Madrid Bombing: Bishop Urges Lucidity

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Madrid Bombing

"Bishop Urges Lucidity as Basques Pay Homage to Madrid Bomb Victims"

News article

By: Gillian Handyside

Date: March 13, 2004

Source: "Bishop Urges Lucidity as Basques Pay Homage to Madrid Bomb Victims", Reuters news report.

About the Author: Gillian Handyside is a journalist for Reuters, a world-wide news agency based in London.


On March 11th, 2004, in the run up to the Spanish general election, 191 people were killed and more than 1,800 injured when bombs exploded on four morning rush-hour trains in Madrid.

Responsibility for the bombings was initially attributed by the Spanish Government to the Basque national liberation movement (ETA), a separatist group that has a long history of terrorist activities in Spain.

Immediately after the March 11th train bombings, Prime Minister José María Aznar, and Interior Minister ángel Acebes, stated publicly that ETA was definitely responsible for the terrorist attack. Foreign correspondents, newspaper offices, and Spanish embassies were all contacted by the government and assured that the bombings were the work of ETA. In response to these accusations, a spokesman for Batasuna, the political arm of ETA, denied that ETA had been involved. A TV station and newspaper in the Basque region were also contacted by ETA representatives, who denied responsibility for the bombing.

Evidence soon emerged that Islamic militants may have carried out the attacks, when police found a stolen van containing detonators and an Arabic language tape close to a Madrid station. A number of Islamic groups came forward to claim responsibility although their claims were not authenticated. These included Abu Nayaf al-Afgani, linked to an alleged terrorist cell based in Madrid, and the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group that aligns itself to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group soon became the main focus of investigations by the police.

The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) revealed shortly after the bombings that intelligence had been available for two months about a terrorist attack that was being planned for a country during an election period. The FFI claimed that the country where the attack was planned had been misinterpreted as Iraq.

In the Spanish general election held just three days after the bombings, Aznar's Popular Party was defeated by the PSOE (socialist party) led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many political experts assert that the government's handling of the March 11th attacks influenced the outcome of the election. The election outcome was unexpected; Aznar's party had been leading in the opinion polls throughout the election campaign.

Several weeks later, more explosives were found and detonated by police on a high-speed train line between Seville and Madrid. Police identified an apartment in Leganés, south of Madrid, as the likely base for the terrorists responsible for planting these explosives and the Madrid train bombs. On April 3, as the police closed in, the terrorists blew up the Leganés apartment, killing themselves and one police officer. A video was found in the rubble containing a recording of three men demanding the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from "Muslim lands." The men claimed to be members of a group called the "al Mufti and Ansar al-Qaeda brigades". Experts hold that the video was made by the terrorists shortly before they committed suicide. Because the explosives used to blow up the apartment were of the same type used in the train bombings, investigators consider the terrorists killed at Leganés were those responsible for the March 11th attacks.

By early April, fifteen people, many of them Moroccan nationals, had been arrested in connection with the train bombings and others were being detained. A year later, a total of twenty-two suspects were in Spanish custody awaiting trial.

During the election campaign, Zapatero had made a commitment to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq by June if responsibility for Iraq was not handed over to the United Nations when the United States' occupation of Iraq formally ended. Zapatero withdrew Spanish troops shortly after becoming Prime Minister.

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This press article reports on a Catholic memorial service for the victims of the Madrid train bombings, held in the Basque region which is home of the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuma, or 'Basque Homeland and Freedom'). The ETA had been accused by the government of carrying out the bombings before evidence emerged to suggest they had been the work of Islamic extremists.

ETA was established in 1959, when the language and culture of the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France were suppressed by the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco (1892–1975). The group wants independence from Spain for the Basque region. From the 1970s onwards the ETA has employed terrorist methods in pursuit of this aim, including car bombings, snipings, and kidnappings. These are usually targeted at policemen, government officials, members of security forces, and businessmen, although the group has also attacked foreign tourists. Its members are thought to have received terrorist training in Libya, Lebanon, and Nicaragua, and the group allegedly maintains close links with the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army).

Although the post-Franco democratic government established an autonomous Basque region, with self-government, a police force, tax-raising powers, and an educational system, some extremist separatists continue to employ terrorism in pursuit of full independence from Spain. There was a brief ceasefire in 1998–1999, when the moderate nationalists agreed to commit themselves to a peaceful campaign for full independence and the radicals agreed to abandon armed struggle in return for their support. However, ETA militants soon became impatient with the lack of movement towards sovereignty, and attacks resumed.

Popular support for ETA has declined over time, and there have increasingly been public demonstrations within the Basque region in protest of terrorism. Aznar's government consistently refused to renegotiate the Basque region's constitutional relationship with Spain, and tackled the Basque problem as a security and policing issue, using anti-terror laws to ban its political wing, Batasuna. Shortly before the 2004 elections, the government had announced that the ETA was nearly defeated.

Indeed, the government's success in weakening ETA, along with its reputation for openness and the strong recent performance of the Spanish economy, were factors underlying the expected success of the ruling party in the March 2004 election, despite widespread opposition to Spain's involvement in the war with Iraq. The government's response to the Madrid train bombings are considered a major factor in its surprise election defeat, especially after leading Spanish newspapers accused the government of attempting to use the attacks for political gain.

The Spanish government released information showing that law enforcement agencies were convinced that the ETA was responsible for the attacks, until the stolen van was found with its evidence suggesting Islamic involvement. It has also been argued that ETA was a natural suspect as the group had previously tried to bomb a train and had a large consignment of explosives recently intercepted en route to Madrid, where they had bombed Madrid many times before.

However, the attacks were not characteristic of ETA's usual methods, which have never been on such a large scale or targeted against such large numbers of civilians. Moreover, the group was believed to have been weakened considerably and was not likely to have had the infrastructure to carry out attacks of this scale.

Before the Madrid bombings, al-Qaeda had already issued threats to Spain to revenge the government's backing of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the involvement of Spanish troops.


Journal articles

Woodworth, Paddy. "Spain changes course: Aznar's legacy, Zapatero's prospects." World Policy Journal. June 22, 2004.

Web sites

BBC. "In depth: Madrid Train attacks." <> (accessed June 29, 2005). "Special Report: Massacre in Madrid." <> (accessed June 29, 2005).