Madrid Bombing: Evidence So Far

Ok: it’s just gone half past six, and demonstrations all over Spain are getting ready to go. Meantime I will leave you with the following thoughts:

I think it must be difficult for anyone outside Spain to understand just how complicated this situation here is. As everyone by now knows, the Spanish police are following two leads: one that of Eta, and the other that of Al Qaeda. On the one hand the difference between the two – since in either case the question is one of terrorism – is minimal, on the other it couldn’t be greater.

In assessing the impact and consequences of the attack, perhaps the first of the major questions which strikes you is the quantity of immigrants – both documented and undocumented – who were involved. Just looking for five minutes at the TV images of the relatives filing past the cameras in the hospitals and mortuaries makes this abundantly clear. There are in fact victims from 11 countries, many of these countries surely being in Latin America. In fact so important is this question that Jos? Maria Aznar spent a significant part of his public appearance this morning underlining that any person among the victims who was found to be ‘undocumented’ would automatically be ‘regularised’. In addition any immigrants who have died in the attack and who had not been naturalised are automatically to be conceded the status of Spanish citizens, for themselves (posthumously) and for their families. What this decision highlights is the quantity of recently arrived immigrants that there are now here in Spain, and confronting some of the all too evident implications of this reality will undoubtedly now be one of the first priorities of the incoming government.

This brings me to my first ‘correction’: yesterday morning I said.. “and the victims are a total cross-section of Spanish society: from executives to recently arrived illegal immigrants”….. in fact this is wrong. There are relatively few executives, the majority of the victims it is now obvious come from poor families.

A second question relates to the means of communication. Firstly one detail: it is in situations like this, probably for the immediacy of the images it can provide, and the direct contact it facilitates between events and audience, that television really has no competitors. As I write I am listening to Spanish TV to see what additional details may emerge. Googling is no alternative. It is hard to distinguish the truly novel, and the truly interesting, from amongst the enormous quantity of written material available.

The other point about the means of communication in Spain is that they are not homogeneous. Depending on which part of Spain you live-in your appreciation of events is different. One example: despite listening to as many news broadcasts as I can, the first mention on national state TV (TVE1) of the existence of the e-mail to the Arab newspaper in London that I heard was when the Minister of Labour denounced it in an interview around 10:00 this morning. Subsequently it has been mentioned with apparent normality. Catalan regional TV had been giving details of the letter, and analysing its significance since 10:00 last night. As one journalist on the TV behind me has just commented: we seem to be living in two countries.

This difference also applies to the theory of who is responsible: one part of Spain seems to believe the opposite of what the other part believes, almost as a point of principal.

This is an old idea and was expressed by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado in the following way:

Espa?olito que vienes al mundo,
te guarde Dios,
una de las dos espa?as
ha de helarte el coraz?n

Which means, roughly translated:

Little Spaniard,
coming into the world,
May God watch over you,
for one of the two Spains
has to freeze your heart..

Those who saw the Almodovar film Live Flesh (Carne Tremula) and the young child coming into the world, born to a prostitute on a municipal bus, may understand better this evocation.

It was as if Spain was condemned to relive this division over, and over, and over again.

Now even assuming the case that this tragedy has been the work of Al Qaeda (which I don’t fully accept at this moment in time), this division continues to reproduce itself in the fact that one part of Spain wants to believe this to be true, while the other doesn’t.

Personally I am for the moment hanging on to the Eta connection, partly in the absence of more conclusive proof, and partly since contemplating the other eventuality seems something so enormous, that I am reluctant to embrace it simply for the magnitude of the consequences. Maybe many Spaniards are like me: simply in awe of the possibility.

However there are reasons for believing that Eta may have had a hand in what happened. Firstly for a reason which leadsKevin Drum to discount their involvement:

you’d think that even fanatical Basque terrorists would realize that four days before an election is not a good time to do something like this.

No Kevin: I fear this is not how Eta works. Many like me jumped to the conclusion that it was Eta, simply because of the timing. Everyone was anticipating some act of defiance or other from them before Sunday, this was the only way you could read their truce in one part of Spain: as an explicit menace to the other part.

Then there were the explosives:

Yet in the chaotic aftermath of the bombings, antiterrorism officials cautioned that other evidence seemed to implicate ETA.

