According to a usually reliable French investigator and author, Spanish authorities are now convinced that the Madrid massacre was organized by our old friend, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi has also been credited for being one of the major organizers of the terror war against the Coalition in Iraq, and was named by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his presentation to the Security Council prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom as a key al Qaeda leader, with ties to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
A busy and very wicked man, in short.
As memories are short, let’s review the bidding on Zarqawi. I first wrote about him here on December 12, 2002, when I came across an article in the German newspaper Die Zeit. That article cited court documents drawn from the depositions of a Palestinian terrorist who was cooperating with German authorities. The terrorist revealed that Zarqawi wore several hats: He was a top officer of al Qaeda, and the leader of a terrorist group known as al Tawhid, and he lived and worked in Tehran. He noted that Zarqawi was a key figure in the “reorganized al Qaeda” (reorganized after the debacle in Afghanistan) and was “one of the major coordinators of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in Europe.”
Al Qaeda’s Iranian connection led German investigators to another important discovery: Al Qaeda and Hezbollah–arguably the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations–were working hand in glove. Die Zeit said that German intelligence had become aware of meetings between Osama bin Laden and Hezbollah’s chief of operations, Imad Mughniyah.
A few months after I wrote that article, documents surfaced in Italian court cases that showed Zarqawi’s involvement in terrorist networks in Milan and other northern Italian cities. And just last week, the Corriere della Sera reported that Zarqawi’s name had surfaced in recent investigations into al Qaeda’s efforts to recruit radical Muslims in Italy for guerrilla and suicide attacks in Iraq. And, like the German documents, the Italian evidence led straight back to Tehran, whence Zarqawi had issued orders to his agents in Italy.
As NRO noted at the time, Secretary Powell’s speech to the Security Council actually proved more than the administration wished, since Powell was only trying to justify action against Iraq, and did not mention the Iran connection. But now that Zarqawi’s name has surfaced in connection with Madrid, anyone who is serious about waging war against terrorism must find a way to deal effectively with the mullahcracy in Tehran.
The Corriere della Sera carried extensive excerpts from an interview with an al Qaeda terrorist currently serving time in an Italian prison, and if he is to be believed, a lot of the conventional wisdom on al Qaeda is gravely misleading. The man in question–a Tunisian identified as “Ahmed”–was actively involved in planning massive bombing attacks in Italy many months before September 11, 2001. One of these schemes was discovered by Italian intelligence in October of that year, leading to several arrests and the shattering of “Ahmed’s” group. Another was foiled by Tunisian authorities, but the terrorists in North Africa had already sent a shipment of explosives to Italy, which has still not been found.
“Ahmed” also spoke of plans as early as January, 2000, to bomb the main railroad station in Milan on one of the busiest days of the year–December 24, for example. The creation of a clandestine terrorist network capable of such operations had begun in 1997.
These revelations have apparently been confirmed by Italian authorities, who have efficiently dismantled a series of terrorist cells all over the country, even as they warn that terrorist attacks on Italian soil are likely. They remember that Spanish intelligence officials were murdered in Iraq several months before the Madrid bombings, and that Italian carabinieri were killed in a suicide bombing in Nasiriyah a few months ago.
But there are broader, and far more important conclusions to be drawn from the recent information coming from Spain and Italy. For if “Ahmed” is telling the truth, then the targeting of European cities has nothing at all to do with the liberation of Iraq, or European support for American foreign policy, or even with the nature of the government in one European country or another. In 1997, when “Ahmed” began his work, Italy had a left-wing government, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was six years away.
As I have been arguing for many years now, September 11 did not mark a watershed in the terror war against the West. That war is properly dated to September, 1979, when the Aytaollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, branded the United States “the great Satan,” and declared war against us. Iran continued to wage that war through the Beirut bombings and hostage seizures of the mid-80s–conducted by the Iranian surrogate, Hezbollah–and collected allies along the way, including al Qaeda.
Today Iran is either on the verge of, or has actually accomplished the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and is speeding ahead on bigger and better delivery systems. Yet Western policy toward Iran is either feckless or eager appeasement. Each revelation of the Iranian hand in terrorism is either ignored or shrugged off, and each new discovery of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is greeted with disappointment as action is postponed to the next meeting of the toothless International Atomic Energy Agency.
No wonder that, as the news of the Madrid bloodbath reached Tehran, a celebration was held in the residence of the Supreme Leader, and the turbaned rulers congratulated Ali Khamenei on the great event.
Instead of debating the details of past failures, our leaders should devote their energies to preventing the next September 11, which, you can be quite sure, is receiving enthusiastic support from our self-proclaimed enemies in the Islamic republic of Iran.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.