The videotape that threw western intelligence services into a spin yesterday was found in a rubbish bin near a large, gleaming, Saudi-financed mosque that has links to al-Qaida.
The tape showed a man purporting to be al-Qaida's commander in Europe claiming responsibility for the Madrid bombings and issuing a chilling threat of further attacks against western targets. "You love life and we love death," he said.
Although the Spanish government yesterday called for caution in accepting the authenticity of the tape, suspicion over those responsible for the bombings shifted from the Basque separatist guerrillas Eta to al-Qaida. That view was shared by a British security source who said: "The wind is blowing in one direction."
Al-Qaida responsibility for the attacks would have huge implications for Europe. The Madrid bombings on March 11 would come to be seen as western Europe's equivalent of the September 11 attacks in the US. This raises issues about the effectiveness of the intelligence services in understanding and monitoring al-Qaida, and whether western intelligence was too quick to accept the initial judgment of the Spanish government in blaming Eta. It also raises the question of which country might be next, and whether the intelligence services have the capability to prevent further massacres.
One alarming reason why most western intelligence agencies appear to have accepted the theory that Eta was responsible was that they had no information about an increase in al-Qaida activity. They say there was no "chatter' - an increase in intercepted communications and other signs - to suggest an al-Qaida attack in Europe was imminent. "Our understanding of al-Qaida is not as it should be," one well-placed source admitted yesterday. "There was no tangible lead."
The tape found in the bin showed a man in Arab dress, speaking Arabic with a Moroccan accent and apparently identifying himself as Abu Dujan al-Afghani. He suggested the attacks in Madrid were retribution for the Spanish government's support for George Bush over the war in Iraq.
Establishing the authenticity of al-Qaida tapes is near-impossible. There was initial suspicion about this one because al-Qaida is normally slow - sometimes taking months, as over the September 11 attacks - to claim responsibility, and sometimes does not claim responsibility at all.
The Spanish interior minister, Angel Acebes, said the tape should be treated with caution: "Up to now we have not been able to identify the person in whose name responsibility for the attack was purportedly claimed. Our reservations about the credibility remain."
British intelligence sources too were suspicious of the claim of the man to be al-Qaida's European commander.
The title, "military spokesman" of al-Qaida in Europe, suggested some form of hierarchical structure. Yet the al-Qaida movement is an amorphous network of individuals with varying degrees of commitment to terrorist acts, unlike the IRA or Eta or other traditional groups, security and intelligence sources say.
But one independent commentator said it would be wrong to be overly suspicious of the tape. "It is not very strange," said Mustapha Alani, an Iraqi-born consultant to the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
Mr Alani, who said the Madrid bombings were likely to be the responsibility of increasingly active north African cells of al-Qaida, compared the claim in the Madrid tape with a another claim recorded by an al-Qaida group last month accepting responsibility for bombings in Saudi Arabia last year.
The Madrid tape surfaced after a call to the police from a regional broadcaster, Telemadrid, at 7.40pm local time saying that a man had called to tell them the tape was there. It was near the mosque called the M30 mosque by Madrileños because it overlooks the M30 ring road. It is known as a center in Madrid for Wahibi study, the sect from which al-Qaida originated. Some al-Qaida suspects in jail in Madrid had close contacts with the mosque.
In the highly charged politics of who knew what about the bombings, even the finding of the tape has become a matter of controversy. The suggestion is that the existence of the tape had been known well before 7.40pm. The head of news at Cadena SER radio station, Daniel Anido, said that two sources had told his journalists during the morning of the existence of a videotape. He said a third source had cast doubt on the report, so they had not aired it.
The shift of suspicion from Eta to al-Qaida was due to a combination of the discovery of the tape along with the arrest of five men, three of them Moroccans, identified by their government as Jamal Zougam, 30; Mohamed Bekkali, 31; and Mohamed Chaoui, 34. The other two were Indians, Vinay Kohly and Suresh Kumar.
The police said they would invoke Spain's anti-terrorism legislation to extend the period they can interrogate the men from three to five days. They are believed to have been arrested in connection with suspect mobile phones. Their involvement could turn out to be not terrorism but petty crime or even total innocence.
Al-Qaida has used Spain as a regular transit point and the country's proximity to north Africa has also meant ease of access for Algerian and Moroccan groups linked to al-Qaida.
There was a further twist to the al-Qaida connection yesterday. On the same morning that the bombs struck, one Madrid newspaper, La Razon, was running a report saying that a suspected Algerian member of al-Qaida, Mahjoub Abdelzarrak, had been planning suicide attacks on Jewish targets in southern Spain.
Mr Abdelzarrak was arrested in Hamburg in November at the request of Milan prosecutors, who believed he was the head of recruitment for suicide bombers in Europe of a Palestinian branch of al-Qaida known as al-Tahwid, the newspaper said.
Europe-wide responses to the Madrid bombings are to be discussed in consultations convened by the Irish presidency of the EU, and are set to dominate next week's Brussels summit.
But a Dublin government spokesman said last night there were no plans to respond positively to a request from Germany for urgent ministerial talks about the attacks' implications.
"If it is confirmed that the Madrid attacks have an Islamic background, then it means that Islamic terrorism in Europe has taken on a new quality," the German interior minister, Otto Schilly, said yesterday.
EU officials suggest there are limits to what can be done. "Even if we had an EU intelligence service it would still have only a fraction of the resources the US had before 9/11," said one. "And they couldn't stop that happening."
'You love life and we love death'
The text of the taped declaration: We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies.
This is a response to the crimes that you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will more, if God wills it. You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the prophet Mohammed said. If you don't stop your injustices, more and more blood will flow and these attacks will seem very small compared to what can occur in what you call terrorism.
This is a statement by the military spokesman for al-Qaida in Europe, Abu Dujan al-Afghani.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004