One Spanish official who spoke on the condition he not be named said the dynamite-like explosive used in the attacks, Titadine, had been used before by ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom.

Most recently, the official said, the police found the same explosive in a vehicle they intercepted last month as it was driven to Madrid by ETA militants. The police also found bomb-laden backpacks like those used in yesterday’s attacks when they foiled a bombing at a Madrid train station on Christmas Eve, an event they linked to ETA.

Yesterday’s bombings also came after months of intelligence reporting that ETA was planning a major attack, several Spanish officials said. The timing of the violence ? with national elections scheduled for Sunday ? seemed to suggest ETA’s hand as well, they said.
New York Times

John Chappell at Iberian Notes floats another idea:

Here’s the paranoid conspiracy theory that is cropping up in my mind. ETA plants the bombs, and this was clearly an ETA-style job, but tries to make it look like Al Qaeda, or at least bring up the suspicion as best they can–and note that the first person to link the alleged “Arab resistance” group and the massacre in Madrid was none other than ETA mouthpiece Arnaldo Otegui. Their strategy: Piss off the people against Aznar and the PP, their sworn enemies, for getting us in the sights of Al Qaeda. That’s a terribly narrow and selfish attitude to have–”Aznar and Bush got these people killed” for daring to use force to stop terrorism. Enough people might have that very attitude, though, that there’s a backlash at the polls on Sunday against the PP and they lose the election. That’s something ETA would very much like to see.

The ‘conspiracy idea’ certainly shouldn’t be completely discarded, although what we need to be able to take it seriously is evidence. The logic though doesn’t convince me at all. If Eta has attempted to influence the course of the Spanish elections, then I am more or less convinced that this would be to try and ensure a return of the PP. They would do this of course, not because they are sympathisers, but because they want confrontation, and what they don’t want is a government in Madrid who would be more sympathetic to the demands of the moderate nationalists, who would then be able to attract many of their ‘soft supporters’. This is precisely what the socialist leader Rodriguez Sabatero seemed to be offering, and this is why, IMHO, they would do nothing which might help him get elected.

I agree with John that one should be absolutely distrustful of any statement made by someone like Otegui, and my reading would be that he intervened so rapidly because he did have some kind of information (even if second hand information) and this could point to the existence of a splinter in Eta which might, or might not, be hand-in-hand with Al Qaeda.

In the end I don’t really buy this version of the conspiracy theory, since one of the objectives of a terrorist organisation would seem precisely to be having the responsibility attributed to them. The denial of Otegui may be serious, in the sense that they fear the backlash in the Basque Country, and this may reinforce the splinter hypothesis, since if what you were looking for was a massive destruction of human life it is not clear why you would shy away from the consequences of your actions. But here there are a lot of ‘mays’ and ‘seems’, and enormous assumptions to the effect that what may lack all logic in fact obeys some rules of coherence: so perhaps it is simply better I speculate less, and await the arrival of more confirmed facts.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

13 thoughts on “Madrid Bombing: Evidence So Far

  1. Re: conspiracy theory: this doesn’t seem to hold at all since these exlposions will surely help to re-elect the authoritarian party of Aznar. Despite their declining popularity, in these situations people want the guys acting tough, regardless of the merits of these policies…

  2. Mat,

    Eh, please do correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that Aznar and the conservatives have suffered no more than the typical rate of declining popularity associated with actually having to hold power, and that this election was quite likely to go their way, bombs or no. (And war or no…)

    I see this, BTW, as a solid cost-benefit basis for pooh-poohing the idea that this was done _by_ the government. I can see some heartless bastards doing such a thing if they’re going to lose big, but it would appear to be pointless (or even counter-productive) if you’re going to win.

    Bernard Guerrero

  3. Per what I just heard on RFI,
    The detonator caps were found to have been made of copper, while ETA’s detonators have always previously been made of aluminum…that for this to have been an ETA job, they’d have had to have completely changed their modus operandi…

    Beware the Javert Syndrome.

  4. “The detonator caps were found to have been made of copper”

    This seems to be the case, the explosives are not titadine either. Also an eta ‘spokesman’ has attempted to disclaim responsibility. Lots of details, which you can read as you want depending what your bigger picture is. My feeling is more or less towards an eta ‘splinter’ group, and a middle east connection. But it is only a feeling.

