One year on: Could Madrid happen again?

8th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

The first anniversary of Spain's worst terrorist attack, 11 March, is next Friday. We examine how the bombers plotted the attacks and ask if Spain has come to terms with the atrocity.

Victims of attack laid out near mangled train

To borrow a phrase from another grizzly page of history, anyone who was in Spain on 11 March can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news.

Four commuter trains bombed in Madrid. Almost everyone's first thought was: ETA.

Initially, the death toll was small, but rose in minutes; first four, then 20, next 55, until within an hour we were struggling to believe 160 people had lost their lives as they made their way to work on an average Thursday morning. Finally, by the same afternoon, it was 191- shocking figure, even a year on.

Quite apart from the figures, the images come back so vividly and everyone will have one which sticks in the mind. Perhaps the row of coffins decked out in a line by one of those mangled trains, was the most singularly shocking.
The next four days were a blur of questions and recriminations. Who did it? How could they? Why is this government still saying it was ETA when it was obviously not?

And those huge, highly-charged, emotional street demonstrations of sympathy with the victims and their families remain etched on the mind.

Finally, there were those TV images of the startled 'rabbit in the headlights' that was the new prime minister, Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, as he tried to grasp he had actually won the general election three days after the bombings.

Roll on a year, and as Spain prepares to mark the first, poignant anniversary of the bombings, has it really come to terms with what happened?

And what did happen exactly? And why? 
The country wants the world to see it will pay due reverence to the anniversary. A national day of mourning has been declared for 11 March, with five minutes of silence at midday and a full array of royals and world leaders scheduled to pay homage at a commemorative ceremony at Madrid's Parque Retiro.

Meanwhile, away from the spotlight, the victims themselves want to grieve in peace and do not want to play a part in the ceremony.

Pilar Manjon lost her 20-year-old son in the bombings and has now become the 'face' of the victims after an emotional appearance in front of the all-party commission into the bombings last year. Manjon has criticised the all-party commission, which was supposed to investigate what happened before and after the attacks, for being bogged-down in political infighting.

So far, its findings have been delayed – because of a row between the main opposition conservative Popular Party and the other political groups over what its conclusions should be.

Commentators have said the commission lacked the interrogative powers of the similar inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and Manjon's criticism appears to have been born out.

However, the most revealing insight yet into how the attacks happened was provided by recently released court papers, made public by the judge leading the investigation, Juan del Olmo. They suggest that no single group were behind the attacks, contrary to what many originally thought.

Instead, half-a-dozen groups, including drug dealers, religious extremists and veterans of Al Qaeda training camps, came together almost by chance to carry out the bloody massacre.

They also reveal that a series of police crackdowns on terrorist suspects in Spain and Morocco created a power vacuum once the more established leaders had been taken out of the picture. This was filled by younger, more radical figures, eager to carry out a 'spectacular' as the IRA used to call its major bomb attacks.

A candle tribute to victims after the attacks

The implications are daunting for police and security forces as it seems Islamic extremists belong to a series of different, even rival, groups, who rapidly change their tactics to elude police, but unite behind one goal: making jihad (holy war).

In simple terms, this means it could be much harder to stop another Madrid attack.

One investigator said: "There is no formal system or structure with Islamic terrorism.

It boils down to people indoctrinating followers, and then casting them off on their own to wage jihad.

He added: "The threat is greater than ever. If we don't do something now, it is going to be a few thousand people."

The court papers show a meeting of top radical Islamic terrorists from North Africa was held in Istanbul in February 2002. A key figure was Hassan al Haski, who was arrested in the Canary Islands last December. He and other senior terrorists in the Al Qaeda hierarchy decided to attack Europe. Another Al Qaeda veteran, Amer Azizi, urged followers in Spain to mount an attack.

But many of those at this crucial meeting were later arrested after a bomb attack in Casablanca in May 2003.

With Azizi on the run, one of his followers, Sarhane ben Abdelmajid Farkhet, a 35-year-old Tunisian estate agent, took over as head of the terrorist cell. Intelligence sources said Farkhet, nicknamed 'The Tunisian' by the Spanish press, was even more radical than the others.

He seemed determined to attack Spain because of its then support for the invasion of Iraq. Farkhet proved to be the link between three groups which planned the 11 March attacks.

They involved a long-time associate, Jamal Zougam, who ran a telephone shop in Madrid, where the mobile phones used to detonate the bombs came from. Zougam, who is in custody, denies any involvement.

Intelligence sources say Farkhet also had links with Jamal Ahmidan, known as 'The Chinese' for his vaguely Asiatic appearance, who sold cannabis for 200kg of dynamite used in the attacks.

Farkhet also provided a link with Rabei Osman Said Ahmed, known as Mohamed the Egyptian, head of a group of young radicals. The former soldier and explosives expert was arrested in May in Milan and was extradited to Spain.

Farkhet brought together these groups to form the Madrid cell which carried out the attacks. Less than a month afterwards, he met his death with six other terrorists when they blew themselves up in a flat outside Madrid, killing a police officer.

What emerges is a picture of disparate groups, Algerians, Syrians or Moroccans, who shed political differences for one purpose: to wage jihad.

They also use sophisticated techniques to evade the police. Haski and his followers no longer used emails because police can intercept them; instead they share passwords for anonymous accounts and read messages left in 'draft' boxes, making it still harder for police to trace.

Terrorists have also learned to evade standard police phone taps, by falsifying SIM card identities. Police now have to use phone taps made through a mobile phone's unique electronic signature, or International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI).

Yet it is still harder for police to compile detailed records of how the terrorists are communicating.

So, as Spain prepares to mark this first, sad, anniversary, these revelations raise the spectre that it may be getting harder to hunt down new terrorists and stop another Madrid happening again.

[Copyright Expatica]

[March 2005]

Subject: Spain, terrorist attack anniversary

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