Spain’s 3-11 – 10 coordinated bomb explosions in 4 suburban trains arriving in Madrid at the morning rush hour, leading to almost 200 dead and more than 1,400 injured – was also Europe’s 3-11: exactly two and a half years after America’s 9-11, this is the largest terrorist attack perpetrated on European soil in modern times.
Initially, among circles close to the international jihad, the authorship of the attacks was claimed by the Lions of al-Mufridoon – a hitherto unknown jihadi group from the Maghreb region of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), with loose connections to al-Qaeda. But in the first few hours, no group expressly addressed the global media to claim official responsibility. The modus operandi though – coordinated bombing for maximized damage – is a trademark of al-Qaeda and/or subcontracted affiliates.
Then an email sent to the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper seemed to confirm it all: the Abu Hafs al-Masri brigades – which had already claimed responsibility for attacking Italians in Iraq and British interests in Istanbul last year – had struck “one of the pillars of the Crusade alliance” on behalf of al-Qaeda. Al-Quds al-Arabi believes the email is authentic. But this does not mean the brigades – an al-Qaeda affiliate – did it.
A senior intelligence official working for a special European Union anti-terrorist cell in Brussels tells Asia Times Online the hypothesis of Islamist involvement is being considered very seriously: “Indeed this may be punishment for the government of (Spanish Prime Minister) Jose Maria Aznar’s full support for George W Bush’s war on Iraq. There are 1,400 Spanish troops in southern Iraq, and hundreds of others in Afghanistan. But we are also considering the possibility that Islamist factions with dormant cells in Europe may be linking with ETA (Basque) separatists in Spain, perhaps not directly, but targeting a splinter group.”
The official also says Brussels is seriously evaluating recent messages by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s No 2, Ayman “The Surgeon” al-Zawahiri, denouncing Spain’s alignment with the “crusaders” Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Al-Zawahiri specifically warned that in Europe, Spain was in the line of fire, along with Britain and Italy. In Brussels’s Top 10 of likely targets for a terrorist attack, Spain since late 2003 is positioned as No 4, behind the US, the UK and Israel.
Aznar’s conservative government took no time to unanimously blame the bombings on ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuma – Basque Homeland and Freedom), the pro-independence movement involved in a fierce battle with the central government in Madrid since the late 1950s. The Basque country encompasses northern Spain and southwest France.
The prime minister defined the bombings as “mass assassination” by a “criminal gang”. The head of the opposition, socialist Jose Luis Zapatero, condemned “ETA’s scoundrels”. The head of the regional Basque government, the moderate nationalist Juan Jose Ibarretxe, said that ETA wanted to “explode democracy”. But most crucially Arnaldo Otegui, a kind of Spanish Gerry Adams who is the head of Batasuna – the banned Basque party which is basically ETA’s political wing – “refused to believe” ETA was involved. According to Otegui, the “Arab resistance” is responsible: “We cannot totally exclude the hypothesis of Islamist attacks … due to the threats against the countries participating in the coalition in Iraq.” Otegui actually comdemned the bombings on the record in the name of Batasuna.
Spain’s Interior Minister Angel Acebes initially qualified Islamist involvement as “intoxication”. But hours later he was admitting “we don’t exclude any leads”, after a tape in Arabic, along with seven detonators, was discovered inside a stolen van in the small town near Madrid where three of the four bombed trains came from.
Jurgen Storbeck, the director of Europol, the European police body, admits the modus operandi in the attacks “does not conform to what ETA had adopted so far”. ETA used to employ car bombings to disrupt the Spanish tourism industry, and target assassinations against politicians, judges and the police. Crucially, in four decades of attacks, as every Spaniard knows so well, ETA always alerted the police in case innocent civilians would be in danger.
On the latest Europol report on terrorism in the European Union, prepared with information provided by the EU member-states and approved by the EU’s Council of Ministers last December, the agency warned of a possible ETA switch from its usual tactics to “large scale operations” based in Madrid. The report also said that ETA was recruiting increasingly younger new members and expanding its network to Portugal, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Germany, as well as to Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Belize.
As far as the jihadi menace was concerned, Europol formally recognized in its report that the Aznar government’s support for Bush’s war on terror is “a factor of increasing risk for Spain, although not necessarily the most dangerous or decisive”. This is a very different approach from the more fatalistic anti-terrorist experts in Brussels.
ETA down but not out
No instant destruction on this scale had happened in Spain since the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Even Spaniards used to bloody ETA actions since the 1970s were shocked. The dead and injured are overwhelmingly working-class people and students. Dozens of immigrants are among the injured, the majority of them Moroccans and Equadorians – the largest Latin American colony in Madrid.
The Aznar government has extensively infiltrated ETA; it has arrested more than 600 people in the last four years; and it has even outlawed the Batasuna party. In 2003, only three people were killed as a result of ETA attacks. ETA’s military chief was captured. But contrary to official propaganda, ETA seems not to have been subdued because, similar to other resistance movements, it works as a web of independent mini-commandos. The new, younger leadership may be fiercer and bolder.
Spanish political scientists insist that ETA has no more than 10 percent popularity in the Basque country. But the movement still enjoys solid support from youth associations (like Jarrai and Haika), newspapers (like Egin and Gara), unions (like LAB) and a political party until recently represented in the Basque parliament, Batasuna. But in the event the group were deemed responsible for the Madrid bombings, their leadership knows very well they would lose any remaining public support.
Spanish insiders tell Asia Times Online they are not convinced of ETA’s culpability – especially because the government has immediately blamed the group even without an investigation. Says a Spanish industrialist: “We may not approve their methods, but ETA’s leadership has always been very sophisticated politically. They would never give Aznar and his people at the Popular Party such a gift before a general election [this Sunday]. The Popular Party will now pose as a war government, just like George W Bush in the US.”
Ninety four percent of the Spanish population was against the war on Iraq – and against the Aznar government’s unflinching support for Washington. At least 10 percent of the Spanish population demonstrated against the war on February 15, 2003, in the streets of major Spanish cities. The bulk of the dead and injured in the Madrid bombings are working-class people – not exactly supporters of Aznar’s policies.
Progressive minds in the European Union already worry whether this tragic 3-11 might turn Spain – not yet a police state – into an Iberian mirror of a neo-conservative-driven America shorter on civil liberties and longer on social paranoia. This was never an effect ETA intended. But it may well suit the international jihad.