FBI says a fingerprint links the Islam convert to evidence in Madrid attacks that killed 191.
ALOHA, Ore. — A Portland lawyer was detained Thursday by the FBI after federal officials linked his fingerprints to bomb-related evidence associated with the Madrid railway attacks that killed 191 people in March, a federal law enforcement official said.
The arrest of Brandon Mayfield, 37, raises the possibility of a U.S. connection to the March 11 bombings, which Spanish authorities have blamed on Islamic extremists.
The former Army officer, a Muslim convert, was held on a material-witness warrant after the FBI searched his home in the Portland suburb of Aloha. Mayfield’s arrest was first reported Thursday on Newsweek magazine’s website.
He has not been charged with any crime, and the federal official stressed that the investigation was continuing and is in many ways preliminary. Spanish officials cautioned that they did not consider the fingerprint evidence to be conclusive.
Material-witness warrants are used by the government to hold people suspected of having direct knowledge about a crime or to give agents more time to investigate.
A native of Coos Bay, Ore., Mayfield is married and has three children. He converted to Islam in 1989 and attends a mosque in Beaverton, Ore., that also was searched by FBI agents Thursday. His military record was unavailable Thursday night.
Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Portland, confirmed that two search warrants were served Thursday in Washington County, which includes Aloha, but declined to comment further.
Outside Mayfield’s home, a small white clapboard structure in a working-class neighborhood 10 miles west of downtown Portland, TV news crews and curiosity seekers gathered as word of the arrest spread.
Neighbors described Mayfield family members, who have lived in Aloha for about 2 1/2 years, as courteous and hard-working. One said Mayfield was outside tending his tomato patch Thursday morning before the FBI arrived. Other than someone peering through the blinds, no one responded to knocks on the door seeking comment.
Roy and Arlene Witt, both 71, who live next door, recalled having a chicken dinner at the Mayfield residence. The evening began when the Mayfields sent one of their daughters over with a written invitation. Once the guests arrived, they found the house so sparsely furnished that the hosts sat on the floor.
“He’s just a hard-working American man, father and husband, as far as I know,” Roy Witt said.
Mayfield’s brother Kent, reached at his home in Halstead, Kan., told Reuters that his brother was a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy but no terrorist.
“I think the reason they are holding him is because he is of the Muslim faith and because he is not super happy with the Bush administration,” the brother said. “So if that’s a crime, well, you can burn half of us.”
Mayfield also had an indirect link to the “Portland Seven” terrorism case brought by the Justice Department last year.
He had served as a child-custody lawyer for one of the defendants, Jeffrey Battle, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to wage war against the United States.
Other defendants pleaded guilty to lesser charges of conspiring to support Al Qaeda and Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers.
The FBI’s interest in Mayfield stems from a fingerprint that turned up on a bag containing detonators and other bomb-related equipment left in a stolen van found at the Alcala de Henares train station outside Madrid hours after the bombings.
The fingerprint was among the physical evidence that Spanish investigators shared with a special FBI evidence analysis team that traveled to Madrid to assist with the case, according to Spanish and U.S. investigators.
The FBI “document exploitation” team compared the evidence with past terrorism cases and discovered the potential match between one of the numerous fingerprints found in the van and a U.S. citizen with military experience who was already under investigation for suspected terrorist activity.
FBI sources said one of the fingerprints matched Mayfield’s. There had been no previous indication that Mayfield had been under investigation for suspected terrorist activity.
The discovery intrigued investigators because of the possible involvement of a U.S. military veteran, a rare figure in Al Qaeda cases, and the suspicion that he could have played a significant role in the plot.
Unlike previous Al Qaeda plots, none of the suspects accused of planting the bombs is known to have trained at the terror network’s camps in Afghanistan. Spanish police believe someone with explosives experience helped the attackers build the bombs at a tumbledown cottage outside Madrid.
The American fits the profile of such a potential lead bomb-maker or trainer, along with two Moroccan fugitives who are hard-core Al Qaeda-trained veterans and potential “field commanders” of the bombing cell, investigators said.
Twelve suspects have been jailed in Spain and a number of others are free but facing indictment. Seven more suspected bombers died last month in a confrontation at an explosives-filled hideout surrounded by police when they blew themselves up.
A senior Spanish investigator told the Los Angeles Times three weeks ago that a fingerprint found in the investigation of the train bombings resembled the fingerprint of a man described as a “U.S. military veteran” wanted by U.S. agents in connection with Islamic terrorism.
In subsequent days, two high-ranking Spanish police officials and a U.S. law enforcement official confirmed to The Times that the lead, involving a U.S. veteran connected to Al Qaeda, was being pursued. The veteran was someone who had been under investigation by U.S. agents for some time, the investigators said.
The lead intrigued Spanish investigators because they believe an operative with knowledge of explosives or military expertise helped the team of mostly Moroccan suspects build the remote-control bombs that were used in the March 11 attacks, which killed 191 people aboard four commuter trains and helped bring down the ruling party in national elections three days later.
But as recently as Monday, two Spanish police officials said the lead remained inconclusive.
“The American has the profile of an expert who could have supervised the bomb-making,” a high-ranking Spanish police official said. “And obviously he’s someone the Americans are very concerned about because of his background. But we are told the fingerprint match is not conclusive. We can’t say right now that it is the same person.”
Schmitt reported from Washington, Barabak from Aloha, Ore., and Rotella from Paris.