Foiled Plot Offers Clues to Recent Absence of Major Terror Attacks on West

(Sep. 9) -Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, shown on a Saudi-owned television network in 2002. Bin Laden reportedly provided guidance to an al-Qaeda cell that plotted an attack that was foiled last year in Barcelona, Spain (Getty Images).
(Sep. 9) -Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, shown on a Saudi-owned television network in 2002. Bin Laden reportedly provided guidance to an al-Qaeda cell that plotted an attack that was foiled last year in Barcelona, Spain (Getty Images).

MADRID -- In the Atocha train station, a brilliantly lit vortex etched with expressions of condolence swirls skyward above an underground room pooled blue in its darkness. On a nearby wall, the names of nearly 200 people are cut into glass and memory, the victims of terrorists who bombed this crowded station and the city's commuter rail system for maximum carnage at rush hour on March 11, 2004. Among the honored is a police officer killed when the train bombers -- surrounded weeks later by Spanish security forces -- donned explosive belts to die in a final, suicidal paroxysm. Many of the more than 1,750 civilians wounded in the Madrid attacks still bear physical and psychological scars (see GSN, Sept. 8).

Despite the horrors of Spain's "3/11," the thoughts immortalized in the Atocha tribute are defiant. The terrorists stole the lives of friends and family, one contributor notes, but they will never succeed in destroying a way of life. Survivors and well-wishers pledge to carry on just as before. Many are determined that an act of such wanton brutality and nihilism must never happen again.

Remarkably, it now seems certain that not long after the Atocha memorial took shape in 2007, al-Qaeda and its affiliates were plotting to repeat the "success" of the Madrid slaughter, and for similar reasons. Investigators believe that the 2004 attack was a response to a proclamation by Osama bin Laden on Oct. 19, 2003, calling on his minions to intimidate nations participating in the United States' "unjust war" in Iraq. For the first time, bin Laden singled out Spain in that message. In the organic collective of global Islamic extremism, only a few synapses stand between such commands from the central nervous system and an act of mass murder halfway around the world.

By al-Qaeda's reckoning, the 2004 Madrid bombings reaped a political bonanza. Just days after the attack, Spanish voters turned out the government and elected Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as prime minister; he infuriated the Bush administration by quickly announcing the withdrawal of all Spanish troops from Iraq. Such success never goes unnoticed in the surprisingly close-knit community of Islamic extremist terrorists.

With the center of gravity in this global conflict shifting in recent years to Afghanistan, where Spanish troops are still deployed under the NATO flag, al-Qaeda and its affiliates decided to try again to peel off allies and shift the burden of the fight increasingly onto the shoulders of stretched-thin American forces. Once more they saw Spain and other European allies as potential weak links in the U.S.-led coalition.

On Nov. 29, 2007, bin Laden again agitated the neural network of Islamic extremism by posting an audiotape on the militant Web site Ekhlaas, demanding that European nations withdraw their troops from Afghanistan or suffer revenge attacks on their homelands. Within weeks, the synapses of terror began firing anew in Spain.

Antonio Camacho, secretary of state for security, is Spain's top counterterrorism official. "What we are sure about right now is that there are a number of goals and objectives outlined in al-Qaeda's ideology which are repeated over and over again in these Qaeda communiques, and then concrete plots are organized by largely independent cells that exist in many countries," Camacho told National Journal. "So there are links between al-Qaeda central and these far-flung cells, but they are not the traditional close links characteristic of terrorist organizations in the past. They are rather diffuse links. And the more we understand how these linkages work and how al-Qaeda organizes its operations, the more effective we will be in countering this continuing threat. Unfortunately, it is not going away."

A Plot Begins

On the eve of the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, al-Qaeda continues to mutate under extreme pressures, constantly reconfiguring the connections between its central nervous system and scattered terrorist cells. One way to better understand how this works is to put a foiled terrorist plot under the microscope. A close inspection of a case uncovered in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008 reveals clues that convince some experts that the global contagion of Islamic extremist terrorism inflicted by al-Qaeda at its peak may have weakened into a less virulent strain. Consider the Barcelona case, then, and ask yourself the question that continues to challenge counter-terrorism experts: Why has the West seen no major terrorist "spectaculars" in nearly five years?