  5. The problem with this case is that all the evidence that we have atm is of either motives, or modus operandi kind. You can pretty much say either of the two group accused could have done it. Another possibility is that it might be a third terrorist group that is behind this attack, buggered if I would know who it is though.

  6. I’m probably missing something, but don’t we now have on the one hand a group that actively claims the massacre and another that says they have nothing to do with it?
    Why insist on ETA? I can see no logic in an attack like this. Blind attacks are not the modus operandi of organizations that depend on the soft support of confortable constituencies. It’s self defeating. The ETA guys are mafiosi, but they are not idiots. If they wanted to prop up Aznar, they could have murdered a provincial police captain or commit one of the usual criminal acts that they do, which would have done the job nicely (if Edward’s scenario is true) without risking a complete estrangement from a majority of their base…
    This is a different scale of madness alltogether.
    So I have to point at the Islamists, although it seems that each islamist strike is done by a different, unknown until that time, group… but that’s the only guess on the table that sort of makes sense right now.

  7. Talos, the group that “claims the massacre”: Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades, has little to no credibility. Most recently they claimed responsibility for the power blackouts in New York and Canada last year which turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism.

  8. “has little to no credibility”

    Again we have to be very careful here, since experts in middle east politics have also been pointing out thet they claim responsibility for the recent bombing in Turkey and the bombing of the UN building in Iraq. If they were responsibile for these attacks this would make the Madrid bombing a logical evolution for them. The letter also mentions the attack against the Italians in Iraq. So I think we need to be very careful.

    I think the big problem is that people are positioning themselves ideologically on this, and this is the most dangerous part. Each person interprets each piece of new evidence following their own preconceived theory.

    “Blind attacks are not the modus operandi of organizations”

    The problem with this theory Talos is what were the people arrested in Burgos on the train on the way to another Madrid station on Christmas Eve actually doing? To all appearances they were going to cause an explosion in the centre of Madrid.

    The name Omagh has already been mentioned.

    Personally, I have always held in private the theory that they were ‘shopped’ on xmas eve: that is that there is a ‘battle royale’ going on inside the world of Eta with those who favour the referendum, and those who know no other objective than violence. Really everyone interested in this topic should get the video of ‘The Boxer’ with Daniel Day Lewis, it should help a lot.

    We should never underestimate how much the personal is indistinguisable from the political in Spain. Eta has a personal thing with Aznar (just like the Ira had with Thatcher). Aznar had the priority objective of getting Eta included in the same list of terrorists as Al Qaeda. My hunch is that some people around Eta have interpreted this as throwing down the guantlet, and have said OK we are indistinuishable from Al Qaeda then ‘so be it’.

    Many people like to say ‘why distinguish between brands of terrorism’. Perhaps it makes them feel morally good and warm inside. I however consider this view foolish and dangerous. I fear the results of this conflation may have just been seen on the streets of Madrid. If we are to fight terrorism successfully we need to do it intelligently, with our eyes open, and without ideologically driven distortions of reality.

  9. Edward,

    I’m interested in what you said about the division within Spanish society over reactions to this bombing. You wrote that “this division continues to reproduce itself in the fact that one part of Spain wants to believe this to be true, while the other doesn’t.”

    I’d like to hear more. Why does one part want to believe it was ETA and another part want to believe it was Al Qaeda? What exactly is the basis of this split?


  10. Edward you mention Omagh… Now you can choose to dismiss the homicidal idiots of the “Real” IRA, when they claimed that this massacre was not what they intended ( ) but it is significant in the context of my argument that they felt the need to *apologize* – and we?re talking about people who were not exactly known for their pacifism.

    Now can one dismiss the possibility of an ETA splinter group committing this atrocity? No, of course not. But if they were going to do it, there would be no point to the attack from their perspective, unless they claimed responsibility for it. Especially if, as you claim, their intent might have been to re-elect Aznar (and it didn’t seem like he would need much help), the fact that an Islamist group claimed responsibility, thus certainly increasing the Socialists’ chances, should have had them on the phone next minute making a counterclaim.
    Instead, ETA calls to *distance* itself from the attack? I?m not sure whether there were any previous instances of ETA *rejecting* responsibility for an attack that was subsequently proven to be their handiwork (that?s a question: was there?)
    Also technically, I doubt that a recent ETA splinter group could coordinate a perfectly timed attack to such an extent.

