Friday, March 26, 2004

Madrid blast update

Apparently the March 11 terror attack in Madrid has a connection to Germany. So did the World Trade Center outrage. German authorities have raided an apartment in Darmstadt, previously occupied by an as-yet-unnamed 28-year-old Moroccan registered as an electronics student. (Most of the suspects arrested in Spain are Moroccan.) Since this "student" inhabited the apartment for less than a week last October, I'm curious as to what sort of clues the police hoped to find.

The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung , in its report on this development, left its most interesting tidbit for the very end. According to FAZ, Aznar's government -- which has had very strained relations with Morocco -- ignored clear warnings from that country's authorities about terrorists in Madrid. After the May 2003 attack in Morocco, Jamal Zougam and 15 other nationals living in Spain were identified as part of a terror network. Aznar's security services discounted the tip.

Or did they? Readers of this column may recall an odd assertion (odd, because most other sources make an opposite claim) printed in the Spanish newspaper La Rioja . This journal insisted that, just before the bombings, Aznar's "security forces were convinced that the ETA terrorists were going to return to Madrid." Moreover, "the riot police in Madrid began setting up checkpoints in order to find cars with explosives. They began patrolling commercial areas, train stations, airports, stadiums, large crowds and government buildings."

This report may just be ex-post-facto bunk offered by Aznar's apologists. Still, perhaps the "dragnet" scenario has a kernel of truth. Is it possible that the Spanish authorities went hunting for an Al Qaeda operation, not ETA ? If so, why didn't they make any effort to pick up Jamal Zougam?

Zougam remains an interesting character. Initial news reports describe him as a shady operator given to many a western-style vice, and not particularly pious. Subsequent stories -- including one published in the Los Angeles Times -- picture him as someone who had "gotten religion" to the point of annoying his friends.

In this connection, you may want to read an excellent article titled "Intruders in the House of Saud: The Jihadi Who Kept Asking Why," by Elizabeth Rubin. (This piece, part 1 in a series, was published in the New York Times Magazine of March 7. 2004. Alas, the article has passed into their archives and will re-emerge only for a fee. You may be able to find copies floating around the net.) This report offers a fascinating account of one man's journey into the Salafi cult -- a hyper-conservative sub-sect of Wahhabism, and the same cult which allegedly attracted Jamal Zougam.

Many have incorrectly identified Wahhabism (the prevailing religious ideology of Saudi Arabia) as the incubator for Al Qaeda. But "standard" Wahhabi beliefs and practices, puritanical though they may seem to American eyes, appear downright libertine to the Salafis, who abhor everything not explicitly sanctioned by the Koran. (My Americanization of Arabic terms may annoy those who know that language; apologies.) Rubin's piece pictures the cultists as somewhat akin to the Amish in their refusal of modern dress, not to mention the disdain they feel toward cars and other modern conveniences. The Salafis differ from the Amish, of course, in their willingness to use violence.

The sect grew out of the teachings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian Islamic reformer, Nasser opponent, and leading figure within the Muslim Brotherhoodood. The Brotherhood sanctioned jihad against infidels, "People of the Book" (Jews, Christians and Mandaeans), and even other Muslims.

Is Jamal Zougam a Salafi cultist, as some sources have alleged? I'm troubled by those reports which depict him as a wine-drinking, skirt-chasing, club-hopping petty crook. This is not at all the lifestyle we should expect of a follower of Qutbism, if we can judge from surface appearances -- and if we can believe what we read in the papers.

All of which leads to the most intriguing question: Do the Spanish police have the right man in Zougam? The Rubin article cited above portrays Salafi jihadists as having a gift for disguise. Apparently, they view identity-hopping as high sport: "Abdullah Bejad showed me a selection of passport photos he had made up in various guises -- change the headdress slightly and you're a Kuwaiti or a Yemeni. A little creativity and anyone can disappear in this region."

We have conflicting word on the "Hindus" arrested by Spanish police. The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that they were released on the 15th. But this AP story from the 26th claims that they remain in jail on charges of collaboration with a terrorist group. (The confusion may stem from the fact that a Moroccan and an Algerian were released.)

Are these Indians truly Hindu, as initial reports claimed? As everyone knows, Osama Bin Laden despises Hindus almost as much as he hates Americans.

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