The Madrid Bombings: Spain as a “Jihad” Highway to Western Europe

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 2 Issue: 4

In 711 A.D., Arab armies under Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, conquering Spain and sweeping northwards into France. The Madrid bombings seem to indicate that Muslim fundamentalists are well aware of their history and are using Spain’s proximity to North Africa as a conduit to carry their struggle into the heart of Western Europe.

The Madrid bombings on 11 March opened a deep rift, not only in Spanish society, but across Europe. The initial concern in the aftermath of the bombings was whether the Basque separatist group Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna [Fatherland and Liberty – (ETA)] was responsible for the massacre, or it portended something more ominous, the opening of an Islamic terrorist campaign in Western Europe. Four days later, there seems little doubt that groups affiliated with al-Qaeda perpetrated the atrocity and that Madrid’s claims of ETA involvement were desperate wishful thinking. Two hundred people were killed in the attacks and 1,463 wounded in the worst terrorist incident since 11 September 2001. Other European governments fearing the involvement of Islamists linked to al-Qaeda have stepped-up security across Europe.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, the Spanish government proclaimed that ETA terrorists carried out the attacks. While King Juan Carlos did not mention ETA in his initial comments about the blasts, referring instead to terrorism in general, Interior Minister Angel Acebes and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar both accused the ETA of perpetrating the attacks. “Why does the government think there may be evidence that leads us to the terrorist organization we know so well here? What did this terrorist organization want when they tried to enter Madrid last week with 500 kilos of explosives?” asked Aznar rhetorically. “…It’s a line of investigation any Spanish government that hasn’t lost its head has to follow. It’s the one we are following, and if there are other hypotheses, we’ll follow them too.” For Aznar the attack had personal overtones: on 19 April 1995 ETA attempted to assassinate Aznar, at that time leader of the opposition and widely expected to be Spain’s next Prime Minister. A 45-lb remote-controlled bomb placed in a vehicle exploded when Aznar’s armor plated vehicle passed by, causing heavy damage to the car. Aznar escaped with minor injuries, though a female pedestrian did die in the attempt.

ETA scored its greatest political success on 20 December 1973, when it assassinated Franco’s likely successor, seventy year-old Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco.

The attack underlined the thoroughness of ETA operations. The plotters rented an apartment on Claudio Coello and dug a tunnel under the street where they cached their explosives. The explosives were detonated by remote control shortly after Blanco’s vehicle left San Francisco de Borga Church. The blast hurled the car over a six-story building and the church roof; it landed on the second floor terrace of a building on the other side of the church. Blanco, his bodyguard and chauffeur all died in the attack. Blanco had reportedly received threatening letters two days before his death. Not since the Civil War had a government minister died in such violent circumstances

ETA spokesmen immediately denied any links to the bombings. Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the ETA political affiliate Batasuna denied Madrid’s assertion that the ETA bombed trains in the capital Madrid, blaming “the Arab resistance” instead, saying that he “refused to believe” that ETA was responsible. Spanish Government spokesman Eduardo Zaplana condemned the “attack on Spanish democracy” and labeled the ETA a “criminal gang of killers.” Zaplana said, “There are dozens of victims…and the killers are trying to sow even more terror, spreading chaos…This is a collective killing by the criminal band which is ETA.”

ETA has killed around 850 people since 1968 in its separatist fight for Basque independence. It declared a ceasefire limited to the northeastern region of Catalonia in February but made clear it would pursue the armed struggle in the rest of the country. Later that month, police arrested two suspected ETA members on their way to Madrid with a van containing 1,100 lbs of explosives. Spanish government officials also pointed out the fact that police arrested two ETA suspects last Christmas trying to carry out a train bombing that carried many of the hallmarks of the Atocha bombings.

Madrid’s hypothesis about ETA began to unravel almost immediately. Spanish security forces in Alcala de Henares in Madrid found an abandoned van with timing devices for explosives and an audiotape with passages from the Koran. The next day, a videotape was found in a trashcan outside Madrid’s largest mosque after an Arabic-speaking man with a Moroccan accent led Madrid TV to that location. While the Interior Ministry released only a small portion of the tape, the excerpts were chilling; the spokesman 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.”

