The alleged mastermind behind the March 11 train bombings in Madrid had connections to Germany, investigators said after "Mohammed the Egyptian" was arrested in Italy earlier this week.
The Madrid bombings was one of Europe's worst terror attacks.
Rabei Osman Ahmed, known as "Mohammed the Egyptian," was known to German intelligence services before he allegedly staged the Madrid bombings which killed 191 people. The 32-year old suspect, who is being held in Italy on charges of international terrorism, lived in Germany for two years, federal prosecutors said on Saturday.
Ahmed "was in Germany from 1999 until August 2001," said Frauke Scheuten, a spokeswoman for German federal prosecutors. But, she told reporters, "there is no indication that he planned attacks or was involved in attacks from Germany."
The prosecutors office did not elaborate on details of how and exactly when Ahmed arrived in the country, but the weekly news magazine Focus said in its edition for Monday that the Egypt-born suspect entered Germany illegally in April 1999 and stayed until authorities lost trace of him in August 2001. Der Spiegel magazine, also in this week's edition, said Ahmed had been arrested two months after entering Germany without identification papers on a train bound for France. He told investigators he was Palestinian and requested political asylum.
Focus said his application was denied and Ahmed was kept in detention in Saarbrücken, on the border to France, pending deportation, but officials were unable to establish his nationality. Both magazines said the man was released into a home for asylum seekers in the western town of Lebach in September 2000. There he set up a prayer room and attracted attention for preaching hatred against Jews and Israel.
The reports said German police tried to track Ahmed down after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, but he had already left Lebach a month earlier. On Sept. 19, the asylum alerted state authorities that Ahmed hadn't been seen since Aug. 29. From that point on, all trace of him was lost.
Spanish authorities had eye on Ahmed
In early 2003, intelligence services in the state of Saarland, of which Saarbrücken is the capital, told federal prosecutors they had been informed by Spain that Ahmed was under investigation on suspicion of supporting a terrorist organization, said Focus.
The German federal prosecutor's office, which handles terrorism cases, ordered criminal police in the Saarland region to keep Ahmed under watch and to monitor telephone calls in his apartment in Lebach.
Scheuten confirmed that federal prosecutors had been informed, but refused to give details. "There were no clues that would have prompted us to open an investigation," she said, stressing that investigators had no indications then of any attacks being planned.
The March 11 railway bombings in Madrid were blamed on Islamic militants with possible links to al Qaida. Spain wants to extradite Ahmed, and has said the formal request should arrive in Rome on Monday. The magistrate in charge of the case said Ahmed was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida.
Fourteen people have so far been arrested and held in custody in connection with the bombings. Seven other suspects blew themselves up April 3 as police closed in on a supposed safe house in the Madrid suburb of Leganes. Authorities are still looking for or demanding the extradition of eight other suspects, including Ahmed.
German prosecutors opened up their own investigation of Ahmed this week on the basis of information provided by the Italian authorities. Scheuten, who confirmed that fact, said "there are still no indications that the Madrid attacks were planned from Germany. She also added that at the moment "no connection with the Sept. 11 attacks is discernible."
Germany became a focus of terror investigations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States when it emerged that three of the suicide hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, lived and studied in the northern city of Hamburg.