Madrid Bombing: Update But Not Yet A Retraction

Update: Friday morning 8:30 CET. The uncertainty about the authors of this crime continues. I think having been fairly forthright at the start, prudence on my part is now what is called for while the investigation continues. Meanwhile I think it is important we don’t lose sight of the magnitude of what has happened: 198 dead, and 1,430 injured according to the latest government figures. It is with the victims and their families that our first thoughts should go. I will post again if and when there is meaningful news, and in any event around 19.00 CET when the demonstrations will be assembling.

Now: Just to follow up on my Madrid bombing post. I have to recognise that the evidence is now more contradictory than it was this morning when I first posted. First we have the case of the van with the tape: the van in fact contained seven detonators and a tape in Arabic. The Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes said the tape had recordings of verses from the Koran.

And then there is the letter to the London based al-Quds newspaper.

A letter purporting to come from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network has claimed responsibility for the train bombings in Spain, calling them strikes against “crusaders”, according to a London-based Arabic newspaper.

“We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance,” said the letter which called the attacks “Operation Death Trains”. There was no way of authenticating the letter, a copy of which was faxed to Reuters’ office in Dubai by the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.

So I have to recognise that I may have got it wrong. The emphasis here is on may. If I do have it wrong I seem to be in good company, the UN itself just reached the same conclusion and the first version edition of the Spanish left-of-centre newspaper El Pais has run with a headline similar to that of my original post . One additional question which concerns me is how it was that Batasuna were themselves so rapidly on the Islamic trail. I mean if this isn’t Eta, there has been a terrible failing in international security. The CIA has no information, but Batasuna apparently sees ‘indications’: I don’t quite know what to make of that. Since I’ve presented my own views sufficiently before, and since I may have misjudged things, I present below some alternative hypotheses.

Killing civilians en masse and at random, Thursday’s Madrid bombings bear the signature of the modern militant age ushered in by al Qaeda, whoever actually planned them.

Security analysts said that if ETA separatists planted the rush-hour bombs that killed at least 180 people, they were drawing at least partly on al Qaeda’s inspiration and tactics.

Despite Spain’s insistence on blaming the Basque group, some experts were reluctant to rule out Islamist involvement.

“This kind of operation is the style of terrorism of our century…That’s the new modus operandi coming from militant Islamists,” said German security analyst Rolf Tophoven, contrasting the indiscriminate mode of the attacks with ETA’s traditional targeting of bankers, politicians or police.

Roland Jacquard, head of the International Terrorism Observatory in Paris, said Thursday’s bombings suggested the influence of “the World Trade Center effect” on the strategies of traditional militant groups — a reference to the U.S. September 11 attacks for which al Qaeda is blamed.

Manuel Coma, security expert at Spain’s Royal Elcano Institute, suggested Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network had caused a kind of global terror inflation.

“Since September 11, there has been a qualitative leap. Small attacks are no longer adequate. They (ETA) have to aim higher to have influence,” he said. A fourth analyst, Sebestyen Gorka, said any evidence of Islamist involvement or influence on a traditional European guerrilla group like ETA would mark a major precedent.

It would completely reverse an older trend whereby groups like the Irish Republican Army transferred their expertise to militants in the developing world like Colombia’s FARC, assisting with technology and training, he said.

Arguing for ETA’s involvement were the timing of the attacks, three days before Spanish elections, and a series of recent arrests and explosives seizures which suggested a major attack by the Basque group was in the offing.

SHIFT IN TACTICS

But the bombings departed from traditional ETA tactics in the lack of prior warning and the very scale of the operation, which killed over eight times more people than the group’s previous deadliest attack.

Also striking was the use of multiple, simultaneous explosions, 10 in all, borrowing a favoured tactic of al Qaeda.

European stockmarkets fell sharply on fears of Islamist involvement, even though the Spanish government firmly rejected that possibility.

“There are characteristics of each,” a U.S. official told Reuters, referring to ETA and al Qaeda.

“You have multiple attacks, multiple explosions in different locations in a short period of time which is very al Qaeda-ish.”

