Terror Watch: Shut Out?

Spanish authorities have ignored FBI efforts to assist the investigation into last week's train bombing, creating new tensions between Washington and Madrid in the case.

Almost immediately after last Thursday's attacks, in which at least 200 people were killed, the Justice Department offered to assist the Spanish by dispatching a team of FBI and other U.S. law-enforcement agents to the scene.

But the Spanish government appears to have rejected the U.S. offer and has instead invited other European law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to help in the case--an apparent snub of the Bush administration that U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK may be an ominous portent for the future.

As a result, U.S. officials say, they have effectively been frozen out of the biggest terrorist case in Europe since September 11, despite mounting evidence that the perpetrators were part of a much larger network of Islamic militants that may well have links to Al Qaeda.

That limited flow of information is even more critical in light of evidence that the Spanish police had failed to act on repeated intelligence dating back at least to 2001 about a key suspect in the case. The failure seems to underscore major differences in the U.S. and European approaches to the war on terror--a gap that could get wider and impede U.S. efforts to roll up terrorist networks on the Continent.

"We've offered, [but] they have not asked us or any other U.S. agencies to assist," an FBI official said today when asked about the Spanish bombing case.

It is not entirely clear why the Spanish have not responded to the Justice Department offer. But U.S. officials believe it most likely reflects the political fallout of last Sunday's election, in which a new Socialist government led by Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero was elected, defeating the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar, a strong Bush ally.

Although Zapatero won't take office for at least another month, U.S. officials believe the Spanish government is simply reflecting the popular and largely anti-American mood in the country. Aznar's backing of the U.S. war in Iraq has been widely cited as a principal reason for his defeat, especially after evidence emerged over the weekend suggesting that it was Islamic militants, rather than Basque separatists, who were responsible for the bombings.

A spokesman for the Spanish Embassy in Washington said that under Spanish law, the criminal investigation must be conducted by the Spanish police. But he added that, while the new government has pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, "that doesn't mean we are not going to cooperate in our common fight against terrorism."

In the meantime, despite new disclosures in Spain about some of the suspects, U.S. officials are frustrated and far from certain about the full dimension of the Madrid plot. Most officials are convinced that a well-organized group was behind the attacks; the elaborate nature of the multiple, near-simultaneous bombings and the sophisticated construction of the bombs suggest that anywhere between 12 and 30 people were involved in their planning and construction.

Moreover, there is a trail of apparent connections between some of the suspects and known terrorist networks such as Moroccan Salafists and Ansar Al-Islam that have links to Al Qaeda. But precisely what those links are is still far from clear.

What is clear, officials say, is that the disclosures to date are likely to lead to a round of finger-pointing and allegations of missed signals that could well mirror the aftermath of September 11 in the United States.

The key suspect arrested so far in the case, a Moroccan cell-phone salesman named Jamal Zougam, had first come to the attention of Spanish authorities as early as two and a half years ago. At that time, police secretly recorded him talking to Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (also known as Abu Dahdah), the accused leader of an Al Qaeda cell in Spain who has since been indicted in that country for complicity in the September 11 attacks.

A transcript of the Aug. 13, 2001, conversation obtained by NEWSWEEK shows Zougam discussed with Barakat raising money for yet another alleged terrorist--Mohamed Fizazi, a radical Moroccan imam who has since been convicted in the May 2003 suicide bombings of Jewish targets in Casablanca that killed 45 people.

"If he [Fizazi] needs donations, we could get them from the brothers," Zougam told Barakat, the transcript shows.

That evidence about Zougam, who was considered a "very active terrorist" by Moroccan authorities, was later bolstered by other intelligence. According to a report in the Barcelona daily El Periodico, Morrocan officials warned Spanish police last year that Zougam was returning to live in Spain.

But Spanish officials have said they simply didn't have enough evidence to arrest Zougam and reportedly relaxed their surveillance of him because they had too many other terror suspects to track. That decision may well now be questioned--especially from Bush administration officials who have taken a far more aggressive attitude toward the terrorist threat, emphasizing the need for prevention and even detention of terror suspects as "enemy combatants" if necessary.

"It appears they [the Spanish] had a line on this group--just as the Germans had a line on the Hamburg cell prior to September 11," notes Kenneth Katzman, a terrorist analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "One question is going to be, why didn't they act sooner."