Fugitive seen as link between 9/11, Madrid
International counterterrorism authorities are looking for a Moroccan fugitive who may have attended a pivotal meeting with the Sept. 11 plotters and is believed to have played a logistical role in the train bombings last year in Madrid, Spain.
The fugitive, Amer Azizi, appears to connect a group of terror operatives and may exemplify al-Qaida's decentralization — a trend about which U.S. intelligence officials have warned.
New information from federal authorities indicates Azizi may have provided lodging to people involved in the backpack bombings of the Spanish commuter trains, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Coming days before Spain's national elections in March, the attacks killed nearly 200 people and are considered largely responsible for the defeat of the conservative Popular Party.
One of the U.S. officials also said Azizi may have met with two Sept. 11 plotters — hijacker Mohamed Atta and coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh — in Spain in July 2001. Investigators are trying to determine Azizi's involvement in the meeting.
A Spanish judge has indicted Azizi on charges related to the 2001 attacks, including his role in providing lodging to the conspirators. According to the Sept. 11 Commission's final report, Binalshibh said during interrogation that he and Atta met with no one else during roughly 10 days in the Tarragona region of Spain.
Counterterrorism authorities are looking at Azizi, who may use the alias Othman al Andulusi, as a possible link in the attacks, the U.S. official said.
The 2001 meeting is considered an important planning session. Atta and Binalshibh discussed the timing of the attacks, whether to target the White House or other American icons and whether to use box cutters as weapons.
While al-Qaida has taken responsibility for the strikes against the United States, U.S. government officials say the Madrid attack appears to have been carried out by a group that shares al-Qaida's mind-set.
The possibility of ties to Osama bin Laden's network illustrates why U.S. intelligence leaders have warned in recent months that al-Qaida may be transforming itself from a once-consolidated network largely based in Afghanistan to a loose coalition of extremists around the globe.
In a report declassified this month, senior analysts at the National Intelligence Council warned that 15 years from now the United States may be dealing with an array of Muslim extremist groups, cells and individuals.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst with the RAND Corp., said people such as Azizi are becoming "an essential cog in the wheel" because they know local conditions. For instance, Tarragona is a tourist destination largely off the radar of Spanish law enforcement.
"Terrorism couldn't succeed without someone like Azizi. Otherwise you have either radical immigrant groups or foreign terrorists sort of stumbling around clueless and therefore ... leaving themselves much more vulnerable to interception or identification and apprehension," Hoffman said.
The U.S. officials and Spain's counterterrorism chief, Fernando Reinares, say Azizi may have served as a middleman or a facilitator between the local cell of mainly North African immigrants in Spain and bin Laden's network.
Reinares described al-Qaida as a nebulous group with three main components: al-Qaida itself, 20 to 30 associated groups and cells that pop up across the globe and "take it upon themselves to carry out an attack on their own."
"In the case of March 11 it is possible that to a large extent, all three came together," Reinares said last summer.
The Spanish government considers Azizi a suspect in the Madrid attacks. Counterterrorism Judge Baltasar Garzon also has indicted him on charges of helping to plan the Sept. 11 hijackings.
In an April indictment charging Azizi with multiple counts of murder, Garzon said Azizi assisted with the July 2001 meeting by providing lodging and acting as a courier to pass messages between plotters.
U.S. authorities are somewhat more cautious about his involvement in Sept. 11.
A U.S. official said Azizi was believed to be part of a Spanish organization known as the Barakat Yarkas Group — named after Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, the leader of an al-Qaida cell in Spain who was arrested in November 2001. But the official said they have yet to find evidence indicating Azizi or Yarkas were directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Late last year, the State Department offered $5 million for information leading to the capture of another man believed to oversee Azizi, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar. The al-Qaida operative ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
With his red hair, fair skin and Spanish citizenship, Nasar is thought to be of high-value to extremist Islamic causes because of his ability to blend in to Western society, a U.S. official said.
According to some earlier reports, Azizi may have connections to the top al-Qaida leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But now U.S. officials say there is no evidence of that.
Instead, al-Zarqawi and Nasar may have indirect connections through the higher echelons of the group.
U.S. officials would not say where Azizi or Nasar are believed to be.