A report released this week by a Spanish judge illuminates one of the most pressing questions arising from both the bombings in Madrid and, later, in London: Did Al Qaeda operatives direct these assaults on Europe, or simply inspire them?
The 1,470-page summary by investigative magistrate Juan del Olmo indicates that the Madrid bombers were actually members of an independent network of Salafist radicals active in North Africa, and that Osama bin Laden's organization merely exercised a kind of guiding influence. This week it was reported that British officials have determined the London bombers were also an autonomous cell that drew little more than inspiration from Al Qaeda.
With his findings, Judge Del Olmo formally indicted 29 men for their role in the March 11, 2004, attack which killed 191, and injured more than 1,500 others. Many questions remain unanswered as the case heads to trial, though the initial findings confirm the emerging understanding about how Islamist cells in Europe operate.
"The summary reinforces what we know about how the jihadists work," says Manuel Torres Soriano, professor of political science at Pablo de Olavide University in Seville. "We know that personal ties directly influence how a cell forms. And we know that the Internet is important.... Some of the Madrid bombers would show up at meetings with their laptops to download jihadist videos."
The 29 indicted include 15 Moroccans, four other Arabs, a Syrian with Spanish nationality, and nine Spaniards. Six of the men have been charged with mass murder or conspiring to mass murder, including Jamal Zougam, who allegedly supplied the cellphones that detonated the bombs, and José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, a Spanish mine worker who helped secure the dynamite used in the explosives. The remaining 23 named in the summary are indicted on charges that range from collaborating with a terrorist organization to trafficking in explosives.
Del Olmo indicates that most of the actual bombers killed themselves in an explosion outside Madrid three weeks after the initial attacks.
"It's a conservative document," says Mr. Torres. "It only indicts those for whom there is solid evidence."
Del Olmo writes that for jihadists like the North Africans who made up the Madrid group, "the ties of trust, friendship, and family played a crucial role at the moment they integrated themselves into a jihadist group or network. In many cases, the personal relationships came first, and then the radical ideology."
While the summary does not argue for Al Qaeda's direct involvement, it does point to the organization's influence. Though it is difficult to sort out precisely what "inspires" terrorist acts, Del Olmo draws notable attention to a document that appeared on a Global Islamic Media Front website, which is considered a platform for Al Qaeda and was frequented by many of the Madrid bombers. The website argued that attacks on Spain could cause a withdrawal from Iraq, as the war was widely unpopular with the Spanish public.
Javier Jordán, a terrorism expert at the University of Granada, sees other signs of Al Qaeda influence. "The strategy used in both Madrid and London is the same strategy that Al Qaeda uses: massive, simultaneous attacks. And they see themselves as fighting for the same goals."
Spanish authorities have said that the cell was initially formed under the direction of Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a Syrian who was arrested in 2001 and now is serving jail time for ties to Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Madrid bombers regrouped under the leadership of a Tunisian and a Moroccan, neither of whom had any direct links to the top leadership of Al Qaeda, according to Del Olmo. The report noted a trend of Moroccans and Algerians teaming up in radical groups in Spain. "It is a very noteworthy change, given that until relatively recently Algerian groups in Spain were homogenous in so far as nationality, and the relationship between Moroccan and Algerian jihadists was scarce," wrote Del Olmo.
The bombers absorbed much of that ideology and learned their bombmaking skills, according to the summary, from the Internet. "The bomb is extremely simple ... [and the detonating system] could be found in any manual on electronics, terrorism, or sabotage," the judge wrote.
With the summary issued, the judicial process will now move into an intermediary phase in which both prosecutors and defendants have the right to respond to the initial findings. The actual trial of those indicted likely will not begin for several more months, or perhaps even a year.
The report's details, pieces of which have been made public over the past two years, could spur along government efforts. The summary notes that Spanish intelligence had uncovered evidence prior to March 11, 2004, that attacks were being planned. This may prompt more calls for better communication, something the government has already been working on by uniting intelligence gathering agencies and appointing a single counterterrorism oversight committee.
Del Olmo's report has raised some concerns. Angeles Dominguez, president of the Association to Aid March 11th Victims, doubts that all the facts have been uncovered and hopes the investigation will continue. "We want the truth, not just as victims, but as citizens," she says. "A massacre of this size isn't carried out by just a few delinquents."