to live under the rule of Islamic law. “Anyone can seek a ruling from his favorite sheikh in Mecca,” Kepel said. “In the old days, one sought a fatwa from the sheikh who had the best knowledge. Now it is sought from the one with the best Web site.”
To a large extent, Kepel argues, the Internet has replaced the Arabic satellite channels as a conduit of information and communication. “One can say that this war against the West started on television,” he said, “but, for instance, with the decapitation of the poor hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, those images were propagated via Webcams and the Internet. A jihadi subculture has been created that didn’t exist before 9/11.”
Because the Internet is anonymous, Islamist dissidents are less susceptible to government pressure. “There is no signature,” Kepel said. “To some of us who have been trained as classicists, the cyber-world appears very much like the time before Gutenberg. Copyists used to add their own notes into a text, so you never know who was the real author.”
Gabriel Weimann, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, has been monitoring terrorist Web sites for seven years. “When we started, there were only twelve sites,” he told me. “Now there are more than four thousand.” Every known terrorist group maintains more than one Web site, and often the sites are in different languages. “You can download music, videos, donate money, receive training,” Weimann said. “It’s a virtual training camp.” There are two online magazines associated with Al Qaeda, Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) and Muaskar al-Battar (Camp al-Battar), which feature how-to articles on kidnapping, poisoning, and murdering hostages. Specific targets, such as the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, or FedWire, the money-clearing system operated by the Federal Reserve Board, are openly discussed. “We do see a rising focus on the U.S.,” Weimann told me. “But some of this talk may be fake—a scare campaign.”
One of the sites has been linked directly to terrorist acts. An editor of Sawt al-Jihad, Issa bin Saad al-Oshan, died in a gun battle with Saudi police on July 21st, during a raid on a villa in Riyadh, where the head of Paul M. Johnson, Jr., the American hostage, was discovered in the freezer.
The importance of the Internet in the case of Madrid is disputed among experts. “Yes, the Internet has created a virtual ummah,” Olivier Roy, an expert on political Islam at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, wrote to me recently. “The Web sites seem to attract the lonely Muslim cybernaut, who does remain in a virtual world. But Madrid’s bombers used the Internet as a tool of communication. Their leaders had personal links with other Al Qaeda members, not virtual ones.”
Thomas Hegghammer, the Norwegian investigator, divides the jihadi Internet community into three categories. “First, you have the message boards,” he explained in a recent e-mail. “There you find the political and religious discussions among the sympathizers and potential recruits. The most important message boards for Al Qaeda sympathizers are Al Qal’ah (The Fortress), Al Sahat (The Fields), and Al Islah (Reform).” These boards, Hegghammer wrote, provide links to the “information hubs,” where new radical-Islamist texts, declarations, and recordings are posted. “You often find these among the ‘communities’ at Yahoo, Lycos, and so on,” Hegghammer continued. “There are many such sites, but the main one is Global Islamic Media.” It was at this site that Hegghammer discovered the “Jihadi Iraq” document. “Finally, you have the ‘mother sites,’ which are run by people who get their material directly from the ideologues or operatives. They must not be confused with the myriad amateur sites (usually in English) set up by random sympathizers or bored kids.”
Hegghammer pointed to several key sites associated with Al Qaeda, including Al Faruq (He Who Distinguishes Truth from Falsehood) and Markaz al-Dirasat wal-Buhuth al-Islamiyyah (Center for Islamic Study and Research). “Al Faruq is difficult to place geographically and organizationally, but it seems closer to the Afghanistan-based elements of Al Qaeda,” Hegghammer wrote. Markaz al-Dirasat concentrates on Saudi Arabia. These sites move continuously, Hegghammer wrote, sometimes several times a day, to avoid being hacked by intelligence agencies or freelance Internet vigilantes. One of Al Qaeda’s first sites, Al Neda, was operating until July, 2002, when it was captured by an American who operates pornography sites. The Internet jihadis now cover themselves by stealing unguarded server space. Jihad videos have recently been discovered on servers belonging to George Washington University and the Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation.
