Webster Commission gets 2004 Madrid train bombings wrong

Last week, I wrote about the Webster Commission’s final report on the Nov. 5, 2009 Fort Hood shootings. The report contains transcriptions of Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s emails to al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

There is no evidence in the emails that Awlaki responded in any meaningful way to Hasan’s requests. For instance, Hasan inquired about the permissibility of suicide bombings that kill innocent bystanders and also asked Awlaki about American Muslim soldiers who turn on their colleagues in the military. The latter question was posed in Hasan’s very first email to Awlaki. The Webster Commission rightly concluded that the message “suggested that a US soldier was seeking [Awlaki’s] advice on committing violence against fellow soldiers.” The FBI missed this clue, concluding that Hasan’s emails were “consistent” with his research as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Medical Center.

I think the Webster Commission’s general reading of Hasan’s emails to Awlaki, and Awlaki’s two trivial responses, is basically right. However, the commission also makes a mistake when describing “lone actors,” such as Hasan, who are unconnected in any meaningful way to an organized terrorist network. Namely, the commission concludes that the 2004 Madrid train bombings are a good example of this phenomenon.

I’ll quote from the report at length here so readers can see the full context [emphasis added]:

Lone actors can pass through the four stages of radicalization with little or no personal contact with a leader or another violent radical – and thus without conventional accomplices, co-conspirators, or handlers. Evolving communications technologies – most notably, the Internet – play an increasingly weighty role in the phenomenon of the lone actor. Radical voices can provide leadership via the Internet at each stage of radicalization, including a call to action for individuals who have no other association with them. For example, the al-Qaeda Internet treatise Iraqi Jihad, Hopes and Risks was the apparent inspiration for the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

The Internet can provide individuals with remote, yet regular, access to the teachings and instructions of violent radical leaders, supplanting the real-world meeting places traditionally used to radicalize – and traditionally used by the FBI to detect violent radicalization. The Internet also offers exposure to extraordinary amounts of information at little or no cost; the ability to join and participate in virtual networks of like-minded individuals, finding the group identity that is part of radicalization; and, of course, the potential for shrouding identities.

This is a flagrant misreading of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which were executed not by “individuals who have no other association” with “[r]adical voices” other than through the Internet. The Madrid attacks were executed by numerous individuals who had substantive, longstanding roles in both al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s affiliates.

Consider the background of just one of the key plotters.

The cellphones used to detonate the Madrid attackers’ backpack bombs were procured by a Moroccan man named Jamal Zougam. For years, Zougam was the right-hand man for Imad Yarkas, one of al Qaeda’s most important pre-9/11 leaders in Europe.

Yarkas was convicted on terrorism charges for his role in heading al Qaeda in Spain and sentenced to prison. Yarkas, according to pre-9/11 transcripts of his phone calls, clearly had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. That is how important he was to al Qaeda. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Spanish authorities couldn’t piece together a case against Zougam, even though there was abundant evidence concerning his al Qaeda role. So, Zougam kept plotting. After the Madrid train attacks, Zougam was convicted of mass murder.

I have written more about Zougam and his co-conspirators previously, so I won’t repeat it all here. The bottom line is that any cursory investigation of the Madrid train bombers shows not only extensive ties to Yarkas’s Spanish al Qaeda cell, but also al Qaeda’s affiliate in Morocco at the time (the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group — known by its French acronym, the GICM) and a senior al Qaeda ideologue named Abu Qatada. There are even more ties to Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a key member of the al Qaeda joint venture, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq network.

The Webster Commission’s description of “lone actors” fits Hasan, as far as we know. It does not fit the 2004 Madrid Train bombers. I only point this out because it is a recurring problem in law enforcement circles. Attacks such as those in Madrid and the 7/7 bombings in London are too often considered the acts of “lone wolves” or unconnected “homegrown extremists” when, in reality, al Qaeda was responsible. (The 7/7 attackers were trained by senior al Qaeda operatives in northern Pakistan.)

The al Qaeda Internet treatise cited by the Webster Commission did indeed play a role in Madrid attacks. That document set forth al Qaeda’s strategy for driving Spain out of the coalition in Iraq. Al Qaeda’s plan worked.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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