Just weeks after bin Laden's 2007 audiotape hit the Internet, eight suspected terrorists carried backpacks and handbags stuffed with bomb-making materials into the old section of Barcelona at dusk on Jan. 18, 2008, converging on a safe house where two colleagues had already arrived with similar bundles. The mostly young and all-male group was overwhelmingly Pakistani in origin, and its members moved easily among the 15,000 Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona's old city. Six members of the group were immigrants to Spain, but five had arrived only in the previous three months after traveling circuitous routes from Pakistan through various European cities.

The cell's ideological leader was the imam of the Tarek ben Ziad mosque in Barcelona. The man suspected of calling the operational shots, however, was Hafeez Ahmed, a person of fierce demeanor and extensive bomb-making experience who had just returned to Barcelona from a five-month stay in Pakistan, where he had boasted of killing many police officers.

The plotters targeted multiple stations of the Barcelona transit system, apparently because the leaders believed that explosions in tightly confined underground stations would make it difficult for ambulances and emergency services personnel to reach the wounded. Four young men designated as suicide bombers were to launch the attack, followed by similar planned operations in France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal. All five countries have troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO's International Security and Assistance Force.

Significantly, the Barcelona ringleader explained to the cell members that the exact timing and sequence of attacks was yet to be determined. "Al-Qaeda would make some demands through the emir Baitullah Mehsud," the leader reportedly told the group. Mehsud, a close bin Laden associate and the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, is believed to have been killed by a U.S. Predator drone strike in August. Officials suspect him in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008.

Mehsud's apparent connection to the Barcelona plot is consistent with evidence indicating that his network of extremist groups was allying itself ever closer to al-Qaeda and coming to embrace bin Laden's vision of a "global jihad" that sought to not only destabilize Pakistan and topple the Afghan government but also strike directly at Europe and the United States.

On Jan. 18, 2008, the same day that eight of the suspected Barcelona terrorists began moving to safe houses with their backpacks, one cell member received word from the ringleader: The phone call he would make to his wife that day would be his last in this world.

Fernando Reinares, director of the program on global terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain, has conducted detailed case studies of the Madrid and Barcelona terrorist plots. His work reveals remarkable similarities between the two.

Cells initiated both plots after receiving strategic guidance from bin Laden and Qaeda headquarters to target European members of a U.S.-led military coalition. Both sets of plotters communicated through the sanctuary of cyberspace. A local Islamic preacher or imam played a central role in each case by enlisting and radicalizing a group of young men, drawn from Europe's 15 million-strong Islamic diaspora, to serve as foot soldiers. Both plots prominently featured suicide-bombing, a Qaeda trademark. In each case, roving "facilitators" with ties to terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan provided the critical connective tissue between al-Qaeda and the local cell. Both plots reveal concentric and interconnected circles of terrorist affiliates who have attached themselves to the Qaeda brand and cause.

"As to the specific nature of the threat, the [Barcelona] plot would suggest a combination of both internal and external elements," Reinares concluded, characterizing the internal threat as radicalized, first-generation Islamic immigrants in Europe. "The external component seems to be that of a notorious, well-articulated terrorist collective actor with clear leadership and strategy."

Failure To Ignite

Despite the plots' notable similarities, in Barcelona the synapses between al-Qaeda's strategic guidance, plot initiation, and terrorist bloodshed failed to fire. In that sense, Barcelona is like other terrorist plots thwarted in Europe and the United States in recent years. To some experts, the record suggests that al-Qaeda has significantly weakened under incredible stresses, even as Western societies have strengthened their resistance through the antibodies of improved law enforcement, more-robust gathering and sharing of intelligence, and better outreach to local Muslim communities.

"Al-Qaeda remains a complicated parasite that is most successful when it attaches itself to local conflicts with already strong roots in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Somalia," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime counterterrorism expert and author at the RAND think tank. "But as the ideological and operational nerve center that connects all of those groups to a global jihad against the West, there's no question in my mind that law enforcement and intelligence forces have severely degraded al-Qaeda since 9/11 and since the London and Madrid bombings of 2004-05. They've made the world a much more hostile place for al-Qaeda to operate."

