Saturday, March 10, 2007

Three years after bombs ripped through four Madrid trains, killing 191 people and injuring nearly 2,000, Spanish officials and experts say the country is potentially in more danger now than ever before as extremist groups reorganize just beyond Spain's southern coast.

As the trial began here last month, more arrests and prosecutions were announced, and senior officials say radicals in Morocco and other parts of northern Africa, many with ties to Spain, increasingly take their cues from Al Qaeda.

[...] Maghreb-based networks remain the most serious threat to Spain in terms of Islamic extremism, law enforcement officials said this week. They said militants had begun to set up a centralized command and a string of training camps in southern Algeria and northern Mali, and have launched recruiting efforts targeting their brethren who live in Spain.

"We are seeing the Al Qaeda-ization of the Maghreb militants, and that is the evolution that most worries us," a senior counter-terrorism official in the Spanish Interior Ministry said in an interview.

This metamorphosis, combined with the start of the 11-M trial and the anniversary of the attacks, has prompted authorities to raise the terrorism alert level nationwide, the official said.

Nearly 300 suspected Islamic militants have been arrested in Spain since the attacks. Roughly 80% are from the Maghreb, according to a study by Madrid's Elcano Royal Institute.

Last month, Ayman Zawahiri, the purported No. 2 in Al Qaeda, called on Islamic radicals in the Maghreb to "raise the flag of jihad" over North Africa and Spain "to once again feel the soil of Al Andalus beneath your feet," according to transcripts. Al Andalus refers to that part of Spain controlled by Muslim forces for seven centuries until their expulsion by a Roman Catholic army in 1492.