MADRID, Spain – Police on Tuesday arrested 20 people suspected of recruiting fighters and raising money for the Iraqi insurgency, the interior minister said.
Police broke up two well-organized and interconnected cells, one based in Madrid and the other in the Barcelona-area town of Vilanova i la Geltru, Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told a news conference.
The cell based in Vilanova i la Geltru may have been behind a suicide attack in November 2003 that killed 19 Italian military personnel and civilians in the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, Alonso said.
He added that the two cells had links to people in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Fifteen of the detainees are Moroccan, three are Spaniards, one is Turkish and one is Algerian, Alonso said.
Last month, Spanish authorities arrested 16 people suspected of recruiting insurgents to stage attacks in Iraq, Chechnya and Kashmir. Two other suspects surrendered. A judge jailed six of them and freed the other 12, although they were ordered to check in with the court weekly and surrender their passports.
Alonso said the Barcelona-area cell broken up Tuesday, may have started sending fighters to Iraq around late 2003.
In mid-2004, a Moroccan sent to Iraq by this cell was arrested in Syria and sent back to Morocco, apparently after fighting in the Iraqi city of Fallujah under the command of Jordanian-born terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the minister said.
He did not name the man or an Algerian man he said staged the suicide attack on the Italians in Nasiriyah.
Investigators have turned up no evidence the cells were planning an imminent attack in Spain. But Alonso said they could not rule out the possibility the cells were plotting something eventually in Spain or elsewhere in Europe, Alonso said.
Ten bombs exploded on Madrid commuter trains in March 2004, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,500 in attacks claimed by Muslim militants. They said they had acted on Al Qaeda's behalf to avenge the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq.
A total of 26 people are in jail in the train bombing, although they have not been formally indicted. Dozens more have been questioned and released, although they are still considered suspects.
Spanish authorities have also arrested more than 200 suspected Muslim extremists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Investigators say the suicide airliner attacks were planned at least partially in Spain, and in Germany.
The alleged leader of an Al Qaeda cell in Spain, Imad Yarkas, was convicted in September of this year of conspiracy to commit murder in the Sept. 11 case and sentenced to 27 years in prison.