"Welcome to the real world" said Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth. It's a world we don't usually see in the streets of European capitals, where we can get on a bus or a train and worry about nothing more than the driver's competence. What happened on 11 March, 2004 (or 13-M as the Spanish are calling it), exactly two and a half years after September 11, 2001, marks a sea change in European politics, society, and life. If this wasn't "our 9/11", it's only a matter of time until we have it.

Whoever carried out these attacks, and we can be pretty sure it wasn't ETA, was participating in the "al-Qaedaisation" of European terrorism. Co-ordinated bomb attacks using modern technology against soft targets, with the hope of causing as much damage as possible. This is the most difficult type of terrorism to combat, because it's countervalue and uses limited assets. Countervalue means it aims at anything which might cause disruption and chaos, specifically at the heart of what we value socially and culturally. Terrorism aims to make people scared in their day to day lives, to make them fear the supermarket, the train and the office block. And I say it uses limited assets because each of the bombs in the rucksack weighed 10kg. On February 29, 2004, Spanish police intercepted 500kg of explosives along with two supposed ETA members.

What happened

Between seven and seven fifteen in the morning, four commuter trains left Alcala de Henares station. Three had originated there, and one came from further down the line at Guadalajara. Onboard were typical Western commuters - students, schoolchildren, workers, immigrants. At Alcala de Henares, the bombers loaded rucksacks onto the train, each containing roughly the 10kg of explosives already mentioned. The explosions were timed to go off at the peak of rush hour and to do so simultaneously, all within several minutes of 7:40AM local time.

It is currently believed that the devices were detonated by mobile phones. It seemed the bombers hoped that each explosion would take place at a station. Four bombs exploded on the train at Atocha station at 7:39AM, three at Calle Téllez station at the same time, two at El Pozo del Tío Raimundo station at 7:41AM and one at Santa Eugenia station at 7:42AM. Due to a red light the explosion at Calle Téllez took place just outside the station. Two bombs remained unexploded on the Téllez train, and these were later believed to be booby traps that would explode when rescue workers arrived on the scene. They were deactivated by security officials. There was also an unexploded device at El Pozo station, inbetween Alcala and Atocha.

Rescue workers rushed to the scene and the ambulances kept on coming for hours and hours. Soon the Red Cross put out an urgent request for blood donations to help them deal with the crisis. Temporary hospitals were set up at the stations to deal with the wounded. By March 15 there were 201 dead, with 14 in hospital still in a very critical condition - hence it looks likely that this attack will prove to be more deadly than the Bali bombings. Over 1,600 people were injured in the attacks.


The Spanish government's response, along with other analysts who didn't have a vested interest, was immediately to blame Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, "Basque Fatherland and Liberty" in Basque). It was "crystal clear" they had perpetrated the attacks, said the Foreign Minister, and he instructed embassies to tell everyone else likewise. There was certainly some evidence pointing in this direction. ETA is a Marxist terrorist organisation (recognised as such by the USA and the EU) which aims to set up a socialist Basque state in what is currently the French départment of Pyrénées-Atlantiques and the Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, Alava and Navarre. Founded in 1959 (before Spain was a liberal democracy), the group has carried out a number of terrorist attacks on Spanish policemen, politicians and civilians.

ETA has typically attempted to assassinate politicians. Prime Minister Luis Carerro Blanco fell foul of them in December of 1973, and attempts were made on the life of Jose Maria Aznar and King Juan Carlos in 1995. They have also carried out a number of car bombings, and delivered their most destructive attack to a supermarket in Barcelona on June 19, 1987, killing 21 and injuring 45. Since 1968 ETA has claimed responsibility for 800 deaths, but Aznar's hard-line policy was believed to be reducing the threat. In 1999 the government refused to hold any more talks with ETA until they renounced violence, ending a ceasefire that had begun a year after six million people demonstrated against ETA's killing of a councillor in July 1997. But ETA's strength was well believed to be on the wane, with only three killings claimed by them in 2003.

