Al-Qaeda is Back

New evidence demonstrates the group’s role in the 2004 Madrid attacks—and its continuing threat to the West.

There is increasing debate about whether the real threat of global terrorism comes from al-Qaeda and its affiliated jihadist organizations or from decentralized groups inspired by, but unconnected to, al-Qaeda. The 2004 Madrid train bombings-which killed 191 people and injured over 1,700-are often held up as an archetype of an autonomous local cell at work, and its perpetrators depicted as the epitome of self-recruited, leaderless jihadists. These assumptions are mistaken. In fact, new information connects some of the most relevant members of the Madrid bombings with al-Qaeda's senior leadership. Al-Qaeda is alive and well and impacting the safety of the West.

Four years ago in a remote mountainous location northwest of Pakistan, not far from the border with Afghanistan, a Hellfire missile hit a compound in the village of Haisori, close to Miran Shah, the administrative capital of North Waziristan. The bomb killed five people. Among them was the Egyptian-born Hamza Rabia, then head of al-Qaeda's external operations and the man responsible for the organization's plots in North America and Western Europe. At the time of his death, Hamza Rabia was regarded as one of the top five, possibly one of the top three, in the al-Qaeda central core.

Now, what does all this have to do with the Madrid bombings? One of the four men who died with Hamza Rabia was identified by U.S. intelligence as Amer Azizi. A Moroccan, Azizi gained prominence as a member of the al-Qaeda cell established in Spain during the 1990s. He had very close ties to key individuals within the Madrid bombing network who had also belonged to that al-Qaeda cell. There was always speculation that Azizi was the instigator of the attack. Amer Azizi's name appears in 149 of the 271 volumes on the Madrid bombings compiled by Spain's National Court

But it was only in December 2008-when a Crown Court in Manchester convicted two British citizens of Pakistani extraction of being important members of al-Qaeda-that I found indications that a terrorist with Azizi's same Spanish background was a key associate of Hamza Rabia. Now that the CIA and Spanish intelligence have confirmed to me Azizi's death alongside Hamza Rabia, it is clear that the Madrid attacks were not an act of leaderless jihad.

The connections between al-Qaeda and the terrorist cell in Madrid run deep. Infamous terrorists like Anwar Adnan Ahmad Salah, alias Sheik Salah, and Mustafa Setmarian, better known as Abu Musab al Suri, operated in Spain in the 1990s. Imad Eddine Barakat Yarkas, also known as Abu Dahdah, followed them, becoming cell leader in 1995-and it was Abu Dahdah who recruited Amer Azizi and sent him to a training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.

Back from Afghanistan, Amer Azizi co-opted the Moroccan-born Mustafa Maymouni, who in 2002 initiated the Madrid bombing network, and Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, aka The Tunisian, who became the local ringleader when Maymouni was arrested during a trip to Morocco in 2003. A protected witness ratified that Azizi and The Tunisian communicated by email during 2002 and 2003. The judicial documentation proved strong links between Amer Azizi and other perpetrators of the train bombings.

Also while in Afghanistan, Amer Azizi consolidated his ties to al-Qaeda's North African affiliates. The camp where he trained was run by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG) were indoctrinated and trained there as well. Indeed, leaders of both terrorist organizations agreed, toward the end of the 1990s, to coordinate activities.

Members of these groups met in Istanbul in February 2002. There and then, they decided that jihad should not be limited to conflict zones but carried out in the countries from which their members originated or where they were residing. An attack in Casablanca happened soon after in May 2003, and the Madrid train bombings took place in March 2004. Several of the same individuals implicated in the Casablanca attacks are also involved in the Madrid attacks. A detailed Spanish police report offers information on cell-phone exchanges, a few months prior to the attacks, between The Tunisian and a leader of the LIFG then based in the Far East.

Even if that dreadful day continues to be presented as the act of an independent local cell made up of self-radicalized Muslim immigrants, mounting evidence invites a different interpretation. Not only because of the complexity of the Madrid train bombings perpetrated on March 11, exactly 911 days after the September 11 attack, but because of the clear linkages between al-Qaeda's core and the Spanish cell.

When asking ourselves where the Madrid bombings were instigated and approved, we should no longer look towards a certain quarter of Spain's capital city, nor towards the Tingitane peninsula in Morocco, but rather towards North Waziristan. Al-Qaeda remains a key to the continued global terror problem, as recently evidenced, also in Spain, with the foiled January 2008 suicide plot in Barcelona. Al-Qaeda still reaches far and wide.


Fernando Reinares is full professor of political science and security studies at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, and principal researcher on international terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute. He has been recently awarded with the Cross of Military Merit by Spain's Ministry of Defense..