Madrid bombers planned follow-up attacks

Friday, March 4, 2005

MADRID, Spain -- Islamic militants blamed for last year's commuter train bombings in Madrid were plotting more bloodshed -- a string of suicide attacks in the months after the massacre, Spain's counterterrorism director said on Thursday.

The revelation adds a chilling what-if element to Spain's national trauma as it prepares to mark the anniversary of the March 11 bombings, the country's worst-ever terrorist attack.

Fernando Reinares, the counterterrorism chief, said the militants most likely to have carried out such suicide attacks in Spain were seven men who blew themselves up April 3 as special forces moved in to arrest them.

"According to data collected so far, it can be deduced that those terrorists were probably planning suicide attacks in the months or weeks after" the train bombings, which killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500, Reinares said.

Reinares said the information suggested "their terrorist campaign was not going to end on March 11, but was going to go on and include suicide attacks at a later stage."

The seven men who died in Leganes, a town outside Madrid, included suspected ringleaders of the train strikes, which were claimed in videotapes by militants who said they acted on behalf of al-Qaida in revenge for Spain's troop presence in Iraq.

At least five men are fugitives in the case, including one who escaped from the apartment in Leganes. Reinares gave no indication these men are considered suicide-attack risks.

On March 18, a group named for Abu Hafs al-Masri -- a former top lieutenant of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden -- said it was calling a truce in Spain to give the newly elected Socialist government time to withdraw the Spanish troops from Iraq. A video found in the rubble of the Leganes apartment a week after the collective suicide also gave Spain a deadline to withdraw from Iraq or face more violence.

These statements suggested that such a withdrawal -- which took place in May -- would be enough to remove Spain from al-Qaida's cross-hairs.

But Reinares said the plans for later suicide attacks showed that the Madrid train bombers were probably not interested in bringing down the conservative government then in power, which had supported the U.S.-led Iraq war, but rather wanted to go on causing bloodshed.

Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his party have insisted the bombing -- three days before a general election -- was tantamount to a surgical strike against his government, which had defied public opinion by supporting the Iraq war and sending 1,300 peacekeepers after President Bush declared an end to major fighting.

The Socialists, who had opposed the war, won election and took power in April. They quickly brought troops home but insisted it was to keep a campaign pledge, not to cave in to terrorists.

Reinares said information about the Madrid bombers' suicide attack plans was featured in a new book by a Spanish investigative reporter, but the information wasn't carried in the mainstream Spanish media.

Reinares' comments came a day after U.S. and Spanish authorities confirmed that a crude sketch of Grand Central Terminal in New York City -- which was traumatized by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks -- was found at the home of a suspect in the Madrid train bombings.

The sketch was "a very basic schematic," and was never deemed cause for alarm, however, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. He said the data was shared with the New York Police Department's counterterrorism division and city transit officials, who concluded the sketch depicted Grand Central.

The material also included photographs, and a drawing of a private building in New York City, which Kelly refused to identify. But an analysis found no indication of a terrorism plot, and authorities quickly decided there was no need to alert the public, he said.

The Grand Central Terminal drawing and other data were on a computer disk seized about two weeks after the March 11 bombings in Madrid, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported. Spanish police turned the disk over to the FBI and CIA in December.

In the Madrid attack, militants left 10 backpack bombs on the trains.

Spanish officials say the militants who killed themselves in Leganes wanted to become martyrs for Islam rather than kill a large number of people.

Western Europe had never suffered a suicide attack. Suicide attacks in November 2003 in Istanbul, Turkey, killed 62 people and were blamed on al-Qaida. The targets were two synagogues, a British bank and the British Consulate.

A total of 74 people have been arrested in the Madrid bombings, of which 22 have been jailed on charges of mass murder or belonging to terrorist group. The rest are no longer in custody but are still considered suspects.

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