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda operated freely in its Afghanistan sanctuary, able to indoctrinate, vet, and observe firsthand thousands of recruits at its training camps. Lieutenants could plan and direct terrorist plots, collect and transfer funds, and communicate with and support distant networks of cells that were constantly replenished from the Qaeda "base," all relatively unhindered.

In the aftermath of 9/11, allied intelligence and counterterrorism forces have upped the risk for Qaeda operatives and have directly attacked the base, killing or capturing an estimated 80 percent of the group's original high command. Just since 2006, intelligence sources estimate that Predator drones have killed 14 Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal regions, including senior commander Abu Laith al-Libi, weapons of mass destruction expert Abu Khabab al-Masri, bin Laden's son Saad, and most recently, Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud.

"As al-Qaeda's leadership and operational ranks have been depleted, and its ability to directly participate and, support terrorist plots has diminished," Jenkins said, "we've seen a 'quality control' problem creep into more recent terrorist plots." He sees vulnerability in al-Qaeda's much heavier reliance on homegrown terrorist cells and plotters who are not as well trained or disciplined in operational security. "So, more plots like Barcelona get infiltrated and discovered and others, like the follow-on plot to bomb the London transit system in 2005 and the German suitcase bombs in 2006, reveal a level of incompetence that leads to failure."

A Watchful Eye

In the months before the Barcelona operation planned for January 2008, five cell members arrived from points around the compass. Two presumed suicide bombers landed in the city on flights from Pakistan, after stops in Sweden and Germany. Another suspected suicide bomber traveled from Portugal. Still another took the train from Paris. Qaeda operatives have long crisscrossed national borders in this way to throw law enforcement and intelligence agencies off their trail.

As the Barcelona cell members traveled on planes and trains across Europe, however, it's clear that an intelligence dragnet had already started to tighten around them. Two months after the 2004 Madrid terrorist attack, Spain created a National Antiterrorism Coordination Center on the outskirts of the capital and increased the ranks of its counterterrorism agents more than tenfold. The intelligence fusion center includes analysts from the National Police, the Guardia Civil, and the Defense Ministry's national intelligence center.

Through a series of bilateral agreements, the Spanish antiterrorism center shares intelligence with similar centers throughout Europe and around the world, including the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, which most experts believe is privy to the most-sophisticated signals intelligence (that is, communications intercepts) in the world. The U.S. Justice and Homeland Security departments have also signed agreements with Spain and other European Union countries to allow rapid sharing of sensitive intelligence, including fingerprint files.

Along with unprecedented levels of counterterrorism intelligence-gathering and cooperation, Western law enforcement agencies have also benefited from their ability to zero in on a relatively small group of terrorists and their activities in Pakistan's tribal areas.

"I know people say al-Qaeda has found sanctuary in Pakistan, but it's a far less accommodating sanctuary than [the terrorist group] enjoyed in Afghanistan, and Western intelligence services are very focused on monitoring and tracing communications and travel in and out of the tribal areas," Jeremy Shapiro, a national security expert and the director of research at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe, told National Journal. "If you look closely at terrorist plots thwarted in Europe in recent years, you can definitely detect their penetration by communications intercepts. And while intelligence-sharing within Europe is still conducted largely on a bilateral basis, it has steadily improved. Nowhere is that cooperation stronger than between Spain and France, which have a long history of counterterrorism cooperation from their joint campaign against the Basque separatists of ETA."

Indeed, Reinares's case study, informed by a Spanish magistrate's ongoing investigation of the Barcelona cell, reveals that the Pakistani national who joined the cell from Paris was almost certainly an informant for the French intelligence services. That man, now reportedly in a witness-protection program, received explosives training in a terrorist training camp in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. He had direct contact with leaders of Mehsud's Pakistan Taliban, which designated him a suicide bomber for the Barcelona plot. Finally, the plot's ringleader unwittingly told the informant that his call to his wife on Jan. 18, 2008, was to be his last, tipping the authorities to the attack's imminence.