Islamist militants have ample motives to attack Spain, which has arrested a number of al Qaeda suspects. They have targeted Spanish interests before, for example in the May 2003 suicide bombing of a Spanish restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco.

“Spain is an Islamic target. It sides with Britain and the United States in the war on terror, and I have seen statements from Islamic militants claiming parts of Spain for the Islamic world,” said Richard Evans, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

“It would be premature to rule out at this stage the possible involvement of Islamic militants.”

If ETA committed the attacks, several analysts said this pointed to a split in its ranks and the emergence, after many senior leaders were caught, of what Jacquard called a “third generation” — younger, less experienced but more radical.

“The only explanation I have is that it’s a weakened but more radical ETA behind this. In other words, the older members have all been arrested and these are very young, very radical people left over,” Joachim Krause of the University of Kiel told Germany’s N-TV channel.

“They’ve perhaps taken al Qaeda as a role model, or other terrorists that turn to spectacular attacks, as in New York and Washington. They’ve seen that’s how to get media attention.” (Additional reporting by Jeremy Lovell in London, Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin)
Source: Reuters News
Link

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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".

14 thoughts on “Madrid Bombing: Update But Not Yet A Retraction

  1. Words are insuffient here to convey my sorrow and sympathies for the Spanish people.

    In news broadcasts, it has been very noticeable that those interviewed from what may be called Spain’s political establishment all expressed the conviction that this brutal outrage was undoubtedly the work of Eta, the Basque separatists, while independent news correspondents and British academics, specialsing in Spanish studies, were altogether more cautious about where to place responsibility.

    It would not in the least surprise me to learn that the perpetrators were al-Qaeda connected. If so, it seems to have escaped their notice that while Aznar’s government was committed to supporting the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, reports of polls in Spain show that the majority of Spanish people were opposed to supporting the war, as in most other European countries.

  2. I don’t see that there’s any good reason yet to assume that ETA wasn’t involved in this, regardless of any “Islamic” evidence that might have been found on the scene. See here for my thoughts on the matter.

  3. “I don’t see that there’s any good reason yet to assume that ETA wasn’t involved in this”,

    Don’t worry Abiola, I am not assuming it, I am just airing the other arguments whilst awaiting something more definitive.

    Those guys who were arrested recently on route to the same area of Madrid with four times the quantity of semtex used today were clearly planning to do something with it. I just think we need to be more guarded now till there is something much clearer to go on.

    You could look at this another way, if Eta weren’t involved in this in some way or another, what exactly are they planning to do, since the recent truce *just* for Catalonia clearly had some objective behind it.

    “and British academics, specialsing in Spanish studies, were altogether more cautious about where to place responsibility.”

    This may be true, but virtually all the voices I was listening to here this morning (not the politicians) were following the Eta trail. I more or less still am.

  4. To me, given ETA’s radical Third Worldism and al-Qaeda upset with Spanish foreign policy, it seems entirely possible that this might be a joint operation between the two terrorist organizations. Or, perhaps with an ETA radical group and al-Qaeda.

    Incidentally, I wonder, if al-Qaeda involvement is proved, what effect this might have on Spanish attitudes towards Moroccan/Muslim immigrants.

  5. ” I mean if this isn’t Eta, there has been a terrible failing in international security. The CIA has no information…”

    I don’t mean to be nitpicking at a time like this, but it does seem from an American perspective that, if this indeed was an Al Qaeda hit, Europeans have let themselves be deluded that it couldn’t happen to them.

    Were European security agencies as asleep as the CIA and FBI were, pre 9/11? Shouldn’t they have been more alert? Don’t the European security agencies rely more on human intel, instead of electronic eavesdropping? If that is the case, wasn’t surveillance practiced more diligently? And isn’t it plausible that terrorists by now know enough to shun electronics?

    I’m curious as to the prevalence of surveillance cameras at the train station in Madrid. I assume that, because of ETA, there are. If there were indeed 10 or more coordinated attacks, there should at least be some possibility that some of the perpetrators were caught on camera.

