U.S. intelligence officials warned law enforcement in Spain that Eldar Magomedov (a.k.a. Muslim Dost, Ahmad Avar) and Mohamed Ankari Adamov who have been under arrest for terrorist activities since August 1, had been trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the use of chemical and biological weapons. Both of them are Russian nationals of Chechen origin. It is believed that one of them bhad training from Russia’s Spetnaz special forces. Both Magomedov and Adamov have been in custody since August 4 and were arraigned in court on the following day. They will again face the court on a later date, according to an official statement, and will remain under arrest until them.
Magomedov and Adamov are alleged to have planned a terrorist attack on an undetermined location with assistance from their Turkish associate, Celgin Yalzin. The latter lived in a property in La Línea, a Spanish town across the border from British-held Gibraltar, which was raided by police. While that fact was enough to cause alarm, Spanish authorities were even more concerned when they found three radio-controlled aircraft and 100 grams of gunpowder in a container with a fuse. Spanish anti-terror sources told local media that the amount of gunpowder was not as disquieting as what the accused terrorist was apparently planning. Yalcin was charged on August 3 with the possession of explosives and a device likely to be used in a terror attack. Yalcin had worked for years in the construction industry in Gibraltar where the UK has a naval base.
In a statement before the National Court on August 5, Spanish officials expressed their concern that the radio-controlled aircraft in the possession of the accused terrorists, the courses in paraglider flying received, and the conversations they had, may have been a plot to drop a ricin bomb or otherwise disperse the deadly poison and cause the death of hundreds if not thousands of people.
Official Spanish government spokespersons have dismissed fears that Magomedov and accomplices actually had ricin - a deadly poison derived from the castor oil plant - at their hideout, but they remained concerned about the abortive plans of the Islamists. Currently, Spanish law enforcement authorities confirm that the three Islamists did indeed plan to detonate a conventional explosive device. They insist however that the public should not be overly alarmed, given that critical intelligence was received in time to prevent a tragedy. Nonetheless, sources in Spain indicate that the three terrorist remain dangerous and that police continue to seek clues.
Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz indicated that one of the men under arrest, in a statement that was understood to refer to Magomedov, is a trained sniper and explosives expert. Judge Pablo Ruz Gutiérrez of the National Court noted in his order to jail Magomedov and confreres that the explosive device in question has a “grave potential for harm, regardless of later forensic analysis.” He based his decision to confine the trio on information garnered from the US, France, Gibraltar’s police forces, and Russia.
The judge also referred to materials found that may have been used to produce fraudulent identity documents, as well as video evidence, that “would reasonably suggest preparations for some kind of action of a terrorist nature.” Video seized by police showed Yalzin, the Turk now under arrest, in which other voices are heard exulting over their success in flying a radio-controlled aircraft of some six feet in length. Police are seeking to analyzed the voices recorded in the video, having concluded that the group was indeed planning a terrorist attack.
Other evidence presented to the court on August 5 came from a paragliding instructor who confirmed that the terrorists had asked him to take aerial photographs of a shopping center at Gibraltar. According to the finding by Judge Ruz, U.S. intelligence sources provided information from a protected witness who confirmed that Magomedov had received terrorist training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Until now, the use of deadly ricin had never been an issue for Spanish security agencies, which have had long experience in both domestic and foreign terrorism. Ricin, which is made from the castor oil bean, is difficult to use as a weapon of mass destruction. Ingesting ricin, whether inhaled as an aerosol, ingested in water or food, is nearly always lethal in amounts of as little as a few grains of table salt. Magomedov's training in chemical warfare had piqued fears that he may have been planning to use ricin to deadly effect.
Evidence provided by the United States revealed that Magomedov may have used pseudonym of Muslim Dost and been involved in terrorist activity in 2010 in Afghanistan and in Waziristan, in north-west of Pakistan, according to Judge Ruz's statement. Magomedov and Adamov both traveled to France before crossing over to Spain and stayed at a house owned by Yalcin in La Línea. Both of them took paragliding courses from Yalcin. Both Magomedov and Adamov were on their way back to France where they were arrested in Ciudad Real, in central Spain. They were attempting to cross back into France at the border crossing at Irun. Neither one had any kind of identification documents in their possession, according to the court.
Interior Minister Fernández Díaz said last week that both Magomedov and Adamov are suspected al-Qaeda members, while Yalcin is suspected of being a facilitator.
Paragliding, a sport enjoyed by enthusiasts all of the world, involves using a parachute-like canopy from which a pilot is suspended in a harness without any rigid framework. Paragliders are easily transported in a rucksack and can be powered or non-powered. The potential use of paragliders by terrorists has preoccupied security agencies for some time: In May 2012, a paragliding environmental activist dropped a smoke-bomb on a French nuclear reactor dome. Flying a powered paraglider, emblazoned with logo of Greenpeace, the activist was arrested after he made a wobbly landing near the structure.
Southern Spain is a haven for paraglider enthusiasts, and the pair now under arrest would not have raised any eyebrows when asking for lessons. No criminal background checks are required to take lessons. Students need only to be physically fit and speak English or the language where the courses are received. Europe now has approximately 100,000 licensed paragliders.
At the London Olympics, all aircraft – including hot air balloons and paragliders – were required to have prior approval for flights from, into or within restricted areas in central London and the Olympic park. Paragliding was banned in and around New Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India, while Denmark banned paragliders from flying above Copenhagen when the International Olympic Committee met in 2009 to select the site of the 2016 Summer Games.
Carrying out a terrorist attack with paragliders would not be easy. An urban attack via non-motorized paragliders would be virtually impossible unless the area was ringed by mountains or steep hills. The turbulence inside cities would also make navigation difficult for all but well-experienced paraglider pilots. Terrorists, especially those bent on suicide, may be willing to take the risks. And paragliders can easily carry up to 175 pounds of explosives in addition to a pilot. In 1996, two terrorists in hang-gliders attempted to enter Israel with explosives. One of the terrorists detonated his explosives and killed himself before reaching his target at a kibbutz.
Nonetheless, spotting paragliders is relatively easy: Motorized paragliders are slow-moving, loud and appear on radar at urban airports. They are easily intercepted as a hazard to commercial aviation.
All the same, while paragliding terrorists may not be able to carry out catastrophic attacks (with or without poisons such as ricin) they could still cause an important number of fatalities at crowded venues such as shopping centers and stadiums.