WASHINGTON, April 5 (UPI) -- One reason the conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar lost the March 14 elections to the socialists was its evasiveness in pinning the train bombings three days earlier on Islamic militants. But it was Aznar who got the last word on Saturday when five suspects blew themselves up in an apartment building in the Madrid suburb of Leganes following a shootout with Spanish security forces.
Among the dead -- according to Spanish officials -- was the man who planned the devastation at three Madrid commuter rail stations that claimed 191 lives and injured more than1,800 people. He was named as Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, 35, and was known as "The Tunisian" after his country of origin. Also identified by forensic experts was Jamal Ahmidan, known as "El Chino," who is thought to have been another of the ringleaders.
"The core group of those who carried out the terrorist act have either been detained, or died in the collective suicide," Angel Acebes, the outgoing interior minister, declared Sunday.
In the immediate aftermath of the March 11 attack, Acebes had stoked public anger by insisting for too long on a Basque separatist connection despite mounting evidence to the contrary. But the apparent collective suicide in Leganes of those who had planned it brought a grim closure of sorts. Politically, it also restored some credibility to Aznar's badly bruised Popular Party -- and robbed the socialists of the credit of making the arrests themselves once they assumed power on April 18.
But Spanish analysts say socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is still going to have to confront a double threat -- Islamist extremists on the rise both in Spain and perhaps throughout Europe, and ETA, the militant Basque separatist organization, weakened by recent arrests but still a real threat.
For years, terrorism experts believed that Islamist extremists would stop short of large scale attacks in Europe because Europe was where many of them lived, lost in the large immigrant communities in many European cities. It was also where they planned their devastating attacks elsewhere -- in the United States, Turkey and Africa. But that argument ended with the bombings of the trains in three Madrid commuter train stations.
The Leganes shootout was not the end but a beginning -- a further indication of a new Islamist militant campaign of violence. Saturday's gunbattle was the first of its kind in a European capital between security forces and the alleged Islamist operatives. The collective suicide bombing involving the five suspects was another first for Europe. When Spanish police, addressing the group through the locked door of the apartment, called on them to surrender, they replied, "Allah-u-akbar, and we are going to die killing."
Spanish officials have not revealed what led to the raid on the apartment in Leganes in the first place, but the Madrid newspaper El Pais reported Sunday that the security forces had traced the hideout from the cell phones used to detonate the explosives. Surrounding buildings were evacuated, and the local railway station was closed down. Press reports said police exchanged intermittent fire for about two hours with the occupants of one of the apartments.
Late Saturday evening members of GEO, the Spanish special security forces stormed the apartment, and the suspects set off an explosive device that destroyed the apartment, and them with it. One policeman was also killed in the blast and 15 others were injured. Debris and body parts were hurled 60 yards into the street.
Police found explosives and detonators in the building, suggesting that the group had other attacks planned. On Friday, a Spanish railway worker discovered a bomb under the tracks used by the Madrid-Seville high-speed train, and security officials said the explosive material was Goma 2 Eco, identical to that used on March 11.
On Monday police said they were concentrating their efforts on hunting down three suspects who are believed to have escaped from the apartment during the confrontation. Meanwhile, however, two more arrests are reported, one in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the Moroccan mainland, and the other near Leganes to add to the 15 already under arrest -- 11 of them Moroccans.
Acebes said the authorities were focusing on the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, known as the GICM, as the main organization responsible for the bombings in Madrid, and Spanish analysts say the group has at least a loose affiliation with Osama bin Laden's group al-Qaida. The linkage is associated with some of the suspects still being sought. Judge Juan del Olmo, the Spanish high court judge in charge of the case, has issued an international warrant for Moroccan Abdelkarim Mejjati, the French-educated presumed GICM leader who is married to an American woman. Mejjati is said to have held a senior post with al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
For years police action against Islamist extremists in Europe was conducted in fits and starts, usually reacting to an attack in another part of the world. But "the theology of death" -- as the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera called it Sunday -- familiar from the Palestinian-Israeli, and Lebanon before that, and first seen in the West in the simultaneous attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, has come to Europe. Now there is M-11, a date as deeply seared in Spanish minds as 9/11 is in the United States.
Suicide attacks are "the duty of every mujahed (fighter), every true militant," said Corriere della Sera, "a duty learned from reading the texts written in the Afghan camps and in the schools of hate run by the prophets of Jihad: endless nightly sessions dedicated to indoctrination, listening to stories of the feats of other mujaheddin."
In Spain, Islamist militants operated unnoticed because Spanish intelligence was obsessed with ETA, the militant Basque separatist organization, analysts said. But M-11 was a wake-up call not just for Spain, but for all of Europe. In Italy, in what Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu called "a preventive operation," police this weekend screened 161 Muslims, mainly Moroccans, for possible links with terrorism. Out of 90 detained for further questioning, 15 are to be deported and one -- a Moroccan -- was placed under arrest.
In France, Paris police arrested 13 people suspected of links to the GCIM. But the arrests were made in connection with the deadly bombings in Casablanca last year which killed at least 33 people.
The ostensible reason for the March 11 attack was the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq, and Aznar's support for the Bush administration's war. Zapatero, who opposed the war in the first place, has said he will pull Spanish troops out of Iraq unless they become part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Yet Spaniards are under no illusion that a Spanish pullout will end the Islamist threat.
Every European country is now a potential target, El Pais said Monday. "The madness of the Jihadists moves along more imprecise coordinates," the paper said in an editorial. "The new European Union must overcome national differences, cultural misgivings and political mistrust to face the greatest threat to its democratic foundations, as this blind Jihadist terror highlights the absurdity of boundaries between the national and the international. Its menacing age-old doctrine makes us all passengers on the same ship."