MADRID -- Spanish police arrested 11 men yesterday on charges of belonging to a Syrian-based group that recruits suicide bombers to attack US troops in Iraq, officials said yesterday in revealing a new facet of Spain's role as an Al Qaeda staging ground.
Five other people were detained a day earlier in connection with last year's train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500, authorities said.
More than 500 heavily armed police staged predawn raids in a half-dozen cities to grab the 11 alleged members of a recruiting network that has ties to Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi's terror group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Interior Ministry said.
Spain has had several brushes with Al Qaeda, including the commuter train bombings on March 11, 2004, a reported plot to blow up a Madrid courthouse last year, and militants' alleged use of Spain to help organize the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
But this was the first time Spain arrested people on suspicion of sending suicide attackers to Iraq, officials at the National Court said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitiveness of their jobs at the country's hub for Islamic terror investigations and the target of last year's foiled bomb plot.
While Iraq's insurgency is believed to be primarily made up of domestic Sunni Arabs, nearly all suicide bombings there are thought to be committed by Islamic extremists from other countries. Zarqawi's group is blamed for the bloodiest attacks.
The Interior Ministry said some of the 11 suspects tied to the recruiting network said they also wanted to become ''martyrs for Islam" in suicide attacks and were awaiting orders to do so. It did not specify how Spanish authorities learned that.
''Basically, what the police accuse them of is raising money and recruiting people to do activities abroad related with the international jihad," or holy war, Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso told reporters.
Most of the 11 are Moroccan and practically all of them sold drugs and staged robberies to finance their network, the ministry said. They were arrested as part of a probe that began in 2004.
Raids were conducted in Barcelona, Valencia, the southern Andalusia region, and Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Morocco. Police video showed helmeted officers with assault rifles standing over handcuffed men kneeling or lying face down, sometimes in their underwear, at their homes.
The Interior Ministry said the 11 belonged to a terror group that was established in Spain and linked to Ansar al-Islam, a Syrian-based group thought to have ties to Zarqawi's group.
Its statement said one of the men was a brother of Abdel Hay Assas, who along with fellow Moroccan Mushin Khaybar was described as the Syrian group's main recruiters and fund-raisers. The two were arrested in Syria in May 2004 and handed over to Morocco, where they are charged with terrorism, the ministry said.
It said the apparent leader of the Spanish network's recruitment activities was Samir Tahtah, a 28-year-old Moroccan arrested in a town near Barcelona. He coordinated communications with overseas leaders and the movement of recruits to Iraq for terrorist attacks, it said.
The 11 arrests were ordered by judges at the National Court, whose investigations have led to the detentions of some 200 terror suspects, including an alleged Al Qaeda cell currently on trial in Madrid. Three of those 24 defendants are charged with helping plot the Sept. 11 attack. Officials said some of the five suspects arrested Tuesday had close ties to ringleaders of last year's commuter train bombing in Madrid.
A total of 26 people have been jailed in the train bombing probe, and more than 70 others have been questioned and released but are still considered suspects.