Surveillance camera at Atocha station, March 11 2004, 7:37 am by John Chappell, special for PJM On March 11 2004, ten bombs in four commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people and sent shock waves across Spain's political system. John Chappell explains on the day that Spain's trial of the century starts.
Ten bombs ripped through four commuter trains in Madrid on the morning of March 11, 2004, killing 191 persons and wounding over one thousand. The bomb conspirators were radical Islamists linked to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The consequences of the 3/11 bombings included the defeat of the incumbent conservative People’s Party (PP) at the hands of the Socialist PSOE in the general election held three days later, on March 14.
Now, nearly three years later, the trial of 29 men accused of conspiring in the bombings begins this morning before the National Court in Madrid. The defendants include several organizers of the plot, three of the bombers themselves, and the Spanish ex-miners who obtained the explosives used, along with numerous small fry.
There is no question about the verdict of the trial, which is expected to last until August at least. The National Court will confirm the rulings of investigating magistrate Juan del Olmo, whose dossier on the case consists of more than 93,000 pages, and convict most or all of the accused.
Rather, the trial of the 29 will have a symbolic value in Spanish politics. The PP has never accepted its defeat in the March 14, 2004 election. Some elements of the party, along with their media allies at the newspaper El Mundo and the COPE radio network, allege that Socialist prime minister Jos√© Luis Rodr√≠guez Zapatero‘s government has covered up the real truth about 3/11 for political reasons.
The public testimony of more than 650 witnesses and 100 technical experts during the trial will strengthen the majority of Spanish public opinion, which believes that Judge del Olmo (along with the prosecutor’s office, the police, and the secret service) is correct and the accused are guilty. The important question is the trial’s effect on the beliefs of the minority that is convinced of a Socialist cover-up.
Spanish politics is currently as angry as it has been since the restoration of democracy with the Constitution of 1978, with weekly mudslinging matches between Zapatero and PP leader Mariano Rajoy on the floor of the Congress. Words like “traitor,” “war criminal,” “terrorist,” and “Fascist” are thrown around on the radio and in the press. It’s not a happy situation for moderates from both parties, with practical day-to-day matters pushed aside for heated rhetoric.
The trial that begins today will prove that there was a 3/11 conspiracy; the PSOE and ETA were not involved, of course, but Islamist terrorists most certainly did plot to murder Spanish citizens and disrupt the election. Several of the defendants are part of international Islamist terrorist groups, and some of them have recruited and trained jihadi volunteers in Spain to commit terrorism in Iraq. The world will see the connection between terrorism in Iraq and in the rest of the world. Perhaps some will finally be convinced that Islamist terror in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, New York, and Baghdad is committed by the same people.
Some of those accused:
* Youssef Belhadj. Connection between the Madrid Islamists, Al Qaeda, and Ansar al Islam. Set the date of March 11 for the bombings on Al Qaeda orders.
* Rahel Osman. Along with “The Tunisian,” organized Madrid Islamist cell. Jihadist organizer in Italy, Germany, and France.
* Hassan el Haski. Connection between Madrid Islamist cell and the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group. Trained jihadies to fight in Iraq.
* Basel Ghalyoun. One of the actual bombers. Part of the infrastructure sending jihadi recruits to Iraq.
* Mouhannad Almallah Dabas. Part of infrastructure sending jihadis to Iraq. His brother is the right-hand man of Abu Qatada, leader of Al Qaeda in Europe.
Members of the cell not on trial:
* Serhane (“The Tunisian”) ben Abdelmajid. Leader of Madrid Islamist cell. Followed Al Qaeda orders to carry out bombings. Died in suicide explosion in Legan√©s that killed seven Islamist cell members.
* Daoud Ouhnane. Whereabouts unknown. Thought to be in Iraq as local connection for jihadi recruits from Spain.
* Mohamed Afalah. Died in suicide bombing in Iraq in 2005 that killed 19 Italian troops.
* Said Berraj. Whereabouts unknown. Recruiter for jihadis in Chechenia and Afghanistan. Left Madrid three days before 3/11.
Political fallout in Spain
There was an Islamist conspiracy. It committed the bombings. We know that, and the trial will provide even more confirmation. But there is another conspiracy theory out there, and it blames ETA and the Socialist party.
