1. Moroccan Cell links 9/11 to Casablanca, Madrid and Baghdad

The terrorists who carried out the Madrid train bombings that murdered 2001 commuters, injured 1,400, and sent shock waves through Europe, did not emerge from an obscure terror group in the desert wastes of Arabia or the remote mountains of Afghanistan. They lived as well-integrated European citizens in the middle of urban Spain, one of Washington’s closest allies in the global war against terror and the conflict in Iraq. One is a prominent member of the Spanish soccer team Real Madrid’s fan club. He is known for his regular attendance at league matches.

On September 11, 2001, it was an al Qaeda cell linked logistically to Spain that sowed untold death and destruction in New York and Washington. Three years later, the same group’s Madrid cell took indirect yet telling aim at George W. Bush.

For al Qaeda the operation was important enough for it to be orchestrated in detail and timed precisely for three days before the Spanish general election by Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman Zuwahiri, in person. They did not rely on an offshoot or local affiliate. This time they meant to strike at the Achilles heel of the West and achieve the broad strategic goals of splintering the US-led coalition front fighting in Iraq and the global war on terror and undercutting Bush’s chances of re-election.

But Bin Laden’s “success” owes less to his superior craft than to the laxness of US and European counter-terror authorities and failure of their intelligence.

One senior specialist in combat against al Qaeda put it this way to DEBKA-Net-Weekly:

“Looked at from the perspective of the damage wrought to the organization’s leadership, structure and fighting force, American gains in the war against al Qaeda are formidable. The only trouble is that all these undoubted gains apply to Osama bin Laden’s group as it was up until fall of 2002. But al Qaeda has moved on. Its 2004 makeup, capabilities and tactics are changed. The global war on terror has not yet caught up with this new generation. By focusing on the “old” al Qaeda and its roots, counter-terror agencies have failed to capture the “new” al Qaeda on their screens.

This lapse has had the following consequences:

  1. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington DC, counter-terror agencies forces have not been able to lay hands on the Moroccan Spanish-based cell that provided the logistic link for those attacks and went on to mount further large-scale terrorist strikes. Their names and descriptions are known and their photos and fingerprints on record. Known too are the addresses of their families, with whom the wanted men stay in touch via telephone, email and couriers and even short visits. Nonetheless, their whereabouts in Spain have not been established for long enough to nab them.

  2. The Madrid operation was a cakewalk for al Qaeda. For the September 11 attacks, the fundamentalists had to round up airliners, train suicide air hijackers and acquire the secret codes that shut down US government communications systems, radar and the alarm link between the White House and American airports. For more than 30 minutes, no one knew the locations of the flying aircraft-turned-missiles or where they were headed. However, in March 2004, to execute their biggest terrorist attack since 9/11, bin Laden’s group needed nothing more than a supply of easily-purchased Spanish Gados explosives, a bunch of cell phones and ordinary trekkers’ backpacks.

  3. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, for their Madrid attack, bin Laden and Zuwahiri activated a Moroccan psychiatrist called Dr Abu Hafiza as their main point man. The advice he gave was for an operation to profoundly scar the Spanish psyche as preferable to sheer numbers of dead and injured, one that would generate the right climate for the Spanish electorate to turn away from the conservative Aznar government and opt for the Socialists who were committed to pulling Spanish forces out of Iraq.

He predicted the downfall of Jose Maria Aznar would set off a domino effect that would knock over Britain’s Tony Blair and unseat Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. The next US ally to face an election is Australia’s John Howard, whom Bush calls his Sheriff in Asia. The al Qaeda psychiatrist calculated that the Madrid shock might cause even this staunch supporter of the Bush administration in Iraq to crack and remove the 850 Aussie troops deployed there.

The first objective was easily accomplished. The government in Madrid played into al Qaeda’s hands by its clumsy attempts to cover up the true perpetrators of the attacks and unconvincingly finger the Basque ETA. But it is Bush himself that bin Laden is gunning for. Wrecking his chances of re-election would bring down the last domino of the al Qaeda offensive.

Shrink and strategist

Since the mid-1990s, Hafiza has been part of the tight bin Laden-Zuwahiri circle. He was the brains and commander of the Moroccan cell that provided logistics for al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Their lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, under orders from Hafiza confirmed by Zuwahiri, paid a brief visit to the Spanish city of Tarragona to pull the operation’s last ends together with the Moroccan cell. Intelligence agencies are still very much in the dark about how Atta’s Hamburg cell worked with the al Qaeda network in Madrid, Tarragona, Tangier and Casablanca. It is rarely mentioned that a good deal of the preparatory work for the September 11 attacks was done in Morocco or locations on the Mediterranean coast across from Spain.

Hafiza pulled strings similarly for the April 2002 attack on the 2,000-year-old El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Jerba that killed 21 people, and the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca in which 45 people died.