    In any case, I feel revolted and disgusted by this whole attack, and my heart goes out to all the victims and their families…

  6. From the Financial Times:

    “There are several reasons why Spain is an al-Qaeda target. The most current is its prominent role in Iraq, and the highly visible political support Mr Aznar gave to the US-led coalition before the invasion last March. Spain was singled out in statements issued by the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the war in Iraq, and there have been several attacks on Spanish officials in Iraq.

    “In the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks, Spanish investigators uncovered al-Qaeda cells and evidence that Islamists in Spain had helped the September 11 hijackers. New terrorist cells were also uncovered last year.

    “Spain is also at the western extremity of the historical “umma”, the Islamic world, dating from when Andalusia was ruled by Muslims. It’s reincorporation into the Islamic world is a stated al-Qaeda goal.” – at: http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&c=StoryFT&cid=1078381711978

  7. I wouldn’t be entirely shockied if it was combined operation. But if it was, and if I were European, I would be very very worried. A joint Al Qaeda – “local groups” set of alliances could be very damaging.

  8. If it is ETA, it’s not the first bombing at Atocha Station. 29 July 1979: six dead in a 3 terrorist attacks: Madrid-Barajas airport and in the Chamartin et Atocha stations.

  9. Thanks everyone for the comments, and please keep them coming in.

    “To me, given ETA’s radical Third Worldism and al-Qaeda upset with Spanish foreign policy, it seems entirely possible that this might be a joint operation between the two terrorist organizations. Or, perhaps with an ETA radical group and al-Qaeda.”

    Having said all of this, the Al Quaeda connection is still only one possible hypothesis. There is a clear difference in presentation of the facts between Spanish national and the autonomus regional TV stations (public TV is highly politicised here) and it is impossible to form a clear picture.

    Many of us remember all too clearly the information war surrounding the Prestige: yesterday’s events unfortunately will not be no exception to this way of handling things.

    Randy, this is a conclusion which is entirely plausible. Not perhaps for mainstream Eta, but for some splinter group or other.

    I jumped so strongly on the Eta hypothesis not because I gave strong credibility to Spanish government sources, but becuase of this detail:

    “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.”
    New York Times

    The fact that they had twice previously (and very recently) tried to get large quantities of the very class of explosives used into this exact area.

    I think only time will tell now.

    “Incidentally, I wonder, if al-Qaeda involvement is proved, what effect this might have on Spanish attitudes towards Moroccan/Muslim immigrants.”

    This is really going to be the big and lasting impact of this if the Al Quaeda connection is established. I am pretty worried.

    RSN

    “I don’t mean to be nitpicking at a time like this, but it does seem from an American perspective that, if this indeed was an Al Qaeda hit, Europeans have let themselves be deluded that it couldn’t happen to them. ”

    This is not nitpicking, this is completely to the point. Local Catalan TV is already pointing to the kind of campaign the Blair government has run in the UK to inform people of the danger, and the complete lack of seriousness and preparation here in Spain.

    Again, if this connection is established before Sunday, one of the key questions in the elections will be the style of governance of Aznar. Spanish people may or may not be prepared to assume the position of having a high anti-terrorist profile (opposition to the Iraq war was as everyone knows extraordinarily high here), but what they do seem to feel is that they have not been consulted as to their wishes.

    “I’m curious as to the prevalence of surveillance cameras at the train station in Madrid. I assume that, because of ETA, there are. If there were indeed 10 or more coordinated attacks, there should at least be some possibility that some of the perpetrators were caught on camera.”

    This is surely true, this, and interviewing the injured victims, should make it possible to clarify the situation reasonably rapidly.

    It should be said that whilst the reputation of the Spanish police in routine criminal investigation is not of the highest, in anti-terrorist investigation they do seem fairly effective. They normally go after the right people, and they often find them. This situation should be no exception.

    “Were European security agencies as asleep as the CIA and FBI were, pre 9/11? Shouldn’t they have been more alert?”

    This question really does need asking. Where were they? Or were we all mesmerised by Eta?

    Sebastian

    “But if it was, and if I were European, I would be very very worried. A joint Al Qaeda – “local groups” set of alliances could be very damaging.”

