A year of living dangerously

22nd December 2004, Comments 0 comments

The bombing of Madrid was Spain's worst terrorist attack and dominated 2004. As we enter 2005, Graham Keeley looks back on a dramatic year.

Grief-stricken: Spain tries to come to terms with the bombings

Before 11 March, Spain appeared to be in a deep, contented sleep. 

Helped by a seemingly endless housing boom and a buoyant economy, all the polls suggested the country would re-elect the conservative Popular Party government (PP) in the 14 March general elections.

Spain was set for another four years of right-wing economics, pro-US foreign policy and support for the Iraq war.

Warning signs about impending terrorist attacks, even direct threats from Osama Bin Laden himself, did not appear to have troubled the nation unduly.

But the bombing of four commuter trains in Madrid gave Spain a rude wake-up call from which it is still recovering.

As Spain starts 2005, the country is still reeling from the trauma of the attacks.

The deaths of 191 people in the bombings, which left 1,900 injured, was the worst terrorist outrage Spain has known and Europe's worst since the Lockerbie bombing in Scotland in 1988.

The death toll was less than a tenth of the estimated 3,000 people who died in the 11 September attacks in the United States, but it soon became clear that Madrid's 11-M and America's 9/11 were connected.

The coordinated early-morning bombings in the Spanish capital saw four local trains targeted, an eerie echo of the four planes used in the attacks on the United States.

The masterminds behind the carnage were also linked, with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda striking at the heart of the United States while self-proclaimed Moroccan al-Qaeda affiliates claimed responsibility in a video for the Madrid deaths.

*quote1*In addition, the blasts were carried out exactly 911 days after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon.

Yet neither Aznar, nor his Popular Party, would countenance the possibility of an Islamic attack as they prepared for a general election just three days later.

Blaming the armed Basque separatist group ETA for the bombings seemed reasonable enough for a few hours.

The group, seeking independence for the Basque region of northern Spain and part of south-western France, had been caught red-handed preparing to bomb a train on Christmas Eve 2003 and minutes after the 11 March attacks moderate Basque nationalists said ETA was writing its final chapter.

But by doggedly insisting that ETA was to blame, even as evidence emerged directly linking the blasts to Islamic radicals apparently bent on revenge for Aznar's backing of the US-led war in Iraq, the PP lost credibility with voters.

What had seemed an easy victory for the PP turned into a humiliating defeat.

Remembering: A makeshift memorial at Atocha station, site of one attack

The bloodshed of 11 March helped usher in Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as only Spain's second Socialist prime minister since the 1975 death of military dictator General Franco.

It was a shock victory both in Spain and to the outside world.

Television pictures of a clearly stunned Zapatero giving his victory speech on election day remain one of the most symbolic images of the year.

To most inside the country, it was clear why Spaniards had opted for the Socialists; the Aznar administration lost credibility and, as Zapatero himself said, "the government stopped listening to the people so the people stop listening to the government".

But to those outside it looked like capitulation to terrorism.

Within weeks of taking power, Zapatero had withdrawn Spanish troops from Iraq, to the ire of US President George W Bush but with the support of the majority of Spaniards.

Relations between Spain and the US have still not recovered.

In Spain itself, within days of the 11 March bombings, the authorities started what seems a relentless 'war on terror' of their own, with new arrests of suspects almost every week.

On 3 April, during a police raid in a Madrid suburb, seven terrorist suspects blew themselves up rather than face capture.

In the first trial connected with the blasts, a 16-year-old Spaniard who admitted transporting the explosives used from a northern mine to Madrid, in exchange for around EUR 1,000 was given six years in youth detention.

Most of the remaining 20 suspects are Moroccan nationals, who face terrorism-related charges, while waves of arrests continue.

Spain still seems divided on what provoked the attacks.

Last month, Aznar told the parliamentary inquiry investigating the attacks they had "nothing to do with the intervention in Iraq," but Zapatero flatly contradicted him, telling the same inquiry that "our participation in Iraq increased the [terrorist] risk."

Away from terrorism, Zapatero and his politically correct government of eight men and eight women have introduced various social reforms designed to liberalise one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.

Measures such as the legalisation of same-sex marriages and speeding up divorce have angered the Church hierarchy, but enjoy popular support.

However, the spectre of terrorism is never far away.

In October, an apparent plot by suspected Islamic radicals to bomb buildings in the capital, including Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, was uncovered.

In addition, ETA has continued its low-level violence, carrying out a spate of small blasts in early December.

*quote2*The attacks have dashed hopes the Basque terrorist organisation might be on the point of a cease-fire after a series of hugely damaging arrests, with more than100 members, including the group's political leader, under arrest..

Before the latest bombings, ETA's political wing, the banned Batasuna, had called for talks with the government, but stopped short of urging ETA itself of giving up the guns. A small but significant group of ETA prisoners also said the armed struggle was not working.

But all to no avail.

Fermin Bouza, a sociologist with Madrid's Complutense University, says terrorism will remain at the top of the agenda.

"We are in a turbulent period. There is a strong possibility of further [terrorist] attempts," he says.

On the foreign policy front, Zapatero has boosted Spain's relations with its EU neighbours, Germany and France, with whom Aznar had often frosty relations.

What remains to be seen is how Spain will position itself with regard to the US, Europe and the Arab world in the long-term.

There seems no real signs of a rapprochement between Madrid and Washington, but Bouza believes the two countries will have to face realties.

"I think Zapatero and Bush will just have to learn to live with one another - difficult though that may be. One thing Spain can certainly do is act as a bridge between the EU and the Arab world."

Perhaps the only cause for some light relief for most Spaniards this year was the marriage of Crown Prince Felipe and former television presenter Letizia Ortiz.

The great and the good, parading in their finery at the May wedding to the delight of most of Spain, was a welcome contrast to the misery that had gone before.

December 2004

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: 2004 year in review, Spanish news

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