International Security Studies
The 3/11 Madrid Bombings: An Assessment after 5 Years
Speaker: Fernando Reinares, Professor of Political Science and Security Studies, King Juan Carlos University, Madrid and and Director of the Program on Global Terrorism, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid
This event, co-sponsored by Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, is part of International Security Studies' ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum.
On March 11, 2004, Spain suffered its worst terrorist attack in history. Terrorists bombed four commuter lines into Madrid, killing 190 people and wounding 1,800. 10 bombs were detonated almost simultaneously, while another 3 devices failed to explode and were recovered by the Spanish authorities, providing crucial evidence about those responsible. In the immediate aftermath, Spanish society was divided over who to blame: the government initially blamed the Basque separatist group, ETA, though the character of the attack (multiple targets with the intention of inflicting mass casualties) suggested Islamic jihadist terrorists as the more likely perpetrators, according to Reinares.
The 3/11 plot was followed on April 2nd by an unsuccessful attempt to bomb the Madrid-Seville high-speed train, and, on the next day, by a police raid on a terrorist safe-house during which the suspects carried out a suicide bombing rather than be taken prisoner. The subsequent police investigation revealed that the terrorists had been planning the 3/11 attacks since August 2003, had conducted surveillance on additional targets, had rented a safe-house in Grenada (a city of tremendous symbolism for the jihadists), and had $1.5 million Euros in cash on hand (the 3/11 attacks cost only 105,000 Euros).
The conventional wisdom that soon emerged about the 3/11 attacks was that it was a prototypical example of a local terrorist cell at work: self-recruited, leaderless jihad – a "bunch of guys," as one analyst put it. "The media has astonishingly contributed to this [perception of] Al Qaeda as an amorphous phenomenon," Reinares stated.
Reinares's analysis challenges this conventional wisdom. For evidence, he draws on the judicial review conducted by the Spanish authorities, as well as the trials of terrorist defendants prosecuted in Madrid and Italy. Most of those involved in the 3/11 attacks were from Morocco; they were first generation immigrants, not homegrown terrorists (as in Britain). Two terrorists who played a key role in the bombings had been members of the Al Qaeda cell established in Spain in the 1990s. This cell had extensive international contacts, including with the Hamburg cell headed by Mohammed Atta (who visited Spain during the preparations for the 9/11 attacks in America). These members of Al Qaeda in Spain were not self-radicalized and self-recruited, Reinares noted.
The leader of the Spanish Al Qaeda cell attended a key meeting of North African jihadist groups in Istanbul in February 2002. That meeting, which occurred in the aftermath of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, led to a strategic decision by these groups operating in the Maghreb and Spain to launch renewed attacks. Members of those cells had received terrorist training, including instruction in using cell phones to trigger simultaneous explosions, in Afghanistan during the Taliban era.
The Moroccans members of the Al Qaeda cell in Spain had been "radicalized from above," using popular opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (which the then Spanish government had supported) as one recruitment tool. Reinares argued that there is "suggestive evidence" of an Al Qaeda role in the 3/11 attacks. He noted that the date of the attack had been set by the Spanish cell on the day after a message in Osama bin Laden's name directly threatened Spain and other countries that had military contingents in Iraq.
The facts revealed by the 3/11 trials and investigation, Reinares concluded, suggest "a more complex reality" – one in which the diverse groups that constitute global jihadist terrorism in this transitional period after the loss of Al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary are influenced from the "top down" as well from the "bottom up."