    Again, I very much agree. Fortunately there do not seem to seem to be too many ‘local groups’ with the required characteristics. Eta is very much a legacy of Europe’s past right now (thankfully).

    And if (and I say if) any Eta splinter group participation is established then Eta’s support among the Basques will surely deteriorate dramatically. Again I would go back to Otegi yesterday morning. How and why was he raising the Middle East connection so early? What was the basis for his confidence in this, what were his sources? Follow this trail, and you might get one step nearer the truth.

    “Spain is also at the western extremity of the historical “umma”, the Islamic world, dating from when Andalusia was ruled by Muslims. It’s reincorporation into the Islamic world is a stated al-Qaeda goal.”

    This is of course not without significance. In fact Bin Laden – in one of the widely distributed 09/11 videos – appears with a green line running half way across Spain, something which caused a lot of comment here. As one commentator explained on the TV last night, to really understand the Al Quaeda symobolism and language you need to go back to the medieval debates from the time of the ‘crusaders’.

  10. “As one commentator explained on the TV last night, to really understand the Al Quaeda symobolism and language you need to go back to the medieval debates from the time of the ‘crusaders’.”

    That’s credible enough although I’ve also read web commentary suggesting clear parallels between the stream of fascist ideology, in so far as it is coherent, and the particular fundamentalism of the Taliban/al-Qaeda axis. Perhaps too, there’s also a touch of masculine nostalgic yearning about preserving a life-style involving the subjugation of women: Osama Bin Laden is reported as having fathered some fifty something children.

    OTOH on Britain’s involvelment in the the Iraq war, we have the perennial relevance of Orwell’s insight in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

    “There is no doubt about the Englishman?s inbred conviction that those who live to the south of him are his inferiors; even our foreign policy is governed by it to some extent.” – from: http://orwell.ru/library/novels/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/e/ewp_04.htm

    I do find it rather alarming to be told that the Iraq war was justified just because “it was the right thing to do”:

    “It was a collective decision of the Government. We backed Tony Blair in all the difficult decisions he made. That was the right thing to do. It is still the right thing to do. No matter what the drama of individual debates or instances has been, you have got to get back to the central issues on which Tony spoke last week: was it right for Britain to take the action that removed Saddam Hussein? Yes.” – from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1035085,00.html

    Perhaps we might recall that before the outbreak of the Iraq war last March, there was no shortage of critical commentary then warning that war would likely stoke terrorism.

  11. Edward: I’m thinking you’re reading way too much in Otegi’s statement. He just made the obvious point that, since it wasn’t ETA, the only other entity with motive and means to do this are the Islamists. Who else is there?
    As time goes by, I find the possiblity of ETA involvement increasingly unlikely. It simply doesn’t make sense. Even if ETA is pretty much by now a principally criminal organization (and this seems pretty likely by now) it is still based on the kind of “soft support” in the Basque country that is bound to disintegrate after a blind attack such as this one. I remind you that the only remotely similar attack committed by ETA (the Barcelona supermarket bombings of 1987) was followed by a public apology “for the mistake”.
    As for ETA-Islamist colaboration, that, I think belongs to the realm of wild speculation.
    ETA and the Islamists have neither the connections nor the common purpose required for such a partnership. ETA would have nothing to gain by this alliance, and the Islamists frankly don’t need a dying infiltrated organization.

    Of course I might be proven wrong very soon…

    BTW I’m not believing a word of any Spanish official on this issue until *after* the elections.

  12. “Of course I might be proven wrong very soon…”

    Me too Talos, me too.

    I understand perfectly your scepticism about the Spanish official declarations, the next two days are all about elections. Just forgive me if I keep my eyes very much pinned on Otegi until this is clarified.

  13. Terrorism by any group is cruel and senseless.

    My deepest sympathies to the people of Spain,a nd especially the families of the victims.

  14. When something like this happens immediately before an election, I find it hard not to think that it is intended to influence the outcome of that election. I know it’s the classic conspiracy theory question, but, who stands to benefit? The rapid discovery of the unexploded bomb and the mobile phone which leads straight to the suspects may be excellent police work, but it does rather sound like bad fiction. Remember Bologna? Fascists have bombed Madrid before.

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