by Jalal Ghazi
(PNS) -- Evidence that an Al Qaeda-linked group may have been behind the Madrid train attack, and an analysis of statements by Al Qaeda leaders in Arab media suggest that the terrorist organization may be shifting its focus from overthrowing Arab regimes to attacking a range of Western governments it perceives as hostile.
After days of speculation about whether Al Qaeda or the Basque separatist group ETA were behind the deadly train attacks in Madrid, police in Spain have placed a Moroccan man in custody and are looking for several others. Jamal Zougam, the arrested man, is described as a follower of Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the alleged ringleader of Al Qaeda in Spain.
Missed by most media in the furor over the Spanish attacks was a statement by an Arab-Afghan commander warning Russians on the eve of that country's elections that if they elect someone who pursues attacks on Chechnya, then the Russians, in effect, are declaring war on the Chechens and would be targets for attacks.
Al-Jazeera television showed Abu al-Walid, a Saudi born commander, dressed in a military uniform with long hair and a beard and speaking from what he described as a Chechen forest hideout. At one point he picked up a "butterfly" mine, saying that hundreds, if not thousands, of such explosives were found in Chechen forests, dropped there by Russian aircraft. The mines kill and maim not just Chechen fighters but also ordinary people who forage for wood in the winter.
"The enemies of God drop mines in the forests and, God willing, we will return them to the Russians and they will find them on their land and in the midst of their families," Walid said. From his statements it is clear that Al Qaeda is not only fighting with the Chechens, but speaking for them as well.
In Spain, the tone was much more clearly of a payback for Spain's support of the American-led invasion of Iraq. Al Qaeda's name came up when the Spanish police discovered a van with explosives and a tape of the Koran. Al Quds Al Arabi, a newspaper based in London, announced that it had received a statement signed by the Abu Hafs Al Masri Brigades, who have declared their allegiance to Al Qaeda. The statement described the operation as the "trains of death."
Al Alalam television, a 24-hour news television based in Tehran, aired an image of the three-page statement, underlining the following link in red: "Aznar (the outgoing Spanish Prime Minister), where is America? Who will protect you, the British, Japan and Italy from us?"
The statement, which was also aired by the Hezbollah-run Al Manar Television in Beirut, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Spain and for the March 9 bomb attack on a Masonic lodge in the Istanbul that killed one person and injured six.
This has led some analysts to speculate that there might be a marriage of convenience between Al-Qaeda and some splinter group of ETA, both of whom had a common enemy in Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his Popular party.
These analysts point out that the attack had the hallmark of a large scale 9/11 or Bali-bombing style Al Qaeda operation, though it used methods more common to the ETA, such as dynamite instead of suicide bombers.
"Strange bedfellows like a radical splinter group from ETA and even the Italian Red Brigade may find it feasible to collaborate with Al Qaeda," says Paolo Pontoniere, U.S. correspondent for Focus, Italy's leading monthly magazine. Even if such alliances have not yet occurred, Pontoniere says, they could come about in the near future.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has also been issuing threats to the United States. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's second in command, said in a tape aired on Al-Jazeera on Feb. 25 that Bush should intensify his security measures because more attacks are coming.
He also disputed Bush's Jan. 20 State of the Union address, during which the president claimed two-thirds of Al Qaeda had been eliminated. Instead, Zuwahiri said that the Al Qaeda is expanding, and vowed that "Death Brigades" would carry out new terrorist attacks in the United States.
If what Zuwahari says is true, it means Al Qaeda is changing its focus from what was outlined by Bin Laden on Jan. 5, when he called on Arabs to concentrate on toppling their own "brutal" and "religiously unqualified" regimes. However, since that time the hunt for Bin Laden has intensified, and regime change does not seem to be making much headway among the mainly authoritarian regimes of the Arab world.
The warnings to Spain, Russia and the United States, combined with Al Qaeda's possible linkages to other militant groups suggest that the terrorist organization may now be widening its scope, both in the allies it seeks, and the targets it chooses.
March 16, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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