The evidence which could be brought against ETA was not entirely inconsiderable, but some of it proved faulty. The Spanish government almost certainly was far too insistent that ETA were responsible for the attacks in the face of confusing evidence, and the theory later became almost untenable. If ETA was involved in the attacks, it seems most likely that they did so in collaboration with another group - they have before been known to co-operate with the Algerian militant group GIA. A batch of dynamite stolen from France in 1999 which has been used by ETA before could provide the decisive link. Dynamite has a "chemical signature" and analysis can be carried out to tell if it's the same batch. Failing that, the evidence pointing towards ETA was thus -

  • On February 29, 2004, Spanish police arrested two "suspected" ETA members along with 500kg of explosives which were heading into Madrid. Little has been said about this since.
  • Following initial forensic analysis, the Spanish authorities said that the explosive used was titadine, which ETA has used recently. However, analysis of the unexploded device at El Pozo found it to be Goma-2, which has not been used by ETA since the 1980s and is made in Spain.
  • ETA have suffered much under Aznar, and their political wing has been made illegal. This could have been a desparate attack by the remaining members, younger and more radical than the previous generation. Although this is different in scale to anything done before by the group, the 500kg mentioned above could have done much worse.
  • ETA has a history of carrying out bomb attacks in Madrid.

Although even some of the above is problematic, there are more reasons to suspect ETA didn't carry out the attack, at least not on their own. Firstly, ETA customarily issue a warning prior to carrying out an attack, which wasn't done this time. Not even claiming responsibility after the fact, ETA seemed more worried than anything - and they attributed the attacks to the "Arab resistance". Secondly, as the head of Europol and many others agreed, this was not ETA's modus operandi. Surely aware of the strength of public opinion already against them, ETA has never carried out an attack on this scale nor aimed to kill this indiscriminately. Unless this represents a younger, more insane, generation, it seems like a counter-productive act for ETA. Al-Qaeda's modus operandi is counter-productive acts.

Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades

The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades sent an e-mail communique to what MEMRI describes as the "pro-Saddam, pro-bin Laden" Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi in London, which is where they usually send their claims. Past claims include responsibility, as a representative of al-Qaeda, for -

  • The bombing of two synagogues in Turkey on November 15, 2003, in which 27 people died.
  • The bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003 that killed 22, including Sergio Vieira de Mello.
  • The power failure in August 2003 in the USA and Canada (caused by technical problems), which they called Operation Quick Lightning in the Land of the Tyrant of This Generation.

And now, the Madrid bombings, or The Trains of Death Operation. Starting with three Koranic verses, the statement was self-congratulatory on how the Brigades had managed to attack the "crusader heartland". The attacks, it said, were a punishment against "so-called civilians" for deaths of Muslims in "Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Kashmir". MEMRI does not believe the statement to be an authentic al-Qaeda document because it defies linguistic and stylistic rules that are usually observed in documents from the organisation. It seems unlikely that this group, if they exist, carried out the attack.


Although the Spanish government might not have liked to admit it, this attack had all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden may be hanging around mostly in caves nowadays, but there is evidence that his organisation - which is to no extent monolithic or tightly-knit - is still going strong. Osama bin Laden specifically threatened Spain in a tape released in October 2003, noting their involvement in the US coalition of the willing against Iraq. As soon as the Spanish government had "confirmed" ETA was responsible, evidence to the contrary began to come out. On March 11 a van containing detonators was found near the station that all the trains passed through. Inside was an Arabic language casette tape, which caused a great stir until it was revealed that this was comercially-purchased and could merely have been a red herring.

On March 12, it was revealed by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment that governments had known an attack of this sort was coming for months. Apparently it was to be directed against a country which was having an election, but it was believed the country was going to be Iraq. Documents belonging to a senior al-Qaeda leader had been obtained which detailed a plan to break up the coalition of the willing by carrying out attacks on its members, starting with the most vulnerable. The group have certainly been active in Spain prior to the attack, and it is believed that some of the planning for the September 11 attacks took place there. In November 2001 eight men were arrested there, believed to be part of al-Qaeda, and one was alleged to have a link to ETA. Al-Qaeda has links to the GIA in Algeria, which has links to ETA. Terrorists love to fraternise.

It was widely reported after the attack that it had taken place exactly 911 days after 9/11, which was believed to be a strong indication of some sort of symbolism drawing parallels between the two. When excited reporters sat down and did their sums, however, it emerged that it was in fact 912 days after the attacks in America. Whether this was at all significant is something that we'll have to wait and see as the investigation moves on.

On March 13, a Madrid television station received a phone call from a man speaking in Arabic with a Moroccan accent saying that a videotape could be found in a bin near a Madrid mosque. The statement on the video said -

"We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a-half years after the attacks on New York and Washington.