Last March, in Pakistan, Jamal Ismail, a reporter for Abu Dhabi TV, showed me how he monitors the Al Faruq site. Each day, he receives an e-mail with a link, which leads him to the new address. Like several other jihadi sites, the Al Faruq site announces itself with a white stallion racing across the screen, which is the Al Qaeda logo. “Every few days, it announces a new name, but it is the same Web site with a new look,” he told me. “It concentrates on Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.” In mid-July, I asked Ismail via e-mail if there was any discussion of the upcoming American Presidential election; the Department of Homeland Security had just announced contingency plans to postpone the election in the event that Al Qaeda attempts to disrupt it. “There is no new article like the Spanish one, but we are all expecting people to talk about it,” Ismail said. Sageman said that he had seen “vague statements along the lines of ‘We’ll do to the U.S. the same as we did to Spain,’” but nothing specific or authoritative.
I went to Yahoo Groups and typed in “jihad.” There were a hundred and ninety-two chat groups registered under that category. With my Arabic-speaking assistant, Nidal Daraiseh, I checked out qal3ah.net, which had 7,939 members. On March 12th, the day after the train bombings, a message titled “The Goals of Al Qaeda in Attacking Madrid” had been posted by a writer calling himself Gallant Warrior. Echoing a theme that is frequently repeated on these sites, the writer noted that by carrying out its threat to Spain, Al Qaeda proved that its words were matched by actions: “Al Qaeda has sent a message to the crusading people: do not think that death and fear are only for the weak Muslims. . . . Aznar, the American tail, has lost. And great fear has spread among the people of the countries in alliance with America. They will all be vanquished. Thank God for letting us live this long to see the jihad battalions in Europe. If anyone had predicted this three years ago, one would have said he was dreaming.”
Another site I visited, ikhwan.net, was unusual in having a number of female correspondents. A writer named Murad chastised those who condemned the Madrid bombings. “You pity the deaths of those non-Muslims so quickly! If Muslims had died in their lands in the manner the writer discusses, would he have cried for them?” A woman named Bint al-Dawa responded, “Brother Murad, Islam does not allow the killing of innocent people.” A man who called himself “Salahuddeen2” entered the discussion: “We have said that we are against the killing of civilians anywhere, but the enemies of God kill Muslim civilians every day and do not feel shame. They should drink from the same bitter cup.”
Though these sites have become an ideological home for many Muslims, for most Arab immigrants Europe has provided comfort and support, while at the same time allowing them the freedom to maintain their Islamic identities. Three Moroccan immigrants died on the trains on March 11th. One was a devout thirteen-year-old girl, Sanae Ben Salah, for whom the M-30 mosque was said to have been her “second home.” Another, Mohamed Itabien, twenty-seven, was an illegal immigrant who taught Arabic classes at a mosque in Guadalajara. He was the sole source of support for his family, including eleven siblings, most of whom lived in a tiny town in Morocco where there were no telephones. The third, Osama el-Amrati, was a builder who was engaged to a Spanish woman. “Europe has given us opportunities our own countries didn’t give us,” Mustapha el-M’Rabet, the head of the Moroccan Workers and Immigrants Association, told me in Madrid. “Our children are in school, and we are working. Thousands of families in Morocco can live with the money we get here.” When I asked M’Rabet if Al Andalus was part of the lure for Moroccan immigrants, he said, “Nobody with common sense could talk about going back to that. It’s madness. It’s a disease.”
Under Aznar, relations with Morocco deteriorated to the point where, in 2002, the countries broke off diplomatic relations over various problems, including territory disputes, immigration, and the flow of drugs into Europe through Spain (according to the United Nations, Morocco exports twelve billion dollars’ worth of marijuana each year). Eventually, the governments returned their ambassadors, without resolving the disputes that had led to the rupture. When twelve suicide bombers struck in Casablanca in May, 2003, killing forty-five people, one of their targets was a restaurant called Casa de España.
