Barcelona Islamist cell "planned suicide attacks"

25th January 2008, Comments 0 comments

Suspects believed to have been plotting bombing on subway.

25 January 2008

MADRID - Barcelona transport officials on Thursday assured the public that the city's subway system is safe, a day after a High Court judge remanded in custody 10 suspected Islamist terrorists accused of plotting suicide attacks on metro trains.

"There is an effective security system in place," Assumpta Escarp, the president of the metropolitan transport company said, as concern mounted that the suspected terrorists had been planning a massacre similar to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid in which 191 people were killed.

Following a preliminary hearing Wednesday night, High Court Judge Ismael Moreno decided to hold 10 of the 12 South Asians arrested at an unauthorised prayer hall in Barcelona last Friday in custody.

He described three of them as potential suicide bombers, although Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido yesterday raised that figure to six. Two more are believed to be bomb makers and two others leaders of the cell. The other suspects were released without charge due to a lack of evidence.

In his ruling, Moreno said that the suspects - most of whom are Pakistani citizens - had been planning to carry out a series of suicide attacks on the subway system.

They had acquired a small quantity of nitrocellulose, a compound used in making some types of explosive, and timers apparently for training purposes. However, their plan came to the attention of Spanish police via an informant for the French intelligence services, who is now a protected witness.

"The detainees constituted an organised group with clearly divided functions, brought together by their belief in an extremist form of Islam," Judge Moreno said. "They had reached an operational level and were very close to [...] carrying out attacks of a jihadist nature."

Moreno suggested that the group may have been planning to carry out the attacks last weekend, although the failure of police to find a sufficiently large quantity of explosives has raised doubts about their state of readiness.

The judge identified three of the suspects - Mohammed Shoaib, Mehmooh Khalid and Imran Cheema - as potential suicide bombers, who, he said, were under the command of one of the alleged leaders of the cell, Maroof Ahmed. Several of the suspects had arrived in Barcelona from Pakistan via other European cities over the last four months, while Hafeez Ahmed, allegedly one of the group's bomb-making experts, had recently returned from a five-month stay in Pakistan. Long-time Barcelona resident and religious leader Mohammed Ayub Elahi Bibi is thought to have provided ideological impetus for plotting the attacks. All the suspects are adherents to Tabligh, a fundamentalist current of Islam.

"From a process of religious radicalisation, some go on to defend violence and then to practice violence," Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said yesterday. "It doesn't happen overnight but it doesn't take long either."

A European Commission spokesman said the arrests confirm that the threat of Islamist terrorism is still "very real" in Europe. Members of Spain's Pakistani community nonetheless claim that the arrests are unfounded and have defended the innocence of the suspects, who they describe as having strong religious beliefs but no inclination toward violence. "It wouldn't even cross their minds," a spokesman for the Federation of Pakistani Associations said yesterday.

While the arrests have raised concerns among the Pakistani community, they have also ignited a political row among Catalan parties due to the inconsistencies in the information provided since the arrests by Joan Saura, the head of the regional interior affairs department.

Having initially played down the significance of the operation and denied that Barcelona had become a "nest for Islamist extremists," Saura told the Catalan Parliament on Wednesday that the group had "defined targets" and were planning an "imminent attack." However, he did not disclose that the target was the subway system or that the plan was to use suicide bombers.  "Either he was lying or he didn't know what was going on," said Daniel Sirera, a PP spokesman.

The opposition party has called on Socialist Catalan Premier José Montilla to force Saura to resign as soon as possible.

CiU leader Artur Mas joined the chorus of criticism, claiming that Saura intentionally "hid information" that should have been made available to other parties.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / JOSÉ YOLDI / Ángeles Espinosa 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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