It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies.

This is a response to the crimes that you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it.

You love life and we love death, which gives an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said.

If you don't stop your injustices, more and more blood will flow and these attacks will seem very small compared to what can occur in what you call terrorism.

This is a statement by the military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan al-Afghani."

Abu Dujan was a warrior in the time of Mohammed, and the name has been adopted by other al-Qaeda and Islamist operatives. In May of 2002 a "Pakistani infiltrator" who used the name was shot dead by Indian security officials. It isn't yet known whether the tape is authentic. Three Moroccans and two Indians have been arrested since the attack, and one is believed to have connections to a Moroccan extremist group. More on this as it develops.


As the attacks were reported on the eight o'clock news, shockwaves spread through the country. The Association of Arabic Entrepreneurs in Spain was quick to condemn the attack, saying that its members feared for their safety if al-Qaeda were involved. Perhaps confirming their fears, a police officer in Pamplona shot and killed his neighbour, who was involved with an organisation for the relatives of ETA prisoners. The man had apparently refused to show the Spanish flag with a black ribbon of national grief on it. The policeman immediately gave himself up for arrest.

Aznar declared three days of mourning following the attacks, and spontaneous demonstrations against ETA broke out shortly after the attacks had taken place. Basque Country President Juan José Ibarretxe called for these, saying that "when ETA attacks, the Basque heart breaks into a thousand pieces". On March 12, nearly eleven and a half million people marched in demonstrations across Spain, with two million in Madrid alone. This is out of a population of forty million in Spain, and compares to the imprecise tally of ten million who protested against the Iraq war worldwide on February 15 of 2003.

Most marked were the political consequences. The government of Aznar continued to blame ETA even as evidence of the Islamist link mounted, and they were accused of withholding information to try and save the election. Public opinion soured and passed the mantle of government to the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), denying the Popular Party the third term they expected. The PSOE was helped not only by the government's incompetence at public relations following the attacks, but by a 10% higher turnout than last time - a higher turnout tends to mean more votes for the Socialists.

For the outside world, this means two main things. Firstly, the new Spain will align itself with the Franco-German block within the European Union, and move away from Britain. Secondly, along with this will mean departure from the coalition of the willing and withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. This is the first time a government that supported the Iraq war has been voted out of power, and the circumstances make unhappy meditation for other European governments. If taking any initiative in the war on terror means it's possible to get attacked and suffer a public backlash, it makes governments taking action in the war on terror less likely. People who subscribe to the U.S. version of the war on terror - which includes the war on Iraq - are finding it harder to make this reconcile with people who see the war as primarily a law enforcement task.

Europe may now finally mentally have entered the new age of (in)security. How European governments respond to the challenge, and how their electorates respond to the attacks when they come, is vital. The Spanish people have chosen their way, but it is not likely to be a way that Mr. Blair finds reassuring. Blair's vision considers it a myth that extremists only target you when you do something specifically to offend them, such as supporting the war on Iraq. It is undeniable that supporting such an action makes you a high-profile target for the terrorists, but one is reminded of the dictum from Nazi Germany: "At first they came for the Communists but I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, I wasn't a Catholic. Then they came for me and there was no one else to object."

The new Spanish government has already been accused of appeasing terrorism. The tone of the outburst from the new Prime Minister directly after the election, saying he would withdraw troops (which he pledged to do before the election), must represent either inexperience or exceptionally strong views. Withdrawing troops from Iraq might appease extremists while they move onto the next target, but it won't keep them away for ever. The attempted attack on Strasbourg in 2000 was not provoked by any particular incident, and the terrorist cells active in France and Germany right now don't care whether Schroeder and Chirac have a quarrel with George W. Bush. The massacres of Muslims perpetrated by these groups show they have little care for or need of public opinion.

If we handle this incorrectly, this might be our Khobar Towers rather than our 9/11. The European community needs to work together to stop vicious attacks like this at the heart of our democracy. Let's hope that it doesn't take a 9/11 proper, like it did in America, to make us realise this. Electoral swings might favour the parties of appeasement now, but if they fail the reaction will be all the more uncompromising.

Sources: BBC,, The Times, The Telegraph, CNN, The Australian, arieh, others who poked me to add more info

Maybe this was premature. But better we remember than forget. Updates will come.

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