March 11, 2019
IntelBrief: 15 Years After Madrid Train Bombings, What Have We Learned
On March 11, 2004, terrorists detonated ten bombs on four separate commuter trains in Madrid, Spain. The attack killed 192 people and injured more than 2000, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain’s history. A network of jihadists with strong links to the Groupe Islamique Combattante du Maroc (GICM), or the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, stated the attack was ‘punishment’ for Spain’s involvement in the U.S. occupation. Militants inspired by al-Qaeda and its ideology of ‘bin Ladenism’ were identified as the perpetrators. Two days after the attack, Spanish authorities received a videotaped statement from an individual claiming to be Al Qaeda’s commander in Europe, declaring that the reason for the bombing was Spain’s involvement in Iraq. As the terrorists intended, the attack directly changed the course of Spain’s election and led the Spanish government to withdraw troops from the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The ruling People’s Party (PP) lost its majority and was replaced by the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), whose leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, became Prime Minister in mid-April 2004.
The impact of the coordinated attacks on the elections was dramatic, more so than just the change in government. PSOE leader and future Prime Minister Zapatero said, immediately after the election, that the ruling party’s defeat was primarily due to its support for the U.S.-led Iraq War and occupation, which was extremely unpopular with the Spanish people but supported nevertheless by then-Prime Minister Aznar. Along with other European countries like Poland and the United Kingdom, Spanish forces comprised what was known as the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). Spain was also an active partner in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda as part of the NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, where Spain deployed 2,500 combat troops, a helicopter detachment and three C-130 Hercules aircraft.
In the lead up to the Madrid attack, the jihadist web forum Global Islamic Media posted a memorandum entitled ‘Jihadi Iraq—Hopes and Risks.’ The memo assessed the perceived vulnerabilities of several democratic governments, especially those contributing troops and resources to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). And while the memo stopped short of explicitly calling for attacks inside Spain, it did label Spain as ‘the domino piece most likely to fall first’ in terms of degrading international support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The memo noted, correctly, that ‘Aznar’s position does not express the Spanish popular stance at all’ and as a result, this leaves the government exceedingly vulnerable to public pressure if there were sizable Spanish military causalities in Iraq. It then goes on to specifically mention Spain’s general elections, scheduled for several months after the memo first surfaced. It stated, ‘We say that in order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq the resistance should deal painful blows to its forces. This should be accompanied by an information campaign clarifying the truth of the matter inside Iraq. It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year.’ The memo would prove eerily accurate.
The Aznar government was dramatically out of step with its electorate when it came to support for the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Its immediate reaction was to falsely blame the Basque terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), or ‘Basque Country and Freedom,’ for the attacks. Initially, the accusation seemed plausible, particularly given ETA’s decades-long terrorist campaign against Spain in which the separatist group killed hundreds and injured thousands more. The Madrid attack stands as a stark example of terrorism being effective at a tactical level, in terms of political violence leading to policy change in a democracy. Even fifteen years later, the 2004 Madrid train bombings are still considered one of al-Qaeda’s hallmark attacks. The aftermath set a dangerous precedent with attacks designed to impact governments, particularly in the lead up to national elections.
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