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Hunting the bombers

Published on 24/03/2004

As Spain mourns, the hunt for the bombers goes on

Madrid’s Almudena cathedral will be filled with the great and the good on Wednesday — the same people who might have been attending the Royal wedding of Crown Prince Felipe and his fiancée Letizia Ortiz.

But this occasion will be very different.

Apart from the Spanish Royal family and the country’s own leading political figures, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain’s Prince Charles and dozens of other dignitaries were expected.

Among these will be the relatives of those who were killed. And they will no doubt be wondering exactly what those in charge are doing to track the killers of their loved ones.

On the trail of the terrorists

So far 14 suspects have been arrested, but one was released with no charges.

Nine of the others, mostly Moroccans, have been accused of being responsible for some 190 murders and causing injuries to 1,400 people. They are being held in jail incommunicado.

*quote1*But in a strange anomaly peculiar to Spanish law, they have not been formally served an indictment but simply told there is strong evidence to link them to the crimes.

The nine who have been charged denied involvement in the attacks.

They can remain jailed for two years while investigators gather more evidence.

Police arrested four others Monday, all believed to be of North African origin. However, these four have yet to appear before a judge.

One disturbing development in the case so far was the ease with which the Madrid bombers were reportedly able to obtain explosives from Spanish quarries without anybody noticing.

Among the suspects is a former Spanish quarryman who is alleged to have helped to organise the theft of the explosives from a quarry in the northern town of Tineo, near Oviedo.

It was still not clear if José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, 27, had stolen the explosives for the bombers or whether he had simply shown a team of four Islamic militants how to set about it.

He has reportedly admitted obtaining the explosives, but claimed that he did not know what they would be used for.

It is claimed the bombers were able to obtain explosives easily

Suárez, who allegedly has previous convictions for drugs offences, was said to have made contact with the Islamic radicals while he was in jail or on visits to Madrid and boasted about how easy it would be to steal dynamite from the quarry where he used to work.

In another worrying development, El Comercio newspaper claimed police were aware more than two years ago of his alleged connections to a previous explosives theft.

The newspaper said Suárez was arrested in 2001 in a police operation against a network of drug-traffickers and arms smugglers which netted 94 detonators and a quantity of Goma 2 explosives — the same kind used in the Madrid bombings.

Suárez was still formally under investigation for his alleged involvement in that case, it said.

The bombers reportedly told him they were looking for explosives to smuggle out of the country for use in a Moroccan mine. A meeting was held in Aviles, in Asturias, northern Spain, in February. Suárez then supposedly led four of the terrorist team to the quarries at Tineo.

He was allegedly paid EUR 7,166 and a quantity of cannabis for providing 242 pounds of dynamite and detonators.

One obvious question is: how was it that in a country on alert for ETA bomb attacks did no-one in the mine companies miss the stolen explosives?

Outside Spain

Meanwhile, a declaration was due to be issued at a Brussels summit this week which calls terrorism a “key threat” and commits the 25 current and future EU members to “act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if one … is the victim of a terrorist attack.”

Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy and security chief, said: “Europe is not at war. We must oppose terrorism energetically, but we must not change our way of life. We are democrats who love freedom.”

*quote2*The Spanish daily El Mundo said Spanish intelligence officials and colleagues from Britain, France, Germany and Italy have a list of people they believe may have carried out the attacks but suspect may have fled Spain.

But after the 11 September atrocity in the US similar pronouncements were made and little was achieved, with many security services refusing to share information.

One example was when German authorities were angered by alleged lack of cooperation from Spanish anti-terrorist police while probing an al-Qaeda cell.

Another problem investigators face is actually proving the case.

The ‘prime suspect’ Jamal Zougam has been linked to the bombings by a mobile phone card which was found in an a bomb that failed to go off.

The bomb was hidden in a suitcase. The phone card was bought from Zougam’s telephone shop.

His name has been linked to Abu Dahdah, the jailed head of the Spanish cell of al-Qaeda, who were both involved in the extremist Salafist Jihad cell.

He was also said to have ties with Mohammed Al-Garbuzi, the London-based head of the Group of Islamist Combatants, linked to last May’s Casablanca bombing in which 45 died.

European police are also said to have been tracking Zougam for three years after his name was also linked to the French terrorist Pierre Robert, who planned an uprising in Morocco.

Yet the problem for the Spanish investigators is so far all they have is a mobile phone, which Zougam’s lawyers can easily say could have been bought by anyone from his shop – that was his business.

And his family and friends paint a very different picture of Zougam; instead of the dour Islamic extremist, he was a fun-loving young man who liked to drink alcohol and go to discos when he visited family in Tangiers.

“He went out to discos, to the beach and drank alcohol, things you do not associate with the kind of people who carry out such attacks,” said a cousin.

The Spanish police, of course, remain sceptical.

March 2004

Subject: Living in Spain, Spanish news, Spain terrorism