Spain had been warned of their involvement with the “Crusader” army of George Bush and Tony Blair in previous Al-Qaeda statements and more recently in both the last statements issued by Osama bin Laden and Dr. Aymen Al-Zawhari, which followed the attack on the Spanish embassy in Iraq. The bombing investigation quickly enlisted the efforts of other European intelligence agencies in attempting to pin down the true identity of the man on the tape, Abu Dujan al Afghani, supposedly “the military spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe.”

London’s Arabic-language press also weighed in on the perpetrators of the attacks. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in London ran an article with the headline “Intelligence 99 percent certain of al-Qaeda’s responsibility, while the government clings to accusing ETA”. The paper quoted a Spanish intelligence source who noted, “The attack carried the fingerprints of radical fundamentalists and it was carried out by a large group of between 10 and 15 operatives, who may by now be out of the country.” Al-Quds al-Arabi Arabic newspaper subsequently received a claim of responsibility in al-Qaeda’s name, as did the website Jihad Unspun. Jihad Unspun also received a claim of responsibility from a previously unknown group, the “Lions of al-Mufridoon.” The group is believed to consist of Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian members linked to Al-Qaeda.

On 13 March police arrested two Spanish citizens of Indian descent, Vinay Kohly and Suresh Kumar, and three Moroccans they said were linked to the sale of a cellular phone found in one unexploded bomb, apparently intended for use as a detonator. While 30 year-old Jamal Zougam faces no formal charges in Morocco, Moroccan security suspects him of having ties to terrorist groups and had put him under surveillance along with 1000s of other Moroccan citizens in the wake of the Casablanca attacks. The Casablanca bombings were blamed on Salafia Jihadia, a shadowy radical Islamic group suspected of links to al-Qaeda. The other two Moroccan suspects, Mohamed Bekkaliand Mohamed Chaoui have no police record in Morocco. The trio is all from northern Morocco, a region heavily populated with Islamic militants, where many people grow marijuana to smuggle to Europe.

Moroccan security officials who had been collaborating with Spanish officials on the 16 May 2003 Casablanca bombings, which killed 33 people and 12 bombers, also arrived in Spain to help in the investigation. Following the bombings, Moroccan security detained more than 6,000 people for questioning, with the courts eventually convicting about 1,000 of them. The month after the Casablanca attacks, Spanish authorities arrested two Moroccan suspects: Abdelaziz Benyaich, a man with dual French-Moroccan nationality was arrested in Algeciras, while Hicham Temsemani, was arrested in a train heading from Paris to Madrid. Authorities suspected Temsemani of helping finance the Casablanca attacks; he was subsequently extradited to Morocco.

Moroccan authorities confirmed the identities of the three Moroccans arrested the previous day. Amina, a Moroccan friend of Zougam doubted the official descriptions the man in custody, saying, “He is a normal warm guy, just trying to make a living. He has a telephone store. He has a Spanish girlfriend, a normal life. He is not an Islamist.”

Despite the mounting evidence, Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes continued to cling to doubts that Muslim fundamentalists were involved. When the Interior Ministry released details about the videotape’s contents on 14 March, Acebes maintained, “Our reservations about the credibility remain.”

Evidence obtained after the five arrests finally forced Acebes to abandon his ETA thesis. Unlike his Moroccan counterparts, Acebes claimed that three of the suspects had previous records, and one was under investigation for participation in murder. Acebes’ ministry leaked the information that the Moroccans were linked to Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, the suspected leader of al-Qaeda’s Spanish operations. Authorities in Morocco said they could not comment on the report. Yarkas, a Spaniard of Syrian background, was indicted along with Osama bin Laden for planning the 11 September attacks on the United States. Yarkas has been in Spanish custody since November 2001.

Despite the successes of Western intelligence agencies in the war against terror, it would seem that the West is in for a protracted struggle. The mission is twofold; to enforce border security while simultaneously uncovering terrorists already present. If history is any guide, then Spain could become the frontline in Europe’s war on terror.