Who’s Next after Madrid?
Officially, Spain’s political parties cut short their election campaign three days before polling in deference to the agony and shock of the most brutal terrorist attack since the 9/11 assaults on New York and Washington. Thursday, March 11, three crowded commuter trains were blown up in Madrid, killing 199, injuring 1,400, and changing Spain overnight. In reality the campaign never stopped. By harping on the Basque terrorist movement ETA as the culprit of the outrage, the Aznar government hoped to drum up votes for the ruling PP – Popular Party’s bid for reelection on Sunday, March 14.
It also left the investigators at sea in a probe of vital importance to the global war on terror.
The government’s reasoning went like this: If ETA is proved to be behind the attack – which the group categorically denies – the PP’s tough campaign against the Basque radicals would triumph and Mariano Rajoy would breeze in to the prime minister’s office in place of the retiring Jose Maria Aznar.
If, on the other hand, it was orchestrated by Muslim extremists – al Qaeda or its associates – the ruling party would be held to account for stirring up Muslim wrath by backing Washington in Iraq. The opposition Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero catered to the war’s unpopularity by promising if elected to bring the 1,300-strong Spanish force home from Iraq.
In the debate before terrorists hit Madrid, the conservative PP attempted to tar Zapatero as conniving with the hated ETA terrorists in clandestine meetings with its leaders in France and promises to engage them in negotiations if a Socialist-led government was returned.
Thursday’s attacks cast a cloud of uncertainty over all these calculations. Yet the Aznar government refused to budge, insisting ETA committed the horrendous act, even as millions of grief-stricken Spaniards, including many Basques, marched against nameless terrorism.
Witnesses saw three shadowy figures bringing bags to one of the trains attacked from a stolen van found to contain detonators and taped Koran verses. The placing of ten explosive devices at four different stations in Madrid would have required many more personnel than ETA is believed to command after being decimated by mass arrests.
Yet interior minister Angel Acebes declared Friday, March 12: “So far, none of the intelligence services or security forces we have contacted has provided reliable information to the effect that it could have been an Islamic terrorist organization.”
A few hours later, five suspects were rounded up in connection with a cell phone inside an explosives-packed bag found on one of the trains. Three were Moroccans, two described as Spaniards of “Hindu” origin. Still, the minister refused to assume anything. Police are investigating all avenues, he said.
By clinging to its campaign line against all odds, the Spanish government risked prejudicing an inquiry of fateful import for the rest of Europe and the West at large in ways that should be obvious:
A. The first hours after a terrorist attack, or any murderous crime, hold the key to the inquiry and its successful solution, because only then are the evidence and clues still fresh and untainted on the scene. The interference of Spanish politicians, or, worse, their attempt to prejudge the investigation’s outcome, may well have thrown the counter-terrorist and intelligence investigators off-course before they got started. In those first precious hours, the terrorists might have messed up the evidence and made good their escape, removing any leads to their network. This network would have been left free to carry out its next deadly attack.
B. The findings of the Spanish inquiry are tensely awaited by European and US governments. Their counter-terrorist and intelligence services, which labor in al Qaeda’s threatening shadow, need every scrap of authentic information to enable them to prepare for the worst. No one believes the Spanish government’s insistence on ETA as the culprit. It is a fact that security has been stepped up in France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Poland and Britain, among others, all gearing up for al Qaeda’s next onslaught.
C. The drama of such events inevitably draws in seekers of limelight. The London-based Al Kuds al Araby newspaper claimed to have received an e-mailed letter from a group affiliated to al Qaeda which assumed responsibility for the Spanish train attack and announced that preparations for attacking the United States were 90 percent complete.
According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, US and Israeli intelligence services refute the provenance of this letter after checking it out.
D. The line the Spanish government has taken with regard to the inquiry into the Madrid outrages ignores al Qaeda’s operational roots in Spain and its strong ideological foundation in Europe at large, which points inexorably to the fundamentalists’ next targets as being Italy, Britain and the United States.
debkafile‘s counter-terror experts emphasize that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist movement makes no secret of its plans, priorities or motives. They are all laid out – in English too – in a plethora of print and internet publications. While difficult reading for Westerners, who find it hard to take the florid phrasing and outrageous aspirations seriously, such publications are the daily fare of tens of millions of Muslims around the world, almost in the same way a daily newspaper may be part of an ordinary Westerner’s routine.
