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Counterterrorism officials say they are increasingly concerned about the influence of the loosely organized Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, a fraternity of extremists rooted in Morocco with ties to both al-Qaeda and many suspected terrorists in Europe, including the Madrid bombers. But authorities don't know the full scope of the threat, in part because Moroccan radicals are adept at hiding in plain sight. According to a French antiterrorism investigator, cell members in Europe have successfully exploited the reputation of Moroccans as hardworking and willing to assimilate. "They work hard at day jobs and family lives that provide total cover for clandestine activity," says the investigator.
While not the leader of the Madrid cell, El Chino--wise to the lay of the land and brimming with criminal energy--typified the advantages of local knowledge. He grew up in a poor quarter of the northern Moroccan city of Tetuán. Like his older brothers and thousands of other young Moroccans, he saw his future in Europe, and in 1990, at age 19, he went to Madrid illegally. He started dealing hash and living the life of a hard-drinking, drug-using petty criminal.
In the late 1990s, according to a senior Spanish counterterrorism official, Ahmidan started developing ties to a group led by Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas (also known as Abu Dahdah). Yarkas had set up an al-Qaeda-linked network in Spain that turned to local Moroccans whose talents for petty crime--drug dealing, credit-card fraud and minor theft--could be marshaled on the spot to the cause of financing jihad. El Chino plied his low-life trade in the bustling neighborhood of Lavapiés. In April 2000, according to the official, the Moroccan was placed in a Madrid detention center for illegal aliens prior to deportation. "He set himself up as an imam and told the guards he would come back and kill them," says the official. "No one took him seriously then, but he already had quite a following."
A subsequent prison stint in Morocco fueled Ahmidan's zealotry. After slipping back into Spain in 2002 using a forged Belgian passport, he continued selling hash and ecstasy, but he had stopped using drugs himself. El Chino had become an adherent of jihadist principles that allow followers to push drugs on infidels as long as those efforts serve the holy cause. His drug ties made him valuable to his comrades: before Madrid, according to the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, profits from the Moroccan hash trade--worth an estimated $12.5 billion annually--helped finance an aborted attack on a U.S. Navy ship in Gibraltar in 2002 and a suicide attack in Casablanca in 2003. A senior European antiterrorism investigator says terrorists have infiltrated around two-thirds of Morocco's hashish trade.