On March 10, 2004, the People’s Party was riding high. Then-Prime Minister Jos√© Mar√≠a Aznar was completing eight successful years in office, in which the Spanish economy grew faster than ever. Every survey taken of voter intention showed that the PP’s candidate, Mariano Rajoy, would win a majority in the Spanish Congress of Deputies in the March 14 election; the newspapers were merely debating how large Rajoy’s margin of victory over lackluster PSOE candidate Zapatero would be.
Aznar’s most controversial decision had been to send Spanish occupation troops into Iraq after the 2003 Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden took careful note of Aznar’s pro-American stance, and in October 2003 he called on jihadists to attack Spain. The cell of radical Islamists in Madrid began planning the revenge that would take shape in the 3/11 bombings. Later, as the plot developed, Al Qaeda would order them to time their attack so as to have the greatest effect on the election.
The morning the bombs went off, nearly everyone in Spain, including Aznar and this writer, jumped to the conclusion that Basque terrorist group ETA was responsible. ETA was then carrying on a terror campaign, and several ETA bombing attempts on trains and in public buildings had recently been foiled. An ETA convoy carrying more than 500 kilos of explosives had just been intercepted near Madrid. Preliminary reports from the scene pointed at ETA, and the Aznar government made the mistake of officially announcing that ETA was responsible.
Later in the afternoon, though, further evidence pointing at Islamists began to appear. Media outlets either close to the Socialist party, such as the newspaper El Pa√≠s and the SER radio network, or hostile to the PP, such as Catalan government television network TV3, began agitating public opinion against Aznar and his party, accusing them of covering up the truth. Though the PP government began to backtrack on the very evening of the bombings, just a few hours after its original incorrect announcement, the political damage was done.
The PSOE charged the Aznar government with lying to the people and trying to pin the blame for the bombings on ETA for political purposes; a rule of Spanish politics is that ETA violence increases support for the hard-line anti-terrorist and firm anti-separatist policies of the PP. (The PSOE, on the other hand, takes a much softer line and has supported negotiation with ETA and its political front, Batasuna.) They further (correctly, as it turned out) declared that 3/11 was Islamist revenge for Spanish participation in the Iraq War.
On March 14, after two more days of media and PSOE agitation, the voters went to the polls. The PP held on to nearly all its regular voters, but a massive turnout of normally apathetic and ill-informed citizens, infuriated beyond reason, gave the PSOE a clear victory. A month later, new Prime Minister Zapatero unilaterally pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq.
The PP reaction
Many sectors of the PP never accepted the PSOE victory, as they believed their party had been cheated out of power. In part, they were correct, since the PSOE’s tactics between March 11 and 14 were demagogic, including crowds of sympathizers summoned by Internet and SMS who gathered around PP headquarters shouting, “We want the truth!” But they were also partly wrong, as in democratic politics the verdict of the voters must be respected and obeyed, no matter whether the voters were manipulated or not.
PP hardliners, led by √Ångel Acebes and Eduardo Zaplana, hit back, making several very dubious claims. The hardliners’ theory is based on a conspiracy of the PSOE and its media allies, between March 11 and 14, to hide alleged ETA participation in the bombings. The theory states that the PSOE had supporters inside the police and the judicial system who manipulated the information released to the public. It is based on a number of small coincidences, discrepancies, investigative errors, and unexplained loose ends in the official story. The conspirators’ goal, according to the theory, was to use 3/11 against the PP in order to take power and commit various misdeeds, such as making the Basque country independent and undermining the unity of Spain.
Ever since March 14, the conspiracy-theory elements of the PP have reigned inside the party. Every two or three months the PP and its allies hold a large demonstration in Madrid with three themes: opposition to negotiations with ETA, opposition to Basque and Catalan nationalist demands, and support for the conspiracy theory. El Mundo and COPE Radio constantly hammer on these subjects, and they have convinced a significant minority of Spaniards that the PSOE conspiracy really existed.
Will the trial of the 29 defendants finally put an end to the PP conspiracy theory? Will the verdict finally prove beyond all doubt that Islamist radicals, not Spanish Socialists and Basque terrorists, were responsible for the 191 deaths? I hope so, but I’m not optimistic. It will take Spain years to get over the political disaster that followed 3/11.
John Chappell is a translator and English teacher who lives in Barcelona. He blogs at Inside Europe: Iberian Notes.