The March 11 terrorist bomb attacks seem to have had two objectives: the general one of striking at the heart of Europe and the much more specific one of forcing a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq. This analysis explores the possibility of a connection between March 11 and the situation in Iraq.
The facts known to date point to a possible connection between the terrorists who carried out the March 11 attacks and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader suspected of being behind several of the recent attacks in Iraq. The objectives behind the Madrid bomb attacks (to force a chain reaction of coalition withdrawals) and those in Iraq (to render impossible the transfer of power to a new Iraqi government) appear to form part of a joint strategy in which Iraq has become the key scenario of the terrorist jihad.
Several documents that have come to light in the past few months provide important clues as to the strategy of the international jihad. Though the authenticity of some of these documents has been questioned, reading them as a whole does provide a picture that is coherent with what has been happening over the past few weeks.
Let us start with the documents in which al-Qaeda allegedly claims responsibility for the March 11 bombings. One of them is the video found in Madrid shortly after the attacks, in which the till then unknown ‘military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe’ claimed responsibility for what had happened. It is worth recalling two points from this video: first, the connection he makes between the attacks in New York and Washington and those in Madrid, which occurred ‘exactly two and a half years after’ those in the US and, secondly, his statement that they were a response ‘to the crimes you have committed in the world and in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular’.
The communiqué published on March 12 by the London-based newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, is much longer. In it, responsibility for the attacks was claimed by al-Qaeda’s Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. Nobody knows anything about the existence or not of these Brigades, which take their name from a prominent al-Qaeda leader, better known as Mohammed Atef, who died in Afghanistan. The same group claimed responsibility for last August’s blackout in New York which, in fact, turned out to have been due to technical reasons, while the style of the communiqué is not the same as that usually used by al-Qaeda. All of which has generated a certain scepticism (1). But it is also possible that it could have been a genuine communiqué, in which case it is worth paying attention to the first sentence, which defines what has happened as the fulfilment of what had been announced in an earlier communiqué dated March 2. What is noteworthy is that the March 2 communiqué refers to the savage attacks on Shiite processions in Baghdad and Kerbala, which does suggest the existence of a common strategy behind the terrorist attacks in Iraq and Spain. On the other hand, the March 12 communiqué hints at the possibility of new bombings in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Yemen and Pakistan. A few days later, a new communiqué from the Abu Hafs Brigades announced the suspension of operations in Spain, until such time as the intentions of the new Spanish government with respect to Iraq were made clear.
For a more detailed analysis, it is necessary to look at the threats issued against Spain by sources close to the jihad, which appeared on the Internet before the Madrid bombings. One of these, which I have already analysed in a previous article (2), is to be found in a booklet entitled ‘The Jihad in Iraq. Hopes and Risks’, dated July 2003 and published on the Internet at the end of that year and which the Israeli analyst, Reuven Paz, considers to have been written by al-Qaeda collaborators (3). That threat was directed against Spanish troops in Iraq, but another text, dated December 3, apparently of the same origin and entitled ‘A Message to the Spanish People’ announced, on the other hand, an attack against Spain that might take place outside Iraq (4). This message rated the Spanish people’s manifested opposition to the war in Iraq as positive but, for all that, it was no less threatening. After recalling the death in Iraq of seven members of the CNI (Spain’s intelligence service), it warned that ‘the Iraqi resistance and its supporters outside Iraq’ were prepared to ’increase the dosage’.
To sum up, all the threats and responsibility claims point to the fact that Spain has been chosen a target because of the presence of its troops in Iraq, although this is not the sole motive. It suggests that there is some kind of connection between the terrorists who acted in Madrid and the self-styled ‘resistance’ movement in Iraq. It still remains to be ascertained, however, what part of that ‘resistance’ might be involved and what the effective channel of that connection really is. On both these matters, we already posses important clues.
The as yet unclaimed guerrilla attacks and terrorist bombings that have been taking place in Iraq could, in principle, be the work of elements from the overthrown Ba’ath regime, of agents of the jihad, or of a combination of both. The documents we have been examining, however, bear the hallmarks of the jihad and one of them, the ‘Message to the Spanish People’ is particularly noteworthy for its denunciation of the Ba’ath regime, which it accuses of having governed Iraq by means of ‘oppression, tyranny and injustice’, an opinion in line with what is usually thought in Islamist circles. However, there exists a most interesting document concerning jihad terrorism, whose authorship is attributed by the Americans to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who, according to Moroccan sources, was connected, albeit indirectly, with the March 11 terrorists.
