International Security Studies

Events

Al Qaeda's European Front: 3/11 and Its Implications

September 27, 2004 // 9:00am10:30am

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Studies, the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, was the second in a series on terrorism and homeland security.

On March 11, 2004, an Islamic extremist terrorist cell, inspired by Al Qaeda and operating in Spain, detonated ten bombs on four commuter trains destined for Madrid's train station within a space of two minutes. Each of the bombs contained 10 kilograms of explosive and was packed with nails to maximize its lethality. The attack, the second deadliest in European history (after the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbee, Scotland), created 191 fatalities and over 1000 casualties. The 3/11 bombing was not a suicide attack as the perpetrators had plans to strike other targets. On April 2nd, a bomb was discovered on the Madrid-Seville rail line. A day later, police discovered and surrounded an apartment in Madrid; rather than surrender, the terrorists detonated a large explosion. This bombing marked the first incidence of suicide terrorism in Europe. The terrorist group issued three communiqués claiming responsibility for the bombings in the name of Al Qaeda.

After the 3/11 attacks, the investigation conducted by Spanish intelligence and law enforcement produced considerable detail about the composition and activities of this terrorist network. The cell that carried out the bombing was supported by a larger group of approximately thirty individuals, who provided logistical and other practical support. Moroccans dominated the group because of the country's proximity to Spain, with other members coming from Syria, Algeria, and Lebanon. Al Qaeda views North Africans as prime candidates to carry out missions in Europe. All were males (ranging from 20-40 years in age) who lived in the same neighborhood in Madrid and were first-generation immigrants. (This last characteristic is in contrast to Britain and France where recruits to Islamic extremist groups have included second-generation family members.) Some in the group were radicalized in Morocco under the influence of Wahabbi clerics from Saudi Arabia; others were recruited in prison, a worrisome increasing trend.

Why was Spain the victim of the 3/11 attacks? According to public opinion polls, 60% of Spaniards believe they were directly linked to the country's involvement in the Iraq war as part of the United States' "coalition of the willing." More detailed questions reveal a deeper social perception: 60% believe the current era of terrorism arises from Islamic fanaticism; 20% attribute it to U.S. foreign policy (including support for Israel), while the final 20% view terrorism as an outgrowth of poverty.

Professor Reinares argued that the assertion of a direct causal link between Iraq and 3/11 is "a great simplification." Spain may be the first European country where Islamic extremists were successful in conducting a mass-casualty attack, but it is not the first where Al Qaeda planned a massacre (e.g., Al Qaeda's mega-terrorism plan in France in 2000). Nor has its plans been confined to countries that participated in the Iraq war. The actual decision to target Spain's trains was made in late 2003, but the 3/11 group formed in late 2001 after the Spanish authorities had dismantled the previous Al Qaeda network in the aftermath of 9/11. The Egyptian ringleader of the 3/11 network was arrested in Italy and confessed that the train bombings had taken two-and-a-half years to organize. Spain's participation in the Iraq war created a propitious political environment for carrying out bombings that had been long in the works. In short, the war was the occasion not the cause of the bombing.

Terrorists require three conditions to undertake operations against a target: accessibility, opportunity, and vulnerability. The Spanish authorities had become complacent because the country's longstanding terrorist threat from the Basque separatist group ETA was well under control. As a consequence, the Al Qaeda cell's preparatory actions and planning went unnoticed. As in America, no one in Spain connected the dots between the group's illicit activities in money laundering, drug smuggling, and procurement of high explosives. A Spanish parliamentary committee similar to the 9/11 Commission investigated the 3/11 attacks and made remedial recommendations. Prior to 3/11 Spain had only 80 officers devoted to external threats affecting internal security.

Professor Reinares argued that just as there was no causal link between the Iraq war and 3/11, so too is it a simplification to interpret the results of Spain's 3/14 elections as a sign of softness in the face of terrorism and that they forced the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq. He noted that statements in the international media and by officials in the United States and elsewhere reflected this view. Reinares noted that even though 90% of Spaniards opposed the war, but the swing from the ruling Popular Party to the Socialists after 3/11 was only some 5-7%. He attributed that shift to the government's disingenuous effort to blame ETA for the bombing prior to the election, even though evidence quickly pointed to Al Qaeda as the likely perpetrator. In addition, the Socialists' pledge to withdraw the country's forces from Iraq before 3/11 was motivated, in part, by the heavy-handed conduct of the Aznar government, which had committed Spanish forces to the U.S.-led intervention without putting it to a parliamentary vote. No one in Spain viewed Iraq as a major front in the war on terrorism. On the other hand, even as the Spanish government has withdrawn from Iraq, it has increased its military contingent in Afghanistan from 800 to 1800.

The long-term challenge is to achieve a trans-Atlantic consensus both on the character of the terrorist threat and on the appropriate strategy and means to address it. A major impediment to the creation of such a consensus is the profound gap in perception on the two sides of the Atlantic. In America, 9/11 has been viewed as an attack in the United States and part of a larger "global war on terrorism," whereas in Europe, 9/11 was perceived as an attack against America.

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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