“Spain is the bridge between the Islamic world and the West,” Haizam Amirah Fernández said, when we met in a conference room at Madrid’s Real Instituto Elcano shortly after the train bombings. “Think of that other bridge to the east, Turkey. Both have been hit by jihadist terrorists—in the same week.” In Istanbul, on March 9th, two suicide bombers attacked a Jewish club, killing one person and injuring five others. “The whole idea is to cut off these bridges,” Amirah said. “If the goal is to polarize people, Muslims and infidels, that is a way of doing it. Jihadists are the most fervent defenders of the notion of a clash of civilizations.”
One evening, I went to a pub with some Spanish cops. “There is this legend that Spain and the Arab world were friends,” a senior investigator said. He nodded toward the waitress and the customers at several nearby tables. “Here in the bar are five Arabs sitting next to you. Nobody used to think it was strange. Now people are reacting differently.” He paused and said, “They want to smell the jasmine of Al Andalus and pray again in the Granada mosque. Can you imagine the mentality these S.O.B.s have?”
On a splendid April day in Paris, I went to lunch with Gilles Kepel, the Arabist scholar, and Jean-Louis Bruguière, the doughty French counter-terrorism judge. Despite the beautiful weather, the men were in a gloomy frame of mind. “I am seriously concerned about the future,” Bruguière said, as we sat at a corner table under an arbor of lilacs that shed blossoms onto his jacket. His armor-plated Peugeot was parked on the street and his bodyguards were discreetly arrayed in the restaurant. “I began work on this in 1991, against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. These groups were well known and each had an understandable structure. The majority were sponsored by states—Syria, Libya, Iraq. Now we have to face a new and largely unknown organization, with a loose system and hidden connections, so it is not easy to understand its internal functioning. It appears to be composed of cells and networks that are scattered all over the world and changing shape constantly.”
Bruguière pointed to the Istanbul bombings in November, 2003, and the March 11th bombings in Madrid as being the opening salvos in a new attack on Europe. “They have struck in the east and in the south,” he said. “I think the next stop will be in the north.”
“London or Paris,” Kepel suggested.
“The principal target is London,” Bruguière declared.
Chechnya is playing a larger and more disturbing role in the worldwide jihad, Bruguière said. At present, Al Qaeda and its affiliates operate on a rather low-tech level, but in Chechnya many recruits are being trained to exploit the technical advantages of developed countries. “Some of these groups have the capacity for hijacking satellites,” he told me. Capturing signals beamed from space, terrorists could devastate the communications industry, shut down power grids, and paralyze the ability of developed countries to defend themselves.
“In 2001, all the Islamist actors in Madrid were identified,” Bruguière said. His own investigations had led him to the Spanish capital that June. He quickly informed the Spanish police that Jamal Zougam, the owner of the phone shop, was a major contact for jihad recruits in Europe and Morocco. But Zougam was not apprehended. French and Spanish authorities have a long history of disagreement over the handling of terrorism, with the Spanish accusing the French of giving sanctuary to ETA terrorists. Bruguière said that when he arrived in Madrid he found that “the Islamic threat was underassessed.” The Spanish police had made him wait a year before allowing him to interview Zougam. After Bruguière went back to Paris, the Spanish police put Zougam under surveillance and searched his apartment, finding jihadi tapes and videos. The authorities briefly renewed their interest in him after the 2003 Casablanca bombings, but once again there was insufficient evidence to arrest him.
I asked Bruguière if he thought that the Madrid attacks represented an evolution in Al Qaeda’s operational ability, or suggested that the organization had lost control. He said that Al Qaeda was now little more than “a brand, a trademark,” but he admitted that he had been surprised. “It was a good example of the capacity and the will of these groups to adopt a political agenda. The defeat of the late government and the agreement of the new government to withdraw troops—it was a terrorist success, the first time we have had such a result.”
Later, Kepel and I discussed the reason that Europe was under attack. “The future of Islam is in Europe,” he said. “It has a huge Muslim population. Either we train our Muslims to become modern global citizens, who live in a democratic, pluralistic society, or, on the contrary, the Islamists win, and take over those Muslim European constituencies. Then we’re in serious trouble.”