What the Moroccan sources, quoted by the international press, specifically say is that Jamal Zougam, till now the main suspect among those arrested in connection with the Madrid bombings, had a meeting with Abdelaziz Benyaich in Tangiers in April 2003, that is, a month before the Casablanca bombings. Abdelaziz Benyaich is a French citizen of Moroccan origin who has been indicted by judge Garzón as a member of the Spanish cell of Abu Dahdah and accused by the Moroccan authorities of involvement in the preparation of the bombings in Fez and Tangiers. He left Morocco the day after the Casablanca bombings and was arrested shortly afterwards in Spain. But the most interesting thing about all this is that, again according to Moroccan sources, Benyaich had several meetings with Zarqawi. That is to say, through Benyaich, a link between Zarqawi and Abu Dadah and Zougam himself can be inferred to exist.
For his part, Zarqawi became the object of international interest on February 5, 2003, when Colin Powell, in his speech to the UN Security Council, mentioned his name as evidence of a link between the Saddam Hussein regime and al-Qaeda. At that time, his name was also mentioned in connection with the possibility of a link between himself and a group of Algerians and Moroccans arrested at the end of January in Catalonia for their alleged links with al-Qaeda. In fact, evidence of the connection between Zarqawi and those arrested has never materialised, nor indeed has there been any proof of the cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. What’s more, it seems that Zarqawi does not belong to al-Qaeda.
Who, then, is Zarqawi? Jason Burke, a reporter with The Observer, offers the following facts about him, in his excellent book on al-Qaeda: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who had maintained his own small group in Afghanistan since the mid-eighties, had to abandon that country in March, 2002. Al-Zarqawi had operated independently of Bin Laden, having his own training camp near Herat. (…) It is probable that he has had some contact with Bin Laden, but he never swore an oath of loyalty to him, nor did he enter into any formal alliance either with him or his closest collaborators. (…) Wounded in the battle of Shah-e-Kot, he fled first to Iran, from where he was expelled and then to the north of Iraq. From there, according to the Americans, he went to Baghdad for medical treatment and stayed there (5).
Recently, new information about Zarqawi has emerged from two trials held in Dusseldorf against members of an al-Tawhid cell (a little known jihad organisation) who were arrested in April 2002, as they were preparing bomb attacks on German territory. According to the Dusseldorf prosecutor, Zarqawi was allegedly the operational leader of this organisation. Let us bear in mind, therefore, that we are talking about a leader of a dangerous terrorist organisation who may have had contacts with al-Qaeda but who did not take direct orders from that organisation. Al-Tawhid is allegedly one of the many groups which make up the nebulous jihad network and who cooperate sometimes in specific actions, as is also the case with the Moroccan group and the groups accused of involvement in the Casablanca and Madrid bombings.
All this having been said, we are now in a position to analyse an extraordinary document intercepted by the Americans in Iraq at the beginning of February and divulged by The New York Times, which can now be consulted in full (6). It is a long letter, supposedly written by Zarqawi himself and allegedly addressed to al-Qaeda, although for obvious reasons it bears neither his signature nor the recipient’s identity. Its interest lies in the fact that it offers a very credible interpretation of the terrorism in Iraq that subsequent events have tragically confirmed. Its main contents can be summarised in the following points:
(1) The author claims that his group has participated in all the ‘martyrdom operations’ (that is, suicide terrorist attacks) that have taken place in Iraq except in the north (that is, in Kurdish territory). These involve a total of 25 attacks, against Shiites, Americans, the police and military of the Provisional Council and against coalition forces. He explains that they will not claim full responsibility for these actions until such time as they are stronger.
(2) He states that the foreign combatants among their number are few and that they are finding that among the local population very few people are prepared to give them refuge in their homes or let them use them as operational bases.
(3) He estimates that, despite the losses they are suffering, the Americans are not willing to withdraw as they are counting on being able, in the near future, to transfer political control to a new Iraqi government with an army and a police force in which Sunni Arabs will also enlist.
(4) He fears that, should this occur, they would lose all their support among the Sunni population and there would be no alternative but to abandon the country and start up the jihad in a new scenario.
(5) To avoid such an unfavourable outcome, he proposes, as the sole solution, concentrating attacks on the Shiites, whom he considers to be heretics, thereby unleashing a ‘sectarian war’ that would shake the Sunnis out of their lethargy.
(6) He asks his interlocutors (allegedly al-Qaeda) if they agree with this plan and proposes that, if so, he would put himself under their orders and he even offers to swear loyalty to them publicly.
This is tantamount, therefore, to a plan to unleash a religious war in Iraq as a means of gaining the support of the local population that the promoters of the jihad have so far failed to achieve. Regardless of whether or not the author of this document is really Zarqawi (we do not know on what evidence such an attribution has been made), the document does appear to be genuine, as the anti-Shiite attacks of March 3 tragically demonstrate. In point of fact, these were not the first attacks on Shiites to have taken place in either Iraq or Pakistan, but their symbolic significance was particularly relevant, taking place as they did on the day of the Ashura –the day Shiites commemorate the most tragic event in their history, when Imam Hussein was killed in the battle of Kerbala in the year 680–. It is the equivalent of a Roman Catholic procession being attacked on Good Friday. Furthermore, two separate bomb attacks in Iraq, in the cities of Baghdad and Kerbala, causing a death toll of 140 people, coincided on the same day with another in the city of Quetta in Pakistan, in which 43 people were killed. It certainly looks like someone has launched a global jihad against the Shiites. The question is: did al-Qaeda respond favourably to Zarqawi’s proposals?
Whatever the answer, it seems that Iraq has become the present epicentre of the jihad. That would explain why the first bomb attacks in Europe carried out by this nebulous al-Qaeda network should have been done in the name of the ‘Iraqi resistance’ (whereas the truth would appear to be that its protagonists, at least as regards its terrorist activities, are all foreigners bent on causing a civil war between the religious communities in Iraq).
It would be a serious error, however, to conclude that all Spain had to do to avert the danger of a jihad attack was to have remained on the margins of Iraq conflict. The present concern of the French authorities about possible attacks in their country is the best proof of the contrary. A letter recently sent to two Paris newspapers by the till then unknown Barayev commando (taking its name from the Chechen terrorist who orchestrated the kidnapping of the audience of a Moscow theatre in October 2002) has increased French anxieties, although it still has not been possible to establish whether or not this represents a genuine threat. In this letter, France is accused of having joined the war against Islam for its ban on the use of the veil in schools and other public institutions and an attack is threatened. It is an accusation that had already been made by Ayman al-Zawahiri in a voice recording broadcast on February 24 by the al-Arabiya television channel. In the opinion of al-Qaeda’s number two, ’the banning of the veil in France has to be viewed from the same viewpoint as the burning of villages in Afghanistan, the destruction of houses and their inhabitants in Palestine, the killing of children and the theft of oil in Iraq’.
(1) The March 11 bomb attacks are part of the global terrorist offensive that the supporters of the jihad have launched against all those they consider to be their enemies (Westerners, Russians, Israelis, Hindus, Shiites, non-fundamentalist Sunnis, etc.), but everything would seem to suggest that they have a precise objective: to force a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq.
(2) Iraq, which was not a focus point for jihad terrorism in the days of Saddam Hussein, has become the central scenario for the jihad offensive. The aim of terrorism in Iraq is fundamentally to prevent the consolidation of a democratic regime there, based on the peaceful coexistence of the different religious and ethnic groups of the country.
(3) We Spaniards are clear that the outcome of the March 14 election was not the result of a will to give in to terrorist blackmail. It would be difficult to believe that of a people that has always stood firm in the face of ETA terrorism. It is important that the supporters of the jihad do not misinterpret what has happened. It would be serious indeed if they believed that they could change the outcome of elections in a democracy.
(4) In these circumstances, the Spanish and European contribution to the success of the democratic transition in Iraq is also a vital means of contributing to the defence of our countries against the terrorist threat. There is nothing more dangerous than letting terrorists believe that they can impose themselves on the democratic will of the people.
Director of the Instituto Universitario de Investigación sobre Seguridad Interior
(1) A translation of the communiqué and doubts about its authenticity are to be found in Yigal Carmon: ‘The Alleged Al-Qaeda Statement of Responsibility for the Madrid Bombings’ www.memri.org.
(2) Juan Avilés: ’Ante la matanza de Madrid: los errores que hemos cometido y los que no debemos cometer’.
(3) See Reuven Paz: ‘Qa’idat al-Jihad, Iraq, and Madrid: the first tile in the domino effect?’ at www.e-prism.org.
(4) A translation of this document and a commentary on it are to be found in Reuven Paz: ‘A Message to the Spanish People: The Neglected Threat by Qa’idat al-Jihad’, at www.e-prism.org.
(5) Jason Burke (2003), Al-Qaeda, London, Tauris, p. 234.
(6) This can be consulted under the title ‘Zarqawi’s Cry’ at www.nationalreview.com.