New Year’s Eve 2003 was a working night for Jamal Ahmidan. The 33-year-old had drifted in and out of Spain for more than a decade, breaching the narrow Strait of Gibraltar to enter illegally from his native Morocco. Though he was known to Spanish police as a dealer of hash and ecstasy, he was generally considered a small-time delinquent. But Ahmidan had a taste for vengeance, which explains why he walked into a bar in Bilbao last New Year’s to confront Larbi Raichi, a fellow drug dealer who owed him money. Without a word, Ahmidan, known by his nickname “El Chino,” shot Raichi in the kneecap and walked out.
At the time, the encounter seemed an unremarkable example of the violent score settling that is typical in the drug underworld. But the shooting may have held ominous clues to a sinister plot. Spanish authorities now believe that Ahmidan and a group of associates–many of them fellow Moroccans who had immigrated to Spain–had been using profits from drug sales to finance jihadist terrorism. Their activity culminated in Madrid last March 11, when bombs hidden in backpacks exploded on four suburban trains, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,500. Three weeks later, Ahmidan stood in a circle with six other terrorists–four other Moroccans, a Tunisian and an Algerian–in their safe house in the Madrid suburb of LeganÃƒs, reciting a martyr’s chant. Surrounded by police, they detonated a powerful explosive charge, killing one Spanish policeman and blowing themselves to pieces.
The profane was never far from a twisted notion of the sacred in the genesis of the Madrid attack, which Spain commemorated last week. After a year of investigation, Spanish police and their European colleagues are still unraveling the main threads of a conspiracy that has proved wider and more destructive than previously suspected. The cell behind the March 11 attacks is also believed to have planted a bomb that failed to explode on the tracks of a Spanish high-speed train, and its members were planning to blow up a shopping center. Officials in New York City said this month that a crude sketch of Grand Central Terminal was found in the apartment of one of the suspects, though it is not believed to be “an operational plan.” Perhaps most worrisome, counterterrorism officials say, is that the attacks may signal a tide of rising extremism among the Continent’s Moroccan population, which is the largest Arab group in such countries as Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Of the 22 people still being held in jail, 15 are Moroccans. In recent years, the intense police scrutiny paid to other Arab populations in Europe, as well as the flow of drugs through Morocco, has led terrorist organizers to step up their recruitment of Moroccans, long viewed as minor players in the global jihad. A member of Hofstad, an extremist group composed largely of young ethnic Moroccans, is accused of the November murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. A total of 13 of the terrorist-group members have been arrested by Dutch police so far. Similar sweeps have led to arrests in France and Belgium, where at least a dozen members of a suspected Moroccan terrorist cell have been jailed over the past year. Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, says that 80% to 90% of those arrested since 2003 on terrorism charges are Moroccan. Says a French investigator: “The days of not worrying about Morocco are over.”
Counterterrorism officials say they are increasingly concerned about the influence of the loosely organized Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a fraternity of extremists rooted in Morocco with ties to both al-Qaeda and many suspected terrorists in Europe, including the Madrid bombers. But authorities don’t know the full scope of the threat, in part because Moroccan radicals are adept at hiding in plain sight. According to a French antiterrorism investigator, cell members in Europe have successfully exploited the reputation of Moroccans as hardworking and willing to assimilate. “They work hard at day jobs and family lives that provide total cover for clandestine activity,” says the investigator.
While not the leader of the Madrid cell, El Chino–wise to the lay of the land and brimming with criminal energy–typified the advantages of local knowledge. He grew up in a poor quarter of the northern Moroccan city of TetuÃƒn. Like his older brothers and thousands of other young Moroccans, he saw his future in Europe, and in 1990, at age 19, he went to Madrid illegally. He started dealing hash and living the life of a hard-drinking, drug-using petty criminal.
In the late 1990s, according to a senior Spanish counterterrorism official, Ahmidan started developing ties to a group led by Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (also known as Abu Dahdah). Yarkas had set up an al-Qaeda-linked network in Spain that turned to local Moroccans whose talents for petty crime–drug dealing, credit-card fraud and minor theft–could be marshaled on the spot to the cause of financing jihad. El Chino plied his low-life trade in the bustling neighborhood of LavapiÃƒs. In April 2000, according to the official, the Moroccan was placed in a Madrid detention center for illegal aliens prior to deportation. “He set himself up as an imam and told the guards he would come back and kill them,” says the official. “No one took him seriously then, but he already had quite a following.”
A subsequent prison stint in Morocco fueled Ahmidan’s zealotry. After slipping back into Spain in 2002 using a forged Belgian passport, he continued selling hash and ecstasy, but he had stopped using drugs himself. El Chino had become an adherent of jihadist principles that allow followers to push drugs on infidels as long as those efforts serve the holy cause. His drug ties made him valuable to his comrades: before Madrid, according to the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime, profits from the Moroccan hash trade–worth an estimated $12.5 billion annually–helped finance an aborted attack on a U.S. Navy ship in Gibraltar in 2002 and a suicide attack in Casablanca in 2003. A senior European antiterrorism investigator says terrorists have infiltrated around two-thirds of Morocco’s hashish trade.
Spanish investigators say in the months leading up to March 11, El Chino became the plot’s middleman. He grew up in the same neighborhood as two of the other bombers, and Spanish investigators believe he was the link to Jamal Zougam, who provided the cell phones that sparked the detonators for the backpack bombs. He secured from a Spanish ex-miner the bulk of the Goma-2 Eco explosives used in the attacks, paid for with drugs and drug proceeds. Under a pseudonym, El Chino took over the lease on a small country cottage in a village near ChinchÃƒn, southeast of Madrid. It was there that he and his team gathered the explosives, practiced their bombmaking, and finally assembled the 10 bombs with their telephone detonators that were deployed on March 11.
The shock of the attacks continues to reverberate across Europe and Morocco, a society that takes pride in its reputation for moderation and tolerance. King Mohammed VI, who was in Madrid last week to attend the unveiling of a monument to the March 11 victims, has spoken out strongly against the terrorists, calling them “villains” who have tarnished the Muslim faith. But counterterrorism experts say the kingdom’s autocratic political system may be driving more young Moroccans into the hands of clerics who preach the concept of al-ghazwah, or incursion into enemy territory. “March 11 was an important precedent,” says a senior Spanish counterterrorism official. “Now Moroccans know that they can do it. Others may use that self-confidence to do it again.” If so, Europe may be only beginning to reap the legacy of El Chino.