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Spain: Rapid Progress Under Way In Madrid Bombing Arrests

Spain appears to be making rapid progress in its efforts to capture the terrorists responsible for the Madrid bombings. Sixteen suspects are now in custody, and another five -- including the suspected ringleaders -- appear to have committed suicide rather than submit to arrest. Spanish authorities say they believe the core of that particular group is now shattered. But how can they be sure that more terrorists are not awaiting their moment to make fresh attacks?

Prague, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Spanish authorities have acted decisively to smash the terrorist cell thought to be behind the Madrid train bombings of 11 March.

Barely three weeks after a series of explosions killed 191 people, the authorities are holding 16 suspects, the latest of whom is a Moroccan detained on 2 April.

Another five terrorists blew themselves up in an apartment building on 3 April rather than surrender to police. Among the dead were two men thought to be ringleaders. One was Jamal Ahmidan, who the Interior Ministry believes was the "brains" behind the 11 March bombings. The other was Serhane ben Abdelmajid Farkhet.

Spanish police do not rule out that some other terror suspects may have escaped from the building before it was blown up. But Interior Minister Angel Acebes expressed confidence in remarks to journalists in Madrid on 4 April.

“So, after all the arrests we have made and yesterday's explosion, the core group of those who carried out the [March 11 Madrid train bombings] have been detained or died in the collective suicide,” Acebes said.

It is unclear, however, whether Acebes’s optimism is justified. The day after he spoke, a message purportedly from Al-Qaeda threatened new attacks that would "make blood flow like rivers" in Spain unless it quickly withdrew its troops from Iraq and stayed out of Afghanistan.

It is notable that practically all of the suspects in the Madrid bombing are from North Africa, especially Morocco and Tunisia. These countries, with their autocratic regimes and difficult economic conditions, would seem ideal recruiting grounds for extremists.

Peter Zervakis is a senior European affairs analyst at Bonn University’s Center for European Integration. He said events in Spain show that the European Union must do more to help North Africa to develop politically and economically if it is to deal with the deeper causes of terrorism. He said the current focus on improving security is not enough.

“If we are thinking only of our own security, narrowly defined, to make us safe from attack by means of closer cooperation with the security [apparatus of the North African countries], then this will actually stimulate and increase the extremist activity [for instance] in Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria,” Zervakis said.

The European Union already has a program in place – the Barcelona process – to help the North African countries develop. But this has advanced only haltingly.

Zervakis said most of the blame for this can be place at the door of the North African governments themselves, which he called semi-dictatorial regimes. He said that must change if a long-term solution is to be found.

“As I see it, the problem is not to act using the methods of a police state, but instead to bring the [North African] states to legitimize their power through democratic means, and to give their civilian societies a stronger degree of autonomy,” Zervakis said.

Only that way, he said, can the frustrations of the local populations be defused and the ground pulled from beneath the feet of extremists.

Of course, North Africa is far from the only potential source of terrorists that Europe faces. The European Union, which is on the eve of expansion to a total of 25 countries, must do more to monitor its own internal situation.

The EU's new counterterrorism chief, Dutchman Gijs de Vries, took office in Brussels last week. His job is to improve coordination in the fight against terrorism.

He will head a new task force that will collect and analyze intelligence and coordinate EU-wide action. This is a delicate job, and analysts say it won't be easy to coax national governments into sharing high-level information with other members whose security apparatus is not seen as leak-proof.

The European dimension to terror is illustrated by the fact that France says it is holding more than a dozen suspected members of the same Moroccan Islamic group that Spain says carried out the Madrid bombings. The suspects were arrested on suspicion of links to attacks in Morocco last year and are not being directly linked to the Spanish attacks.