"I doubt whether anyone can seriously suggest that Spain has not acted in a way that suggests appeasement,” Ramón Pérez-Maura, the editor at ABC, told me shortly after Zapatero had announced plans to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq in May, without waiting to see if U.N. peacekeeping troops would become involved. Pérez-Maura recalled a recent lunch he had had with the Iranian Ambassador to Spain, Mortez Alviri. According to Pérez-Maura, Alviri said that Miguel Ángel Moratinos—Zapatero’s pick for Foreign Minister—had approached the Iranians to negotiate with Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, whose militia was engaged in savage urban warfare with Coalition troops. (Moratinos has denied this.) According to Pérez-Maura, Alviri passed Moratinos’s message along, and, less than a day after Zapatero announced the withdrawal, Sadr said from Najaf that Spanish troops would be allowed to leave Iraq unmolested. That was a false promise. American and Spanish forces had to shoot a path through Sadr’s militia in Najaf, which repeatedly attacked them.
On April 15th, the voice of Osama bin Laden spoke again. “This is a message to our neighbors north of the Mediterranean, containing a reconciliation initiative as a response to their positive reactions,” bin Laden said on the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. Now it was the Al Qaeda leader who cast himself in the role of a rational political actor. “It is in both sides’ interest to curb the plans of those who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang.” He proposed a European committee to study “the justice” of the Islamic causes, especially Palestine. “The reconciliation will start with the departure of its last soldier from our country,” bin Laden said—not indicating if he was referring to Iraq, Afghanistan, or the entire Muslim world. “The door of reconciliation is open for three months from the date of announcing this statement. . . . For those who want reconciliation, we have given them a chance. Stop shedding our blood so as to preserve your blood. It is in your hands to apply this easy, yet difficult, formula. You know that the situation will expand and increase if you delay things. . . . Peace be upon those who follow guidance.”
From bin Laden’s perspective, he was offering to bring Europe into an unsettled middle ground called the dar al-Suhl. This is the land of the treaty, where Muslims live as a peaceful minority. European leaders rejected bin Laden’s proposal almost immediately, seeing it as a ploy to aggravate the tensions in the Western alliance. “It’s the weirdest thing in the world,” a senior F.B.I. official told me. “It shows he’s on the ropes, desperate.”
Bin Laden’s truce offer immediately became a topic of discussion on the Islamist Web sites. “This initiative should be considered a golden opportunity to the people of Europe,” read a posting by Global Islamic Media on qal3ah.net. “Do not find it strange if after a while, a year or so, you will hear about secret negotiations by one country and representatives of Al Qaeda. . . . The organization has come to represent the Islamic ummah and speaks in its name. It appears that we are returning to the days of the caliphate.”
On another site, islah.tv, a writer calling himself “Ya Rab Shahada” (Oh God, Martyrdom) picked up on the theme: “The Sheikh speaks these words as the Caliph of the Muslims and not as a wanted man. . . . This is the sign to begin the big strike on America.” Another writer said, “Here we have the lands of Al Andalus where the trains were struck. The Sheikh is isolating America now . . . and it will be seen who will choose peace from those who chose suicide.” A writer calling himself “@adlomari@” added, “The Sheikh has . . . proved to the world that Europe does not want peace with Muslims, and that it wants to be a partner in the Crusader crimes against Muslims. The coming days will show that events in Europe are coming if it does not respond to the Sheikh’s initiative. Tomorrow is near.”
The fact that bin Laden was addressing nations as an equal showed a new confidence in Al Qaeda’s ability to manipulate the political future. Exploiting this power will depend, in part, on convincing the West that Al Qaeda and bin Laden remain in control of the worldwide Islamist jihad. As long as Al Qaeda is seen as being an irrational, unyielding death cult, the only response is to destroy it. But if Al Qaeda—amorphous as that entity has become—has evolved into something like a virtual Islamist state that is trying to find a permanent place for itself in the actual world, then the prospect of future negotiations is not out of the question, however unlikely or repellent that may sound to Americans. After all, the Spanish government has brokered truces with ETA, which has killed four times as many people in Spain as Al Qaeda has, and the accelerated withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq following the train bombings has already set a precedent for accommodation, which was quickly followed by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Last year, Germany paid a six-million-dollar ransom to Algerian terrorists, and the Philippines recently pulled its fifty troops out of Iraq in order to save a hostage from being beheaded.
