Suspected mastermind behind Madrid train bombings arrested

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

ROME -- In a coordinated strike across Europe, police arrested 17 suspected Islamic militants, including an alleged mastermind of the Madrid train bombings who authorities say was planning further attacks, officials said Tuesday.

Fifteen people, mostly Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan and Egyptian nationals, were arrested in raids on about 10 locations in the Belgian cities of Brussels and Antwerp, said Daniel Bernard, Belgian federal prosecutor.

Italian police picked up two suspects, including a 33-year-old Egyptian described as the ringleader who allegedly helped plan the March 11 attacks in Madrid that killed 191 people.

The suspect, identified as Rabei Osman Ahmed -- also known as "Mohammed the Egyptian" -- was arrested Monday night near his apartment in the northern outskirts of Milan in an operation that involved dozens of police.

The operation "confirms the welding that took place between holy war groups of various geographical origins," said Carlo De Stefano of the Milan police. These groups "are united not only by a single project of attack on the West and on the symbols representing it, but also by the actual sharing of resources and operational experiences."

Osman Ahmed was arrested on a warrant issued Monday by Spanish Judge Juan del Olmo, the magistrate leading the investigation into the March 11 bombings. Spain will request his extradition on multiple counts of murder and attempted murder.

Also arrested in Milan was Osman Ahmed's landlord and roommate, identified as 21-year old Palestinian Yahia Payumi. They are both accused of association for international terrorism, a charge introduced in Italy after the Sept. 11 attacks

Italy's Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu described Osman Ahmed as a person of "notable ideological and operational stature."

He was "probably among the principal authors of the Madrid massacre and was preparing other attacks," Pisanu said.

Pisanu did not elaborate. However, prosecutors in Milan and Brussels said a planned attack was being directed from Italy and was to be carried out by the Belgian cell. They gave no indication of possible targets, though they ruled out their countries.

In Spain, Osman Ahmed has been a suspect for the Madrid bombings since April 4. He had been identified by people living near a decrepit rural cottage where the bombs used in the attack were assembled, Spanish court officials said. Fingerprints of several key suspects were found in the cottage.

He was in Spain in 2003, but left months before the March 11 attacks, which were planted on four commuter trains and also injured more than 2,000 people.

Police said he had close ties with the accused ringleader of the attacks, a Tunisian named Serhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, according to Spanish radio station Cadena Ser. The Spanish government says Fakhet was among seven suspects who blew themselves up April 3 as police tried to storm their apartment outside Madrid.

The Italian news agency AGI reported that Osman Ahmed told his roommate, in conversations that were tape recorded, that he was a mastermind of the Madrid train bombings. Spanish police confirmed that Italian colleagues had provided them with transcripts of the conversations.

No weapons or explosives were found during the raids, officials said, but documents praising holy war were seized, along with books and videotapes.

The suspected terrorists' link to al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's network, was not clear. Pisanu said the arrests in Italy "blocked a dangerous terrorist group gravitating around al-Qaida." Officials in Brussels said that while there was insufficient evidence that the link existed, the possibility could not be ruled out.

According to analysts, the operation in Italy confirms the country serves as logistical support for terror operations that are carried out elsewhere. An intelligence document said this year that Italy had become a departure point for suicide attackers against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Arrests in recent years indicated suspected terrorists passing through Italy on their way to other countries were provided with money, fake documents and other support.

The two suspects arrested in Milan attended a mosque in the city that had been described by U.S. officials as "the main al-Qaida station house in Europe" in 2001. A third man was being held in Milan for questioning.

Associated Press Writer Naomi Koppel in Brussels contributed to this report.

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