At 10 minutes before midnight that evening, the dragnet closed. Members of Spain's Guardia Civil raided six premises in Barcelona's old town -- four private homes, an industrial site that had been converted to an Islamic prayer hall, and a bakery shop. They found bomb-making materials and arrested 14 individuals. Eleven suspected cell members were eventually indicted on charges of belonging to terrorist organizations and possessing explosives; their cases are pending before the Spanish courts.

In the Barcelona case and in several other successful counterterrorism operations of recent years, the common thread was the ability of an informant to infiltrate a terrorist cell. In May 2009, New York City police arrested four men suspected of plotting to blow up area Jewish centers, after undercover agents sold them fake explosives in a sting operation. The May 2007 plot by a six-man cell to attack the Army base at Fort Dix, N.J., was exposed after a 16-month FBI operation that included infiltrating the group. Also in 2007, U.S. forces in Iraq arrested Abdul Hadi, who was connected to the 2005 London bombings and fingered as al-Qaeda's top commander in Britain by a junior Qaeda fixer who became an FBI informant. In June 2006, seven men were arrested in Miami and Atlanta in a plot to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower, after another investigation involving an FBI informant.

All of those cases suggest cracks in al-Qaeda's once-vaunted operational security. As the terrorist organization finds it increasingly difficult to operate in the shadows and hide the tracks of its Pakistan-based facilitators, and as it can no longer directly vet and train operatives at its "terrorist universities" in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has been forced to rely more on local recruits in Europe and the United States whose loyalty may be questionable. Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies appear increasingly agile in exploiting that vulnerability.

"Without going into the details of a specific case, I will tell you that if we want to succeed in this fight against Islamic radical terrorism, we have to work together in sharing information and strategies, and we have to do it in real time, because this type of information has little value if we share it only after attacks have already taken place," Camacho, Spain's counterterrorism chief, emphasized. That is the lesson not only of the Barcelona and Madrid plots, he says, but also of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

"Each of those cases demonstrates how a terrorist plot may originate in one country, be structured and organized in a second country, with the explosives or other machinery acquired in a third country, and the actual terrorist act planned for a fourth or fifth country," Camacho said. "If those four or five countries aren't all sharing intelligence, we will never have the information that allows us to make the connections and thwart the plot."

Camacho also suggested that information-sharing and cooperation between Spanish law enforcement and intelligence agencies and local Muslim communities have improved in recent years. "We have approached the leaders of Islamic groups in Spain, and the doors and telephones of my ministry are always open to them," he said. "We have stressed that our society guarantees to all who live here the right to pursue their culture and religion as they see fit, as long as they accept our principles of democracy and the rule of law. And recent surveys show that a very high percentage of Muslims in Spain feel comfortable and well treated here, and are well integrated into Spanish society."

Crisis Of Legitimacy

The failure of the Barcelona plot and a spate of other thwarted terrorist attacks highlight a compounding problem for al-Qaeda. In the pantheon of Islamic extremists, violence remains the coin of the realm, and the grandiose threats from bin Laden and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri increasingly ring hollow. Many young radicals, in particular, identify more with local Islamic extremist groups bent on combating Western encroachment or occupation, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The crisis of confidence in al-Qaeda comes at a time when influential radical Islamist theologians are openly criticizing the group for its wanton brutality and penchant for killing many more Muslims than "nonbelievers." Hassan Hattab, the founder of an Algerian terrorist group that allied with bin Laden in 2006 and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, recently called on his former comrades to lay down their arms and accept a government offer of reconciliation. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, an influential former extremist leader better known as "Dr. Fadl," also recently condemned al-Qaeda from inside an Egyptian prison. Last spring, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian jihadist theorist considered a spiritual leader of groups linked to al-Qaeda, publicly disassociated himself from the killing of Muslims committed in the name of religion.

Xavier Raufer, a former French intelligence officer who heads the University of Paris's department on organized crime and terrorism, cautioned, "Jihadis are still dangerous, and intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to keep a close eye on them, but the bin Laden-style jihad is almost a dead star, because each day another former jihadi mufti or emir vehemently denounces it in favor of a more political approach." He added, "Our research suggests that there have been no more terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years for much the same reason [that] every form of terrorism disappears one day: People stop being interested in it."