According to data gathered by our experts, from December 2002, three months before the US invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda began issuing a stream of fatwas designating its main operating theatres in Europe. Spain was on the list, but not the first.
1. Turkey was first. Islamic fundamentalists were constrained to recover the honor and glory of the Ottoman caliphates which were trampled by Christian forces in 1917 in the last days of World War I.
2. Spain followed. There, al Qaeda set Muslims the goal of recovering their lost kingdom in Andalusia.
3. Italy and its capital were third. Muslim fundamentalists view Rome as a world center of heresy because of the Vatican and the Pope.
4. Vienna came next because the advancing Muslim armies were defeated there in 1683 before they could engulf the heart of Europe.
These aspirations are far from being restricted to a lunatic fringe of radical Islam. The Arab world’s most popular television preacher, Yusouf Kardawi, whom debkafile has mentioned before, subscribes to the same agenda in his sermons over al Jazeera – with one difference. Whereas al Qaeda aims to “liberate” Turkey, Spain, Italy and Israel by force of arms, Kardawi who addresses the masses from a studio in Qatar just a few hundred yards from American Central Command HQ, advocates persuasion.
However strangely these decrees and teachings may fall on the ears of their targets, there is no option but to try and make sense of them in order to understand the force driving an inhumanly ruthless enemy. The logic behind this philosophy is capable of attaining a perfect match between its injunctions and the actions of its faithful in practice.
November 2003 saw two terrorist outbreaks in Istanbul that claimed 63 lives and injured more than 600. Tuesday, March 10, the day of the attacks in Madrid, al Qaeda continued its deadly cycle in Istanbul by sending two suicide killers to a building on the Asian side of the city housing a Masonic lodge. Armed with a bomb belt and gas canisters they planned to go up to the conference chamber and set it alight during a meeting. The members would have burned to death. It so happened that the lodge meeting was postponed at the last minute. The bombers blew themselves up at the door of an empty restaurant, killing a waiter.
Since last year, Al Qaeda has been able to spread its operational wings through many countries by linking up with local affiliates or sympathizers – either as accomplices or surrogates. In Turkey, they rely on the Muslim radical IBDA/C.
A similar pattern of operation repeated itself on March 2 in the massacre of 271 Shiites in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Baghdad. Another thousand or more were injured. A dozen suicide bombers whose identity eludes investigation to this day were used, but the logistical structure that made an offensive on this scale possible must have numbered hundreds of locals.
The offensive against Shiite Muslims is set to a timetable that is separate from al Qaeda’s European planning. It belongs to the history of Muslim internecine warfare and is governed by a different set of fatwas.
In Madrid, as in Istanbul, al Qaeda most probably operated through or with the help of local terrorist organizations, possibly even young radical members of ETA, members of the half million Muslim population of Spain or terrorists from its former North African colonies.
This expanded infrastructure, straddling many target countries, also enables al Qaeda to multiply the number of deaths it is capable of inflicting in each individual attack. In the last four months, bin Laden’s organization has managed to take 533 lives and maimed more than 3,000. The organization has pushed out the limits of the scale and diversity of its operations substantially since the 9/11 catastrophe in America.
On the same day as the Madrid trains were blown up, the Americans launched Operation Mountain Storm against “high value” al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It does not escape observers that while al Qaeda is capable of assaults on five fronts at least – Iraq, Turkey, Spain Kashmir and Saudi Arabia, the US global offensive against terror is limited to a single front, which too is far from the fundamentalists’ most active current arena.
Where do the United States and Britain stand on al Qaeda’s time table?
Its religious edicts dictate the “liberation” (by terrorism) of lands once under Muslim rule. Turkey and Spain were therefore placed ahead of London, Paris and Berlin. Israel is doubly anathemized as a Jewish state established in a country once governed by Muslims. Rome ought to come next, although the fatwas allow some flexibility to meet changing circumstances and enable al Qaeda to strike where least expected.
Bin Laden and the leadership group of his organization have been arguing over their next directions. Their debate is conceptual between those who advocate building up Islamic fundamentalist gains in Europe before turning to America and those who see Europe as a springboard to the United States. Bin Laden has issued a fatwa deciding the issue: the organization is instructed to strike simultaneously on both continents.