On July 21st, immediately after the Philippine hostage was freed, new warnings appeared on the Internet, from a body called the Tawhid Islamic Group, promising terror attacks against Poland and Bulgaria unless they withdrew their troops from Iraq. Although leaders of both countries immediately rejected the demands, opinion polls showed that popular sentiment was turning against the countries’ presence in Iraq. Another threat, allegedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Tawhid and Jihad, warned Japan that “queues of cars laden with explosives” were waiting, unless Japanese humanitarian troops left Iraq. Also in July, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades posted a communiqué on the Internet ordering Italians to overthrow their Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. “We are in Italy, and not one of you is safe so long as you refuse our Sheikh’s offer,” the message said. “Get rid of the incompetent Berlusconi or we will truly burn Italy.” The Internet warriors have been emboldened, although it is impossible to know how seriously to take their threats.
Appeasement is a foolish strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda. Last year, many Saudis were stunned when the terrorist group struck Western compounds in Riyadh—shortly after the U.S. had announced that it would withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, fulfilling one of bin Laden’s primary demands. The Saudis now realize that Al Qaeda won’t be assuaged until all foreigners are expelled from the Arabian Peninsula and a rigid theocracy has been imposed. Yet some of the countries on Al Qaeda’s hit list will no doubt seek to appease terrorists as a quick solution to a crisis.
Intelligence officials are now trying to determine who is the next target, and are sifting through “chatter” in search of a genuine threat. “We see people getting on the Internet and then they get on their phones and talk about it,” a senior F.B.I. official told me. “We are now responding to the threat to the U.S. elections.” The idea of attacking before Election Day, the official said, “was born out of Madrid.” Earlier this year, an international task force dubbed Operation Crevice arrested members of a bomb-making ring in London. During the investigation, officials overheard statements that there were jihadis in Mexico awaiting entry into the U.S. That coincided with vague warnings from European imams about attacks before the elections. As a result of this intelligence, surveillance of border traffic from Mexico has been increased.
Even though Al Qaeda has been weakened by the capture of key operatives, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, it is hardly defunct. “There is a replacement for Mohammed named Abu Faraj,” the F.B.I. official said. “If there is an attack on the U.S., his deputy, Hamza Rabia, will be responsible. He’s head of external operations for Al Qaeda—an arrogant, nasty guy.” The official continued, “The most dangerous thing now is that no one is in control. These guys don’t have to go back to bin Laden or Zawahiri for approval.”
One of the most sobering pieces of information to come out of the investigation of the March 11th bombings is that the planning for the attacks may have begun nearly a year before 9/11. In October, 2000, several of the suspects met in Istanbul with Amer Azizi, who had taken the nom de guerre Othman Al Andalusi—Othman of Al Andalus. Azizi later gave the conspirators permission to act in the name of Al Qaeda, although it is unclear whether he authorized money or other assistance—or, indeed, whether Al Qaeda had much support to offer. In June, Italian police released a surveillance tape of one of the alleged planners of the train bombings, an Egyptian housepainter named Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, who said that the operation “took me two and a half years.” Ahmed had served as an explosives expert in the Egyptian Army. It appears that some kind of attack would have happened even if Spain had not joined the Coalition—or if the invasion of Iraq had never occurred.
“The real problem of Spain for Al Qaeda is that we are a neighbor of Arab countries—Morocco and Algeria—and we are a model of economy, democracy, and secularism,” Florentino Portero, a political analyst at the Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos, in Madrid, told me. “We support the transformation and Westernization of the Middle East. We defend the transition of Morocco from a monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. We are allies of the enemies of Al Qaeda in the Arab world. This point is not clearly understood by the Spanish people. We are a menace to Al Qaeda just because of who we are.”