Fawaz Gerges is the author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, published in 2007. He interviewed dozens of Islamic militants for the book and remains in contact with them. In the struggle between terrorist and counterterrorist forces, he too detects a major shift in the wind against al-Qaeda and bin Laden.

"In my research over the last four years, I found that al-Qaeda and like-minded groups have suffered a massive crisis of authority and legitimacy that has estranged even radical young men from its ideology," said Gerges, a professor in Middle Eastern politics and international relations at Sarah Lawrence College. He cites al-Qaeda's random and massive killing of civilians as the primary cause of the estrangement. Particularly rankling to Muslims has been the murder of civilians in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia, the bombing of an Islamic wedding party in Jordan in 2005, and the still-routine mass slaughter of Shiite Muslim civilians in Iraq by the Qaeda affiliate that is trying to ignite a civil war.

"As a result [of these killings], polls show that support for al-Qaeda's ideology has declined among Muslims all over the world, and Muslim communities in Europe are responding to outreach by local authorities and are much more willing to cooperate with intelligence and police agencies to identify militants and extremists in their midst," Gerges said. "So the threat of Qaeda-sponsored or -inspired terrorism in Europe has diminished considerably in recent years. Those who remain in al-Qaeda's nerve center in Pakistan's tribal areas, however, are still focusing very hard on finding a few deluded young Muslim men in Europe as their weapons of choice for carrying out attacks in the West. But as a direct result of this crisis of legitimacy, al-Qaeda is finding fewer and fewer of them to recruit."

Where There's Smoke

Even with the record of recent police successes, officials do not discount al-Qaeda's unmistakable focus on young Muslim men in Europe and the United States. Recent plots in Europe that initially seemed the products of "leaderless jihad" or the work of lone-wolf terrorists, for instance, on closer inspection revealed a process of malevolent regeneration with al-Qaeda at the core.

An investigation by the British House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee into the July 2005 London bombings found that three terrorist plots (the London bombings, a failed follow-on attack that same month, and the August 2006 plot to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners) were linked to al-Qaeda and its terrorist training camps in Pakistan.

In a November 2006 address in London, the then-director general of the British Security Service, known as MI5, revealed that those plots were the symptoms of a still-viral disease. "We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and to damage our economy. What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten? No, nearer to 30 that we currently know of," Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said. "These plots often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and through those links al-Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale."

In 2004, the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan teenager alerted the Netherlands' General Intelligence and Security Service, or AIVD, to the trend. "The AIVD received a growing number of indications that individuals from Europe are receiving military training at camps in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region," the service revealed in a 2008 report. "This could increase the ability of core al-Qaeda and its allies to commit or direct attacks in Europe."

Bruce Hoffman, a veteran counterterrorism expert now at Georgetown University's security studies program, detailed the findings of the British and Dutch investigations in a recent report. "The fact that there has not been a successful terrorist attack in the West in five years does seem astonishing, but both of these investigations paint a clear picture of an al-Qaeda that continues to facilitate and launch these terrorist plots at essentially a pre-9/11 pace despite the tremendous stress it is under," he told National Journal. "There's no doubt that Western counterintelligence and intelligence agencies have gotten better, but all these thwarted plots represent a lot of smoke. And I worry that where there is smoke, there will eventually be another fire."

September 9, 2009

MADRID -- In the Atocha train station, a brilliantly lit vortex etched with expressions of condolence swirls skyward above an underground room pooled blue in its darkness. On a nearby wall, the names of nearly 200 people are cut into glass and memory, the victims of terrorists who bombed this crowded station and the city's commuter rail system for maximum carnage at rush hour on March 11, 2004. Among the honored is a police officer killed when the train bombers -- surrounded weeks later by Spanish security forces -- donned explosive belts to die in a final, suicidal paroxysm. Many of the more than 1,750 civilians wounded in the Madrid attacks still bear physical and psychological scars (see GSN, Sept. 8).