Eleven suspected Islamic extremists of South Asian origin went on trial Thursday over an alleged plot to stage suicide attacks on the Barcelona subway system on orders from the Pakistan Taliban.
Police foiled the alleged plan in January 2008 with a series of raids in Spain's second largest city, acting after a member of the cell designated to blow himself up got cold feet and alerted authorities, according to a Spanish prosecutor.
The defendants are nine men of Pakistani nationality or origin, and two from India. They have all pleaded innocent.
When the plot was made public last year, it gave Spaniards a chilling reminder of the Madrid terror bombings of March 2004: packed commuter trains ripped apart by 10 backpack bombs that killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800. At the time, a general election was three days off and Islamic militants who claimed responsibility said the massacre was revenge for the presence of Spanish peacekeepers in Iraq.
In 2008, public transport was allegedly targeted again, a general election was just two months away and the attack was allegedly planned because Spain has troops stationed in Afghanistan, prosecutor Vicente Gonzalez Mota has said.
But from the outset, there have been doubts as to how close the Barcelona cell actually was to staging what would have been Spain's first suicide terrorist attack.
In a charge sheet released several weeks ago, Gonzalez Mota's only mention of explosives was to say police who made some of the arrests seized 18 grams - less than an ounce - of white powder that came from emptying out fireworks. He said police also found timers, steel balls and air-gun pellets to serve as shrapnel, and other material for making bombs.
When indictments were handed down in June of this year, Investigating Magistrate Ismael Moreno wrote that the cell had achieved "operational capability" in terms of manpower and "was apparently very close to achieving full technical capability in terms of explosive devices."
However, he said the amount of explosives found was enough for training purposes but not to stage a major attack.
Perhaps because of this lack of firepower, the cell is not accused of actually conspiring to stage a terror attack but rather of belonging to a terrorist organization.
The cell acted under the inspiration of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban Movement, led at the time by Baitullah Mehsud, and plans for the Barcelona attack were later claimed in a video by Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the group, Gonzalez Mota wrote.
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