"Investigators See ETA, not al-Qaeda, behind Madrid Blasts"
By: Matthew Schofield and Alejandro Bopido-Memba
Date: March 12, 2004
Source: Knight Ridder newspapers.
About the Author: Knight Ridder is the second-largest newspaper publisher in the United States, with thirty-one dailies and numerous nondaily papers. The company also maintains a network of news Web sites.
On March 11, 2004, ten homemade bombs hidden in backpacks and triggered by cell phones exploded in Madrid, Spain, at the height of the morning rush hour. The target was a busy commuter rail line just to the south of the city's downtown. Four bombs exploded at 7:39 a.m. on a train at the Atocha rail station; three more exploded at the same time on another train near Téllez Street, just outside the Atocha station. Two minutes later, two bombs exploded on a train at the El Pozo del Tio Raimundo station, and one minute after that, a tenth bomb exploded on a train at the Santa Eugenia station. Three other bombs did not detonate and were found later. The attacks were the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern Spanish history; 177 people were killed at the scene, 13 more died later in hospitals, and over 1,800 were wounded. The attacks have been called "Spain's 9/11."
The Spanish government immediately cast blame for the bombings on the Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), commonly referred to as the ETA. The ETA was formed in 1959 to promote the culture and traditions of the Basque people, an ethnic group that lives in the mountainous regions along the border between France and Spain. In time, the organization came to advocate establishment of a separate Basque nation. By the 1970s, the organization, one of several Basque separatist groups, was resorting to terrorism directed primarily against the Spanish government. Over the years, the ETA claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, assassinations, murders, and kidnappings. It also used threats to extract a "revolutionary tax" from the Basque population to fund its operations. By the end of 2003, the ETA had claimed over eight hundred victims. While most were police and public officials, more than three hundred were civilians, including children.
The Madrid bombings occurred in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and Spain's decision to contribute some 1,300 troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. For this reason, other officials assumed that the bombings were more likely the work of al-Qaeda, the terrorist network led by 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. The following article, published the day after the bombings, outlines the Spanish government's initial assumption that the ETA was responsible, as well as the skepticism expressed in some quarters.
Madrid, Spain— Armed with what they said was new evidence, Spanish officials remained adamant Friday that they believe that the Basque separatist group ETA, not the al-Qaeda terrorist network, was behind the morning rush-hour train bombings that rocked this capital city Thursday.
With the death toll nearing 200 and dozens of the wounded still in critical condition, Interior Minister Angel Acebes announced Friday evening that he was more convinced than ever that ETA was to blame for the 10 explosions that ripped through three Madrid commuter rail stations just as people were disembarking on their way to work.
Acebes said the bombs consisted of satchels filled with 20 to 30 pounds of dynamite, set off by a cell phone. He said the dynamite chemically matched 1,100 pounds of explosives seized in February from an ETA van heading toward Madrid, and that the satchel and cell phone setup matched that found on two ETA members when they were arrested at a northern Madrid commuter rail station on Christmas Eve.
"This explosion had a very similar modus operandi used by the terrorist group ETA," he said.
Millions of Spaniards filled the streets of Madrid and other major cities Friday in tribute to the dead and injured and to protest the attacks. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar marched in front of one group in Madrid, and columns of demonstrators stretched for miles.
Spanish flags with black banners hung from light poles and balconies throughout the capital.
The outpouring of grief and anger was unprecedented. Some reports said nearly a quarter of Spain's 50 million people had participated in the marches, including an estimated 2.5 million in Madrid.
The crowds were so densely packed in Madrid that it was impossible to move against the tide. Anger was palpable.
"Snakes," "assassins" and "murderers" were among the insults hurled in unison by hundreds of demonstrators at a time. Placards proclaimed that "A people united will never be defeated" and "ETA No." If the crowd seemed united in its denunciation of ETA, there was still much discussion from Washington to Madrid about responsibility for the attacks.
A caller claiming to represent ETA denied that the group had been involved in the attack. Journalists here said ETA never had rejected responsibility for an attack before.
In Washington, the FBI said it hadn't dispatched any agents to Spain and wouldn't do so unless the Spanish government requested them. No Americans died in the blasts, though the dead included citizens of at least 11 countries.