    Again only time will tell.

    As for the ?Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades? I was of course wrong in suggesting that they were a ?previously unknown? group ? that?s what I first heard on the radio and didn?t check it any further. As Edward has pointed out they have also claimed responsibility for Turkey and the UN compound in Iraq, so they have a mixed record.
    Having said that, there?s something ?unreal? about this organization which I can?t put my finger on yet?

    Interestingly, the only previous attack in Europe, that is similar in its bloodiness, cold bloodedness, its murderous intent and its indiscriminateness, is the Bologna train station massacre in the 70s? But I won?t get into that because I would then have to mention ?Gladio? – and then the doors to a possible conspiracy theory, which I?m not at all eager to indulge in, will lie open.

  11. “But if they were going to do it, there would be no point to the attack from their perspective, unless they claimed responsibility for it.”

    I am hearing this, it does seem to make sense, but I prefer to wait, I think there may be more to hear. Surely next week things will get clearer. At the moment there are just too many things that don’t fit.

    Every theory being offered has at least one fact too many to explain. I certainly hope I have at least ‘corrected’ my original strong version. I am now going to try and exercise prudence.

    “Also technically, I doubt that a recent ETA splinter group could coordinate a perfectly timed attack to such an extent.”

    Actually it wasn’t quite perfect, but that is beside the point. I agree, if there is a hybrid model it would seem to fit the new outsourcing format perfectly: eta may have provided the manpower and the raw materials and someone else the brainpower.

    A lot would seem to hang on whether the ?Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades? have really done the things they claim to have done. But then using indirect reasoning, if they had then international intelligence would probably be able to confirm that, and then international security should be much higher. It isn’t *so* high, so someone other than the Spanish politicians must not rate them too strongly. Bottom line: we are still none the wiser.

    Remember the ‘commando’ who did this are still out there, and can strike again, so you have to imagine beyond the politics people must be taking this very seriously indeed. This is, of course, why police ‘leaks’ are frequent, why various lines of investigation have been opened, and why I am entertaining doubts.

    On the other side they are now inteviewing witnesses on the TV who saw the people from the van putting the rucksacks in one of the trains. They say that they were hiding their faces, but they make no suggestion that they were anything other than Spanish. I think we can expect much more of this as the days pass. there must be plenty of people out there with relevant information.

    “(and it didn’t seem like he would need much help)”

    I don’t know whether this part of my argument is a good one. I have always assumed Eta favour PP since they get the confrontation they thrive on. They have certainly assasinated prinicipally PP people, but have notably imediately assasinated someone from PSOE whenever there was any possibility of raproachment between PNV and PSE (the Basque nationalists and socialists respectively). Since a change in government would re-open dialogue with the peaceful nationalists it is hard to see Eta favouring this. Especially now they would find themselves incredibly isolated.

    But don’t jump to the conclusion that the PP were walking away with a victory, the last polls indicated they had lost their absolute majorityand that PSOE were closing. Given that the other main beneficiary seemed likely to be Carod’s ERC, and that the old Catalan nationalist party CiU seemed about to be substantially losing ground (thus making an agreement with PP very difficult for them) we even had the surreal possibility opening up of the ‘Catalan Formula’ reaching Madrid, and Carod in an agreement with PSOE.

    Now some ideological views would say that Eta would love that. But think of it for a minute: Eta’s objective is undoubtedly all-or-nothing independence. In fact they are near to seeing that topic on the agenda due to the deterioration in the Madrid- Vittoria climate. So along come the PSOE and Carod with a new Federal structure for Spain, with Euskadi definitely inside Spain: now how could they favour that?

    However, as I say somewhere else, what I may be guilty of is trying to apply too much logic to something which doesn’t have any.

  12. I feel that your new president (has no huervos) by bringing his 1,300 troops back home. I do not think that this will keep al quida from bombing again unless he has made a deal with them. I am ASTURIAN and I know that it takes us to take care of Spain when it needs it. History has shown that. Estes Presidenti nos tuenes nadas por la libertaria de espana