The strategist-psychiatrist is currently in charge of operational interchanges between all Qaeda’s Moroccan rings in Spain and Morocco and the cells in Saudi Arabia. Hafiza is credited with the brainwave of attaching undercover operatives to the staffs of Saudi royal palace and overseas luxury apartments and using their masters’ frequent travels aboard private aircraft to ferry messages, fighters and even weapons and explosives from place to place.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah maintains a summer palace in Morocco; other princes and King Fahd himself keep palatial residences in Marbella, Geneva and London. Large retinues, including the planted servants and aides, accompany them on all their jaunts.

Hafiz’s right hand man is Karim al-Majati, also known as “Abu Elias”. He was the foremost recruiter of al Qaeda operatives for planting as royal servants in Saudi Arabia

DEBKA-Net-Weekly 137 of December 12, 2003, profiled Abu Elias, who is married to a woman with US citizenship and uses the Saudi cosmetics concern run by his French mother as a front for “business trips” between the oil kingdom and Morocco.

Somehow, Hafiza’s movements and actions have slipped under the radar of US, Saudi and Spanish intelligence. Our exclusive sources reveal that in April or May 2003, he used a genuine Moroccan passport and a false identity to travel undetected between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where he collected a contingent of Saudi al Qaeda combatants and brought them to Fallujah in Iraq.

Shrink and spy

In Iraq, Bin Laden and Zuwahiri assigned the Moroccan psychiatrist with a strategic mission of the highest importance to their future plans. He was to compile a comprehensive report with recommendations on the following:

  1. The US political and military situation in Iraq.

  2. The standing of coalition forces in Iraq.

  3. The condition of the Iraqi Ba’ath party and Iraqi guerrilla fighters.

  4. Where the Shiites stand in relation to the fast-moving events in Iraq.

  5. The quickest way to push US forces out of Iraq.

  6. The most expedient method of toppling Bush and Blair.

Hafiza spent nearly four months posing as a teacher at a religious school or madressa, on the outskirts of Fallujah. He traveled the length and breadth of Iraq, returning occasionally to Fallujah to draft reports for the two al Qaeda leaders.

In mid- or late August, Hafiza returned to Pakistan the same way he came, meeting bin Laden and Zuwahiri at a rendezvous in the mountains of Waziristan on the Pakistani-Afghani frontier.

The date he delivered his report to the two chiefs is not known. However, judging from their decision-making procedures, his debriefing probably took place in all-night sessions spread over several weeks. Bin Laden and Zuwahiri then opted for a tentative course of action that was apparently scheduled for late September, upon which Hafiza must have sat down to write his final conclusions and recommendations.

Why Bin Laden trumpets his plans in advance

DEBKAfile‘s analysts wrote of the Madrid bombings: “Osama bin Laden’s terrorist movement makes no secret of its plans, priorities or motives. They are all laid out – in English too – in a plethora of print and Internet publications. While difficult reading for Westerners, who find it hard to take the florid phrasing and outrageous aspirations seriously, such publications are the daily fare of tens of millions of Muslims around the world, almost in the same way as a daily newspaper may be part of an ordinary Westerner’s routine.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts on Islamic fundamentalism find some method in bin Laden’s apparent madness. He broadcasts his plans over an open network for a reason. Simply put, no al Qaeda terrorist would consider going into terrorist action without knowing its rationale. Scattered around the world with no overt means of communication with their top leaders, the group’s operatives rely on the Internet for Muslim ideology to justify the atrocities they are called on to commit.

For this reason, the decisions reached by bin Laden and Zuwahiri were incorporated in Hafiza's own recommendations and put up on an al Qaeda-linked websites in December 2003. Most Westerners who chanced to read this item dismissed it as the usual fundamentalist claptrap and apropos of nothing.

Even the young Norwegian intelligence analyst who perused all 42 pages found it of interest but not of sufficient practical import to bring its content to the attention of his superiors. However, after the Madrid attacks, when the document was seen as the blueprint for the operation complete with preset targets, the international intelligence community not only sat down to read it through, but made every effort to remove the content from the Internet to keep it from the public in the West.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts find three salient features manifest in the document:

  1. The mark of an author well versed in mass psychology and the behavioral patterns of al Qaeda’s target communities and their ruling bodies.

  2. Clarity of mind and powers of analysis which are not inferior to those found in any intelligence or research facility in the West.

  3. Clear contradiction of the so-called “Zarqawi letter” published by the Americans in January, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts never believed was penned by the fugitive al Qaeda mastermind. Whereas that letter recommended terrorist attacks against the Shiites to stir up civil war and put the Americans to flight from Iraq, the Hafiza document proposed establishing a new Iraqi Shiite party that will function under al Qaeda’s guidance.

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