Aznar offered citizenship to all illegal residents of Spain whose relatives were killed in the blasts. He said the government thought they would be essential to identify the final 70 bodies at the city's makeshift morgue. The dead are thought to be illegal immigrants whose relatives are afraid of being deported if they come to claim the bodies.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he'd been briefed on the attacks and that American officials were interested in any similarities to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
"The patterns—multiple sites, multiple stations," Frist said. "Very much like having multiple places here in this country." U.S. officials said the evidence cut both ways. Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's under-secretary of borders and transportation, said American intelligence agencies had detected no spike in "chatter" among al-Qaeda-related groups before the attacks. Other U.S. officials stressed that the group that claimed responsibility for the bombings, the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades, is thought to exist in name only and has made implausible claims of responsibility before.
Hutchinson also said, however, that the pattern of the attacks required considering al-Qaeda's involvement.
"One of the things that gives you cause for concern is the level of complexity in the attack and the coordination and the simultaneous nature of it, which all is a characteristic of the capability and style of al-Qaeda," he said. "That's not to say that means it's them, but that certainly gives you concern." Even in Madrid, there were open doubts about the government's insistence that ETA was behind the attacks.
Many Spaniards, particularly those who support the Socialist Party in Sunday's elections, suggested that Aznar's government might not be willing to disclose an al-Qaida link until after the vote, for fear of hurting the chances of Aznar's Populist Party holding on to power.
"Listen, ETA has never done a bombing like this without calling and warning the government beforehand," said Olga Gonzalez, a 32-year-old secretary. "Ninety percent of Spaniards were against the war in Iraq. If al-Qaida is involved and not ETA, this changes everything for the elections. It will only help to elect the Socialist Party." Interior Minister Acebes was adamant that the evidence pointed to ETA. He noted that ETA has a history of creating havoc in the days before a national election.
He also said the explosives used—Goma II Eco—were made in Spain and that ETA had used the same brand in previous attacks.
"Of course we will continue to investigate any and all information we get on who may be responsible," he said. "But at this point there is mounting evidence that this was not the work of al-Qaida."
From the beginning, many investigators questioned the Spanish government's position that the ETA was responsible for the bombings, as the ETA had never demonstrated the resources and organizational capability to mount such coordinated attacks. Further, the ETA normally issued warnings about impending attacks, relying on the threat of violence to have as much of a disruptive effect as the impending violence itself. Also, the ETA had consistently taken responsibility for its attacks, but the organization vehemently denied that it had a hand in the Madrid bombings.
Just two days after the bombings, an audiotape was found near a Madrid mosque. The tape made it clear that a group called the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, part of the al-Qaeda network, was responsible for the blasts. On April 3, 2004, police raided the group's holdout in Leganes, a suburb of Madrid, where seven suspects blew themselves up as the police closed in. Within weeks, fifteen members of this group had been arrested and several more detained. By April 2005, twenty-four suspects were in jail and another sixty-five suspects had been charged with lesser crimes in connection with the bombings. Investigators concluded that the ETA had no role in the bombings.
The Madrid bombings had profound effects in Spain. They took place three days before national elections. The bombings provoked public debate on Spain's involvement in the Iraq war. In a surprise out-come to the elections, Socialist Party candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero came to power. Zapatero immediately announced that Spain would withdraw its troops from Iraq.
The bombings had profound effects throughout Europe as well. The bombings prompted discussion of Europe's relationship with Islam—a troubled relationship that dates back to the eighth century, when Muslims seized large portions of the Iberian Peninsula and invaded what is now France; the ninth century, when Muslims invaded Italy and conquered the Mediterranean islands; the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the era of the Crusades; and the Reconquista in the fifteenth century, when Spain drove the Muslims out of their last Iberian stronghold in Grenada.
In modern times, Europe has become home to some approximately twenty million Muslims, many from North Africa and Turkey. The Madrid bombings heightened anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Europe and fueled opposition for plans to admit predominantly Muslim Turkey into the European Union.
Gee, John. "The Bombings in Spain: Implications for Islam and the West; Islam vs. Al-Qaeda." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. 23 (May 1, 2004): 16ff.
Gardiner, Nile, and John Hulsman. "The Madrid Bombings: Staying the Course in the War on Terror." Heritage Foundation. March 12, 2004. <http://www.heritage.org/Research/Europe/wm445.cfm> (accessed May 23, 2005).
Audio and Visual Media
Democracy Now! "Remembering March 11: The Madrid Bombings and Their Effect on Spanish Government, Society and the Antiwar Movement." November 23, 2004. Available from <http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/11/23/1457202> (accessed May 23, 2005).
PBS. "Frontline: Al-Qaeda's New Front." Available from <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/front/view> (accessed May 23, 2005).