Peace and Conflict Monitor

Spain: Surrendering to terror or defiance?
Yotam ben Meir
March 18, 2004
Yotam ben Meir, news editor, takes a look at the wide-ranging world opinions relating to the latest terror attack in Madrid, its political aftermath, the calls for greater security and, above all, pleas to solve the root causes of international terrorism.

Spain: Surrendering to terror or defiance?


 “On Thursday March 11 2004 a series of bombs exploded at railway stations in Madrid, killing more than 200 people and injuring around 1,400. Throughout Spain, millions took to the streets to protest against terrorism. On Sunday March 14 Spain's government - widely seen as hiding the truth about who was responsible for the attacks - was thrown out in the general election” (The Guardian).

General election results in Spain might suggest Spaniards have chosen to react differently to the terrorist attacks they have suffered. Most voters believed the Spanish capital had undergone its equivalent of the September 11 attacks in the United States, nevertheless they voted for Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has pledged in his victory speech to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq, if the UN does not take control by June 30, and has sent a series of dramatic messages that will resonate far beyond Spain, affecting relations within Europe, with the US and in terms of the "war on terror” (The Guardian).

"Terrorism can not only be fought with arms and police," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after EU leaders meeting, following the Madrid bombings (BBC News). "We must also combat the roots of terrorism."

Could it be that elections outcomes in Spain are a first of a chain of events leading to a change in the course of “war against terrorism” towards peace perspectives, or are they just “a blow for the war on terrorism …[a reflection of] the desire not to take our enemies at face value [which] is the hallmark of much of contemporary Europe" as the Daily Telegraph Editorial, of March 15 suggests?



1. The terrorist attack

On Thursday, March 11, a total of 10 bombs exploded in three railway stations in Madrid, paralyzing the Spanish capital as hundreds of thousands of people set off for work, just few days before coming general elections. The worst terrorist attack in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing killed at least 201 people and injured around 1,400.

"It looked like a platform of death," firefighter Juan Redondo said. "I've never seen anything like it before. The recovery of the bodies was very difficult. We didn't know what to pick up" (The Guardian)

Spanish authorities believe the terrorists behind the March 11 attack have ties to a radical Islamist group that killed more than 40 people in suicide bombings in Casablanca last May.

Spanish police were reported to have identified six Moroccans who they believe carried out the Madrid bomb attacks. Five of the suspects are still at large but one is in custody, the Spanish newspaper El Pais quotes security sources as saying. The man, named as Jamal Zougam, is reported to have been identified by people who survived M13 blasts (BBC News).

Moroccan officials said they had uncovered ties between Mr. Zougam and several Islamist radicals who have been jailed since the May 16 Casablanca bombings. "There wasn't any physical surveillance of him, but there was an investigation," one of the officials said. "There was not enough evidence to move against him for the Casablanca matter”  (The New York Times).

Security sources told El Pais that the six Moroccans might have formed only part of the group behind the attacks and that militants from other countries might also have been involved.

Zugam is also said to have connections with Imad Yarkas, alias Abu Dahdah, the alleged leader of an al-Qaeda cell in Madrid, who is awaiting trial in Spain on charges of taking part in the 11 September plot (BBC News).


2. The protests

The bombings, which authorities initially blamed on armed Basque separatists ETA, sparked widespread anger at Prime Minister José María Aznar's support for the US-led Iraq war.

Protesters accused the government of trying to hide the fact that violent Islamism was to blame and demanded explanations for Mr Aznar's backing of the Iraq war against the will of some 90% of Spaniards.

On Saturday night, crowds besieged the People's party headquarters, angry at the perceived lack of information they were receiving about the circumstances surrounding Thursday's blasts, especially from the state broadcaster RTVE. Mr Aznar's final mistake was to spend the first two days after the Madrid bombings insisting that Eta was probably to blame, despite the fact that it would have been a dramatic change in the terrorist group's tactics (The Guardian)

Eleven million marched: more than two million in Madrid; more than a million in Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia and Seville; half a million in the Canary Islands; 400,000 in Zaragoza; 30,000 each in Spain's North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla; and thousands upon thousands in every other city, town and village in Spain.

