LONDON (Reuters) - The 2004 Madrid bombings, Europe's deadliest Islamist militant attack, probably were instigated by al Qaeda and were not the work of autonomous cells, a top terrorism expert says.
New information ties Osama bin Laden's group closer than ever to the attack, Fernando Reinares, Spain's leading expert on militant Islamist violence, said in an article for the online edition of U.S. magazine The National Interest.
On March 11, 2004 10 bombs hidden in sports bags exploded on four packed commuter trains at the height of the morning rush hour in Madrid, killing 191 people and wounding 1,700.
"The bombings ... are often held up as an archetype of an autonomous local cell at work, and its perpetrators depicted as the epitome of self-recruited, leaderless jihadists. These assumptions are mistaken," Reinares wrote.
"New information connects some of the most relevant members of the Madrid bombings with al Qaeda's senior leadership. Al-Qaeda is alive and well and impacting the safety of the West."
Courts convicted 21 people in 2007 of the attacks. Four of the 21 had their convictions overturned in 2008.
Three weeks after the blasts, seven men including two suspected bombing ringleaders blew themselves up in an apartment after police closed in on them. The blast killed a policeman.
Western governments are increasingly worried about the possibility that decentralized groups inspired by, but unconnected to, al-Qaeda are more of a threat than the organization itself or its main affiliates.
That concern has grown following a botched December 25 airliner attack blamed on a Nigerian Islamist and the November 5 killing of 13 people at a U.S. army base by a gunman linked to a Yemen-based preacher.
Reinares said new information suggested the bombings were instigated by militants hiding in north Waziristan, a region of northwest Pakistan believed to harbor al Qaeda leaders.
He said U.S. and Spanish intelligence had discovered a key suspected ringleader of the attack, a Moroccan, Amer Azizi, had been in northwest Pakistan in 2004 and had associated there with al Qaeda's then head of external operations, an Egyptian, Hamza Rabia.
"There was always speculation that Azizi was the instigator of the attack. Amer Azizi's name appears in 149 of the 271 volumes on the Madrid bombings compiled by Spain's National Court," Reinares said.
Reinares suggested that while it was known that Azizi had recruited the immediate leaders of the bombers' cell, what had not been established was Azizi's closeness to al Qaeda's leadership.
He said U.S. intelligence had now identified Azizi and Rabia as two of five people killed in a U.S. missile attack four years ago on Haisori village near Miranshah in North Waziristan.
Reinares added he had been able to independently verify that Azizi had been a key associate of Rabia's at that time through an examination of evidence at a British trial in 2008 in which two Britons of Pakistani origin were convicted of al Qaeda membership.
(Reporting by William Maclean, Editing by Michael Roddy)