El Terrorismo: Madrid rocked by explosives

Audrey Gilliam

On March 11, unknown terrorists attacked Madrid, Spain, leaving over 200 people dead and 1,500 injured. This attack, which has been called the deadliest in modern European history, wreaked havoc in both the streets of Madrid and the voting boxes, where, in an election three days subsequent to the bombings, Spaniards dramatically altered the political landscape of the country.

In these devastating attacks, 10 bombs exploded on four trains during a three-hour time span. The bombings occurred during the busy morning rush hour and therefore, affected trains laden with commuters, office workers, students and school children. Each of the four trains passed through the Alcala de Henares train station in the early morning hours, where investigators believe that the terrorists placed the bombs on the trains. They believe that the bombers loaded rucksacks, each containing about 22 pounds of explosives onboard, and then detonated the bombs by mobile phone.

At 6:39 a.m., as the first train drew to a halt within the Atocha station, three bombsxploded in the third, fourth and sixth carriages. Almost simultaneously, four bombs detonated in a second train, which was running two minutes late and therefore located about 500 meters outside of the station. Investigators believe that the bombers had intended to set the bombs off on both trains when they were inside of the station in order to maximize their power and cause severe damage to the building. Minutes after the attacks, panic abounded as both unharmed and wounded Spaniards rushed from the station into the streets of downtown Madrid.

This sense of terror was only heightened by the news of two additional attacks, which had occurred down the train line at the El

Pozo and Santa Eugenia stations. At each station, emergency services set up temporary hospitals to treat the injured, while more serious injuries were ferried to the hospital by helicopter.

Police and government leaders immediately responded to the bombings with statements implicating the ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty), a separatist group that has demanded independence for the northeastern Basque region of Spain and been associated with terrorist activity in the past. In addition to addressing the consequences of the tragic attacks and facing a country in mourning, these government leaders struggled with the implications of the attacks in the upcoming election.

The deadly explosions blew every issue other than the government’s war on the ETA off the agenda, a subject which the ruling Popular Party had made a key part of its election campaign. Spanish political analysts believed that the Popular Party’s consistent fight against the ETA would seal their victory at the polls. “Logically this will benefit the Popular Party,” said Jose Alvarez Junco, a political analyst at Madrid’s Complutense University. “They are the ones who are seen as being toughest on the ETA, who have taken a hard line with them.”

International experts, including U.S. intelligence officials and journalists, however, raised doubts about the involvement of the ETA in the Madrid attacks because of their large scale. While the ETA has killed nearly 850 people in its 35-year war for Basque independence, its attacks have never been characterized by such calculated and widespread devastation. Suspicions were also raised about the Popular Party’s use of the attacks in their campaign, because of the political support that they garnered as a result of the alleged ETA involvement.

By March 13, repeated ETA denials of involvement led Spaniards themselves to doubt the government’s claims and they gathered outside of Popular Party headquarters in Madrid, Bilbao, Santiago, Barcelona, Gijon and other Spanish cities to protest the government’s handling of evidence regarding the attacks and demand that it tell the truth. Their shouts of “Who was responsible?”, “Liars” and “We Want the Truth!” impelled the government to release information about a video left in a trash bin near a mosque in Madrid.

In the video, a man who identified himself as a “military spokesman” for Al-Qaeda in Europe, Abu Dujan Al Afgani, said the group was responsible for the explosions. He declared the attacks a response to Spain’s “collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies… and to the crimes that you caused in the world and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He also threatened more violence “if God wills it.” The Popular Party-led government of Spain lent their support to America efforts in the War on Terrorism in Iraq despite the intense opposition of the Spanish public, reported at 90 percent.

The crumbling allegations of ETA involvement and the purported misuse of evidence by the Popular Party led to an immediate decrease in support for the reigning government, which was reflected in the elections that occurred the next day. The Popular Party lost its eight-year hold on power to the Socialist Party, which took 43 percent of the vote.

The Socialist Party has firmly declared their opposition to Spanish involvement in Iraq and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the leading candidate of this party, confirmed his intention to pull the 1300 Spanish troops out of Iraq when their tour of duty closes at the end of June. “The war in Iraq is a disaster,” Zapatero stated, “the occupation of Iraq is a disaster.”

A 77 percent voter turnout in the recent election was reported to be the highest in 29 years. According to the BBC, one Spanish law student stated, “It’s the first time I voted. I feel very happy because the government had to change… because of the Iraqi war.” Another Spaniard, Cayetano Abad, who was wounded in the attack, was driven to a polling station in an ambulance. It is clear that, still in shock, Spain’s mourning voters used their ballots to demand the truth and reaffirm democracy, above and beyond party loyalty.

International political experts, however, have viewed this attack not as a victory for democracy, but instead a triumph for Al-Qaeda forces. They believe that the terrorist made a calculated gamble that their actions would change the outcome of the election and put in office a new president who opposes Spain’s participation in the Iraqi war and resultant efforts towards stabilization. Formal accusations of Al-Qaeda members, however, have not been announced and the Spanish public remains in a state of confused shock diminished only by their successful demonstration of the power of democracy.