It was an act, first and foremost, of solidarity with the victims and of empathy with their families.

Friday's demonstrations were also an act of defiance. the people of Spain were telling the murderers to do their damnedest.


3. The elections

In one of the most dramatic elections of the post-Franco era, voters turned on the ruling party, convinced that the multiple bomb attack on Madrid's packed commuter trains had been carried out by al-Qaida and with a growing sense that the People's party had tried to hide the truth.

Most voters believed the Spanish capital had suffered its equivalent of the September 11 attacks in the United States.

Spanish voters punished prime minister José María Aznar's People's party for the bloodshed of last week's Madrid terrorist attacks yesterday, throwing it out of government in an angry reaction to his handling of the aftermath.

Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero swept to a surprise victory that was a blow to the Bush administration. He has pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq if the UN does not take control by June 30 when Washington plans to hand power back to Iraqis. Mr Zapatero started his victory speech with a minute's silence for the victims of Thursday's attacks before vowing to fight all kinds of terrorism. "Together we will defeat it," he told supporters outside his party headquarters in Madrid.

"Mr Blair and Mr Bush must do some reflection - you can't organize a war with lies," he said in his first radio interview after ousting the ruling conservative People's party (The Guardian).

A bitter row continued over whether Mr Aznar's government had tried to fool voters into thinking that the Basque separatist group Eta was to blame for the attacks, an allegation that has drawn indignant denials from his party. 


"With their spirits depressed by the callousness of March 11 but inflamed by the notion that the People's party tried to hide the truth and did not face the consequences of its role in the Iraq war, the Spanish people decided to deliver a spectacular upset to the country's political scene. It was a democratic rebellion...” (El Periódico de Catalunya Editorial, Spain, March 15)

"Whatever lesson there is from [Sunday's] elections in Spain, there is not the slightest doubt that one of the reasons ... that made the electoral upset in favour of the Socialists easier was the inevitable feeling of the electorate that the government manipulated and deceived it ... The least that can be said today is that Mr Zapatero has brought about his own victory, establishing a new style of politics that avoids the arrogance of power and can connect with the feelings of the man on the street." (Juan Luis Cebrián, El País, Spain, March 15)


4. The outcomes

Some analysts have suggested that, if al-Qaida or an associated group was proved to be behind the attack, it would be first time Islamist militants have successfully influenced the political course of a major western democracy through violence.

"The thumping defeat inflicted upon the rightwing People's party in yesterday's Spanish elections was a blow for the war on terrorism ... But whoever was responsible - whether al-Qaida or Eta - will be pleased to have intervened so successfully in a democratic ballot ...

"Large numbers of Spanish voters succumbed to the delusion that if Mr Aznar had not lent support to the Anglo-American coalition, then their homeland would be safer ... The idea abounds that if the west somehow withdrew from Iraq or transferred more wealth to the masses of the Maghreb then all of this would stop ... The desire not to take our enemies at face value, in word and deed, is the hallmark of much of contemporary Europe." (Daily Telegraph Editorial, March 15).

Nevertheless, Spain's voters have sent a series of dramatic messages that will resonate far beyond Spain, affecting relations within Europe, with the US and in terms of the "war on terror". The bombs were a brutal reminder of that unpopular war. Many in Spain and more widely, in Europe, saw them as the Islamist terrorists' long predicted payback - and a direct result of Mr Aznar's [and other EU leaders] stance.

But there can be no disguising the fact that the prime minister-designate's renewed vow to bring Spanish troops home from Iraq potentially blows a gaping hole in the west's anti-terrorist front. If enacted, it will be seen in the Muslim world as a success for Islamist extremist violence.

Given the key importance afforded Iraq in the war on terror, Mr Zapatero's declaration yesterday that "the [Iraq] war has been a disaster, the occupation continues to be a disaster" is profoundly dismaying for Washington and London.

