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Mastermind of madrid { July 29 2004 }

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Shadow man suspected as terror mastermind

By Liz Sly
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published July 29, 2004

MILAN, Italy -- When Spain asked Italy to trace the Egyptian owner of an Italian cell phone number found in the possession of a suspect in the March terrorist attacks in Madrid, the Italians readily complied.

When they started listening in on Rabei Osman Ahmed el Sayed's conversations on the telephone and, even more revealingly, in his bugged apartment on the outskirts of Milan, they were astonished.

Whoever Sayed was, it quickly became clear that he might be an important figure. Others addressed him deferentially as "sheik." He said he was running an operation to smuggle volunteer fighters from Europe into Iraq. He described himself as "the thread that connects Madrid." He was involved in planning other attacks, one of which was apparently imminent.

"We realize we have something different than we had in other cases," said Armando Spataro, Milan's chief prosecutor. "There is a distinct sensation that we are dealing with someone of a certain weight."

Police would have liked to have listened in longer, to find out more about this mysterious operator also known as "Mohammed the Egyptian." But since preparations for an unspecified attack appeared to be gathering pace, they arrested him June 8 along with more than a dozen of his contacts in Belgium and France in a series of coordinated raids.

Investigators still don't know where the attack was to have taken place or what it would have entailed. Sayed avoided mentioning details of the forthcoming "project" in his conversations and has not been cooperative.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising discovery was just how little authorities knew about him.

History a mystery

Here was a man who had lived in several European cities since 1999, who claimed and appeared to have a history and a leadership role in Al Qaeda, who spoke authoritatively about his activities as a recruiter, logistician and planner of attacks--and yet his name had not registered on the wanted lists of terrorist investigators anywhere in Europe.

"We don't know his past or all his travels in Europe. We know nothing about his group," Spataro said. "It's not so strange. Investigators in Europe know we're dealing with a new kind of terrorist structure, without a specific denomination or leadership."

Sayed, 33, is in custody in Milan, awaiting extradition to Madrid, where he faces charges in connection with the March 11 bombings of four commuter trains in which 199 people died and nearly 1,500 others were wounded. Spain has described him as "a very important person in Al Qaeda, in Spain and in the rest of the European Union."

In the meantime, Italian authorities are transcribing the hundreds of hours of conversations they recorded between April 29 and June 6, trying to learn more about Sayed and his connections.

The transcripts, some of which were obtained and translated by the Tribune, offer a revealing yet incomplete glimpse into the world of the clandestine terrorists that law-enforcement officials and political leaders repeatedly warn are out there, plotting attacks.

Details revealed

In his telephone calls, Sayed was circumspect, and without prior knowledge of his alleged ties to the Madrid attacks, his discussions with a man called Murad in Belgium about the "maps and the telephone numbers" for the operation due to take place "in 20 days" in an unnamed country might not have attracted attention.

Sayed didn't say much either in the apartment he first shared with a Muslim family in an upscale neighborhood of Milan, where he introduced himself as a house painter.

But toward the end of May he moved in with a protege, Ragheh Yahia, 22, an Egyptian who had recently arrived in Italy and also was arrested. It was clear that Yahia came to Europe to volunteer for a suicide attack, investigators said.

In their conversations, Sayed opened up, talking about his role in Al Qaeda, offering the recruit advice on how to dodge the authorities and extolling the virtues of martyrdom. He also frequently urged caution.

"You watch out for the telephone because they'll discover us, and they'll discover the others that are preparing," he warned Yahia, seemingly unaware that his apartment might also be bugged.

Some of what law-enforcement officials heard was so startling that they wondered whether Sayed was merely bragging, and most of what he talks about has not been proved. But his links to the Madrid attacks appear real, investigators said, and so his other claims should not be dismissed.

His phone number has been tied to at least two suspected bombers, and an eyewitness said he was at the house where the explosives used in the attacks were prepared.

In one conversation, Sayed is heard telling Yahia about a new weapon, in the form of a hair dryer, to be used in an attack against America.

"I've seen this hair dryer that throws out air which suffocates people and causes the most horrible death imaginable," he said, according to the transcript.

The attack will come "in a year, or maybe two," he promised. "We'll start with the Americans and finish off with the horrible Jews."

On another occasion, he spoke with regret of a planned attack in America that had apparently been foiled after the discovery of Hotaf, a female operative. "You throw a stick, and an entire American neighborhood is wiped out," he said, describing the apparently thwarted attack. He assured Yahia that others will take her place.

`Never say anything'

"There is something I shall not hide from you," Sayed confided at one point to Yahia. "The attack in Madrid was my project and those who died as martyrs were my dear friends. This project cost me a lot of study and patience. It took me 2 1/2 years."

He added: "You be careful. Never say anything and never talk."

He spoke casually but incompletely about other operations. A cell in Holland had fallen apart. There were two groups "who are ready for martyrdom. The first group is departing on the 20th or the 21st of next month for Iraq via Syria," he said, without mentioning what the second group was to do. He boasts about the "dealers and criminals" he recruited for suicide attacks.

"I let them know the faith and now they are the first to ask me when is the moment for jihad," he said. "Some have already gone to Afghanistan and others are praying and waiting."

He also teaches his protege how to obtain false documents, endorsing marriage to Europeans as the best way to get a fail-safe passport.

"Everything is allowed, including marrying Christian women, because we need their documents," he explained. "We have to be everywhere, in Germany, Holland, London. We are dominating Europe with our presence."

Yet although he referred to himself as a member of Al Qaeda, the transcripts do not indicate Sayed named any known Al Qaeda leaders. That reinforces investigators' impression that Al Qaeda has evolved into an ill-defined collection of like-minded individuals who don't need direction or owe allegiance to specific groups.

Investigators believe Sayed is typical of a new breed of Al Qaeda operative, a middleman answerable to no one, who has taken upon himself the multiple tasks involved in staging attacks.

He appeared to be a lone operator, moving between cities and working with different groups.

"I move alone; they work in a group," he said of the Madrid bombers.

From what little investigators have been able to piece together about his past, Sayed went first to Germany, where he claimed political asylum in 1999 as a Palestinian refugee. According to German news reports, he briefly attracted the attention of the authorities there with his radical preaching in the town of Saarbrucken. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the authorities checked on his whereabouts, but he had left the country.

Apparently, he went to Spain, where he linked up with a group of militants, some of whom would later form the core group that bombed the trains in Madrid.

"In Spain he had a recognized charisma," said an investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The ones who participated in the Madrid attacks were the ones who had fallen under his influence."

The Spanish police noticed him, but he dropped out of sight again, moving briefly to Paris. In 2003, he may have visited Jordan; in one conversation he describes spending time there organizing the flow of foreign fighters across the border into Iraq. By early 2004, he was back in Spain, helping plan the Madrid attacks.

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune

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