Obviously no one knows the ETA (the Basque terrorist group which ostensibly fights for an independent Basque state) better than Spanish intelligence and Spain’s immediate claim that the mega-terror attack on Madrid’s commuter-rail system on Thursday cannot be dismissed as mere reflex. ETA terror has killed over 800 people in the last four decades. ETA terror has taken its heaviest toll on moderate Basque politicians. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Spain’s King Juan Carlos were both targets of ETA assassination plots in 1995.
#ad#On the one hand, ETA has been decimated by Aznar’s tough counterterror policy. Improved international cooperation after 9/11, particularly with France, which has its own Basque community that provided a haven for ETA operatives, has led to a dramatic decrease in ETA activities. In 2000, ETA launched 44 attacks killing 23, in 2003 ETA launched 17 attacks, killing 3. Over 200 ETA suspects were arrested last year. In December, ETA military chief Gorka Palacio Alday was captured in France.
But since Alday’s capture, ETA has shown a burst of activity. Spanish security disrupted an ETA plot to bomb Spanish railways on Christmas Eve. The attack included two suitcases, which combined carried over 100 pounds of dynamite, planted on a train bound for Madrid. Foreshadowing Thursday’s horrors, the bombs were set to explode simultaneously after the train arrived in Madrid. Two more bombs were planted along rural tracks elsewhere in Spain. Less than two weeks ago, Spanish police seized over 1,000 pounds of explosives, of the same type used yesterday, near Madrid. In both of these incidents the young men arrested had no prior known links with ETA, indicating that ETA’s network may be larger–and therefore less damaged–than previously suspected.
Still, the goal of mass murder and the tactic of numerous simultaneous attacks are the modus operandi of al Qaeda and its ever-proliferating affiliates. The discovery of a van carrying detonators and an Arabic-language tape of Koranic verses near Madrid certainly bolsters this possibility. The e-mail from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade to al-Quds al-Arabi claiming responsibility has somewhat less credibility–as they also claimed to responsibility for last summer’s blackouts in the northeast.
In fact, Spain has been a major hub of Islamist activity. A Madrid-based Syrian-born used car salesman, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, better known as Abu Dada, was a top figure in al-Qaeda’s European logistical network. He traveled to al Qaeda facilities around the world and met bin Laden twice.
His cell helped provide Islamists traveling through Europe with lodging and false-identity documents. The cell recruited Muslims in Europe to train in camps in Afghanistan (at least two guests at Guantanamo were recruited by Abu Dada). His cell raised money by using stolen British credit cards in Spain. The cash was used to support al Qaeda activities throughout Europe, most notably by the Hamburg cell which plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Spain has also been a hub for planning terror attacks. 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta visited Spain for briefings in January and July of 2001. Ahmed Ressam, who was captured with a car full of explosives on the US-Canadian border in December 1999 and was planning to bomb LAX as part of a worldwide series of “Millenium” bombings, met his handlers in Spain before departing for Canada.
While Barakat and several cell members were arrested in November 2001, the Islamist network in Spain was not smashed. The January 2003 investigation into the ricin plots in London revealed connections that led to the arrest of 16 North Africans in northeastern Spain who were also linked to a planned terrorist attack in Strasbourg, France.
Five Moroccans implicated in the May 16, 2003 attacks in Casablanca, which killed 45–including a dozen suicide bombers–have also been linked with Barakas’s cell.
As a staunch American ally, which has committed troops to Iraq, Spain is an obvious Islamist target. Spain also holds a unique place in the Islamist worldview, in which the world, inevitably, will fall under the sway of Islam. Having once been part of the Muslim realm, it is an affront to this divine plan that it is no longer. In theirpost-9/11 broadcast, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking before bin Laden, spoke of the “tragedy of Andalucia.” Considering the combination of means and motivation, the surprise would not be that Islamists struck Spain–but that it has taken so long.
Another possibility is that ETA and Islamists are cooperating. That ETA’s statement disavowing responsibility for the bombings blamed them on “Arab resistance” speaks volumes about their worldview. ETA has well-established links to the PLO and ETA members trained in PLO camps in Yemen and Libya. In the tangled web of Middle Eastern terror, these connections are a gateway to links with radical Islamists. More recently, ETA is rumored to have purchased explosives from Hamas and Stingers from bin Laden. One member of Barakas’s cell was a native Spaniard who had converted to Islam and may have been an election monitor for the political party linked to ETA.
Regardless of the perpetrator–this attack was a harsh reminder that those who would destroy liberty and murder the innocent remain committed to their evil. It also demonstrates, again, that wealthy, open societies offer a plethora of tempting targets for mass murder. Steps need to be taken to shore up domestic vigilance, but no combination of measures can be completely effective. The best defense is a good offense–a terrorist on the run is a terrorist too busy to plot mass murder.
–Aaron Mannes is the author of “ TerrorBlog” and Profiles in Terror, forthcoming in May.