This change could be of greater significance given the fact that, on the face of it, Spain's March 11 amounted to another dreadful intelligence failure. Uncontrolled events have once again exposed the illusion that any number of officially imposed security measures - from plain-clothes police on the tube to sky marshals, draconian anti-terrorism laws and military campaigns - can stop a Madrid happening again, anywhere, any time.

The questions after Madrid are whether they really know how to achieve their aims; whether their methods, already deeply divisive, can work; whether they can ultimately hold the US-Europe anti-terror coalition together; or whether their tactics will progressively exacerbate a global confrontation (The Guardian).


5. EU leaders urge anti-terror plan

“America's allies must stick together in the "war on terrorism”, US President George W Bush has said. “We will work with our friends to bring justice to the terrorists”. He urged nations to keep their forces in Iraq, following a threat by the new Spanish prime minister to withdraw his country's troops (BBC News).

But Spain PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says his position on withdrawing troops from Iraq unless the UN intervenes in Iraq is unchanged despite the appeal from US President George Bush. "My position is the same," he told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. "The occupation is a fiasco. There have been almost more deaths after the war than during the war. "The occupying forces have not allowed the United Nations to take control of the situation."

Spain PM is firm on Iraq withdrawal (BBC News).

European states have called emergency security meetings as suspicion mounts that Islamic militants were involved in the devastating bomb attacks in Madrid.

One idea put forward is for a special [EU] commissioner to be appointed to combat the terror threat in Europe. European Commission president Romano Prodi said: "We have to discuss thoroughly the entire [security] strategy and we will do it at the summit next week. "The anti-terrorism commissioner could be a piece of that strategy" (BBC News).

The leaders of France and Germany have said Europe must have a plan to confront terrorism following last week's bombings in Madrid.  After talks in Paris, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said "all of Europe was the theatre for terrorist actions". Both leaders said their countries' intelligence networks were working well together to deal with the issue.

They also stressed that in order to effectively tackle the issue Europe must deal with terror's root causes.  "Terrorism can not only be fought with arms and police," Mr Schroeder said. "We must also combat the roots of terrorism."

For his part, Mr Chirac said conflicts that feed terrorism and the frustration of some peoples must be ended, pleading for a "dialogue of cultures" (BBC News).


6. Analysis and comments

- Once again, the eyes of the world are focused on a brutal and devastating terrorist attack on innocent civilians, this time in Spain. But instead of demanding tougher anti-terrorism laws, the Spaniards on Sunday voted out the center-right government that supported the Iraq war - Spain, the EU and the US: War on Terror or War on Liberties?


- Terrorist attacks are not events, not an aberration of history, nor a specialty of uncivilized people. They are not only criminal. And they are never solely the work of outsiders. Through the damage they inflict, they question our vision of democracy. They challenge our awareness and question the actions we undertake to protect ourselves - How to say ‘No’ to terrorism.


- The implications of the 3/11 bombings go far beyond the horror of the Madrid carnage. Coordinated security failed to detect the coordination of terror. The impact on Washington’s wider war will be substantial - The “war on terror” comes to Europe.


- The Basques have been renowned for centuries as fishermen and sailors; it's thought they landed in America long before Columbus. They have defended themselves from invasion by the Romans, Vikings, Visigoths and Moors. They are the longest established people in Europe, and have their own language, Euskera. What the Basques have never had is an independent state of their own. It is a family affair, the war of independence for the Basques. As ETA issues a warning to tourists visiting Spain, Dominic Ridley [The guardian] talks to the new generation who face a future of prison, sacrifice and violence - Bloody bequest.


7. Full stories, Latest, and More Comment and Analysis

- The Guardian’s special report on Spain feature - click here


- CNN’s special report on Spain feature - click here


- BBC NEWS special report on Spain feature - click here


- offers four views on the tragedy in Madrid - click here


- suggests some different analysis: From Franco to Aznar - The History Behind the Spanish Elections and more.


- Historical and current background of Basque separatists, ETA:

-- A chronology

-- Q&A: Eta and Basque separatism in Spain

-- ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end?

Yotam ben Meir is the Peace and Conflict Monitor's new News Editor. He is also a documentary film-maker and peace activist.