Spain: al-Qaeda cell busted?

Police arrested 11 men June 15 on charges of belonging to a Syrian-based group that recruits suicide bombers to attack U.S. troops in Iraq. Authorities said the recruiting network has ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. More than 500 heavily-armed police held predawn raids in six cities to grab the men.

According to the Interior Ministry, some of the suspects said they wanted to become “martyrs for Islam” in suicide attacks and were awaiting orders to do so. It did not specify how Spanish authorities learned that. Five other people were detained a day earlier in connection with commuter train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500, authorities said.

Spain has had several alleged brushes with al-Qaeda, including the train bombings, a reported plot to blow up a Madrid courthouse last year and militants’ purported use of Spain to help organize the 9-11 attacks. But this was the first time Spain arrested people on suspicion of sending suicide attackers to Iraq. The Interior Ministry said the 11 belonged to the Syrian-based terror group Ansar al-Islam, which was established in Spain.

Interior Minister José Antonio Alonso told reporters that most of the 11 suspects are Moroccan and practically all sold drugs and robbed to finance their network. Raids were conducted in Barcelona, Valencia, the southern Andalusia region and Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco. The apparent leader of the recruitment activities, Samir Tahtah, 28, a Moroccan, was arrested in a town near Barcelona, the ministry said. He coordinated communications with overseas leaders, it said. (AP, June 16)

Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told reporters: “Basically, what the police accuse them of is raising money and recruiting people to do activities abroad related with the international jihad”, or holy war. Five of those arrested had close ties to ringleaders of last year’s commuter train bombing in Madrid.

Mohamed Afalah, a fugitive suspect in the bombing, is believed to be dead after apparently staging a suicide attack in Iraq between May 12 and May 19, the Interior Ministry statement said. It said the target of the alleged attack was not known.

In total, 26 people have been jailed over the train bombings. Seventy suspects have been questioned and released. (AP, June 17)

We’re a little confused. We thought Ansar al-Islam was based in Iraqi Kurdistan (see WW4 REPORT #95) while al-Zarqawi’s (possibly allied) group in the Sunni center was called “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” (See our last post on this notorious organization.) Is there a convergence going on, or are the Spanish authorities just being sloppy?

See our last post on al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts.