Hours after four railway bombs exploded in Madrid on March 11, killing 191 people, Spanish investigators got a big break. Early that morning, witnesses had seen three men in ski masks exiting a white van 20 miles from the blast. Inside the vehicle police found detonators, a stick of dynamite and a cassette tape of Qur'anic verses, the first sign that the bombing was the work of Islamic militants. But there was another piece of evidence in the van that Spanish authorities did not reveal: on a plastic bag containing bomb materials, investigators found a "perfectly formed" fingerprint they couldn't identify, a Spanish official told NEWSWEEK.
Spanish police ran the print through their database of criminal suspects, but came up empty. So they turned to other countries, including the United States, for help. When the FBI ran the print through its archive, the computer unexpectedly logged a hit: the mystery print, U.S. authorities say, belonged to Brandon Mayfield, a small-time lawyer who lived in Portland, Ore. Mayfield had been fingerprinted years earlier, when he served in the U.S. Army.
Spanish authorities have arrested 19 suspects in connection with the case, including one late last week; 16 of them are Moroccan. The prospect of a possible U.S. link to the Madrid bombings--known as Europe's 9/11--alarmed U.S. officials. "This is nuclear," said one U.S. law-enforcement official after learning of the development. A top U.S. counterterrorism official told NEWSWEEK that the fingerprint was an "absolutely incontrovertible match." (Spanish authorities said they weren't quite as sure.) If the print is his, it still doesn't answer how, or if, Mayfield was connected to the terrorist plot. Had he sent a package? Lent the terrorists legal expertise? Hoping for answers, the feds quickly put the lawyer under 24-hour surveillance. Last week, fearing their cover would be blown by press leaks, FBI agents showed up at his law office and hauled him away in handcuffs. Mayfield was "flabbergasted," says Thomas Nelson, a civil attorney who represented him at a hearing last week. Mayfield's passport expired last fall and he insisted he hadn't been out of the country in years. Even so, at the request of prosecutors Mayfield was detained as a "material witness" in a grand-jury investigation--a status that allows the Justice Department to hold him, potentially for months, while the FBI tries to build its case.
It's still unclear if Mayfield's arrest is a startling breakthrough in the war on terrorism--indicating a wider terror network than anybody had suspected--or a bizarre coincidence. Federal officials told NEWSWEEK that they doubt Mayfield has been innocently swept up in a case of international intrigue. Mayfield married an Egyptian woman and converted to Islam 16 years ago. The couple was active in a local Oregon mosque whose members had openly protested government antiterror policies. But it was another thing that leapt out at investigators: in 2002 Mayfield had volunteered to provide legal help for Jeffrey Battle, one of the ringleaders of the Portland Seven--a group of local jihadists who had flown to Asia after 9/11 in an unsuccessful effort to fight with the Taliban. Although prosecutors never proved that the group had committed terrorist acts, last year Battle and an associate pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to levy war against the United States." Battle petitioned to let family members keep custody of his 6-year-old son. Mayfield represented him in the dispute. (He lost.) "If that print had matched with some little old lady in Peoria, that would be one thing," says a U.S. official. "But what are the odds it would be somebody with this background?"
Yet Mayfield's family and friends find it hard to believe he might be a player in a terror plot. He enlisted in the Army after high school and served for a year in an intelligence unit. He stuck with the military, earning a bachelor's degree from Portland State on the Army's Green to Gold officer-training program. For a time, he was stationed with the Patriot Missile battery in Germany. After the Army, he got a law degree from Washburn University School of Law. A struggling, soft-spoken solo practitioner, he had few clients. While his work for Battle might have raised eyebrows with the government, it was not surprising, given the fear that swept the community after the arrest of the Portland Seven. "There was a lot of concern that [local Muslims] were being unfairly targeted," said one lawyer who worked with Mayfield. "But he never struck me as saying anything radical."
Mayfield's brother Kent says Brandon is being "profiled" by the government. He says his brother began to suspect the Feds were watching him. He heard clicks on his phone, and twice returned home to find things slightly different than when he had left. Often, Kent says, Brandon complained that Bush-administration antiterror policies trampled civil liberties. But Kent says his brother never favored violence. "If anyone was going to say anything over the top, it would have been me."
Federal law-enforcement officials acknowledged that their probe was only beginning when they detained Mayfield, and that they had not yet checked his travel records. ("They're going to have egg on their face," says Nelson, who said he is confident the fingerprint match will turn out to be mistaken.) In any case, the use of a "material witness" warrant to detain Mayfield could prove controversial. Since 9/11, law-enforcement officials tell NEWSWEEK, the Justice Department has detained between 30 and 40 terror suspects as "material witnesses" in secret proceedings. The category was originally conceived to ensure that reluctant witnesses show up to testify at a trial. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, prosecutors have often used it as one way to hold terror suspects indefinitely when they don't have enough evidence to charge them with a crime. Justice officials insist that more than half of the detained material witnesses have ended up in criminal prosecutions. "Typically, they lie to you after you detain them so you can always get them on false statements," says one former Justice official. As an example of the success of the technique, they point to the case of another member of the Portland Seven named Maher "Mike" Hawash. He was originally detained as a material witness; the Muslim community protested, citing his arrest as an example of Ashcroft's excessive zeal. Last year, however, Hawash pleaded guilty to providing material support to the Taliban. Since Brandon Mayfield was arrested, he has refused to speak with authorities. A fingerprint, found half a world away, is so far more of a question than an answer.