The Madrid Bombings: Staying the Course in the War on Terror

Report Europe

The Madrid Bombings: Staying the Course in the War on Terror

March 12, 2004 4 min read

Authors: Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman

Yesterday's attacks in Madrid claimed the lives of 200 Spaniards and injured over a thousand more. The terrorist assault struck at the very heart of one of America's most trusted allies in the war on terror and sent shock waves throughout Europe. Coming just days before this weekend's Spanish general election, the bombings were an attempt to shatter the democratic process in a nation which only a quarter century earlier emerged from the shadow of totalitarianism.


While it is presently unclear as to who carried out the Madrid attacks, suspicion has immediately fallen upon not only domestic terrorists, but also Al Qaeda. Either acting singly or in tandem, the terrorists' goal was to shatter the Spanish-American alliance, precisely because it has been so effective in combating terrorism. This must not be allowed to happen.


Who Was Responsible?

The Basque separatist movement ETA[1] is at present the prime suspect in the Spanish Government's investigation. ETA has stringently denied responsibility for the attacks, but the bombings bear the organization's fingerprints. For instance, the dynamite-like explosive used in the attacks, Titadine, has been used frequently by ETA.


For the past several months, ETA has been warning of a major terrorist attack. This was in response to the Spanish government's highly successful hard-line approach to the organization, which has led to the capture of many of its top leadership in the past year.


ETA has been responsible for the deaths of 850 people in Spain since 1968, and its political wing, Batasuna, was banned in March 2003. ETA was placed on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations in 1997.


An Al Qaeda Connection?

There is at present no firm evidence linking Al-Qaeda to the Madrid bombings. However, an Al-Qaeda affiliated group (the Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Misri) has claimed responsibility for the attacks in a letter to the London newspaper al-Quds. This claim has been greeted with some skepticism by intelligence analysts. There is no history of co-operation between ETA and Al-Qaeda.


There are however some disturbing Al-Qaeda calling cards. First, the scale of the violence suggests Al-Qaeda involvement- as opposed to ETA's acting alone - as the domestic terrorist organization tends to target high-level Spanish officials rather than indulge in mass murder. Second, the near-simultaneity of the ten bombings is reminiscent of Al-Qaeda bombings in Africa, the United States, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Moreover, Al Qaeda cells have been active in Spain for several years and Spanish authorities have made dozens of arrests since September 11, 2001.


While at this stage no firm conclusions can be drawn, the possibility of collaboration between a radical faction of ETA and Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups certainly cannot be ruled out. The bombings bore the hallmarks of both traditional European-style terrorist attacks, as well as the more spectacular mass-casualty atrocities carried out by Al-Qaeda.


If true, this would be an extremely dangerous development. The alliance of European left-wing terrorists and Islamic militants would necessitate a fundamental rethinking of strategy in the war on terror.


Spain, the U.S., and the War on Terror

Spain has been at the forefront of the war on terror in Europe and around the globe. Along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been a highly visible supporter of the U.S-led war on terror and American efforts in Iraq, going so far as to host the historic Azores summit on the eve of war against Saddam. It is certainly no accident that Australia and Spain, two of America's most stalwart allies of the post-September 11 era, have suffered massive attack by terrorists.


It is this increasingly successful anti-terror coalition which has been threatened in both cases. The United States must heed the words of King Juan Carlos of Spain[2] and demonstrate that continued Allied co-operation is essential if both ETA and Al-Qaeda are to be defeated.


A Global War

The Madrid bombings will undoubtedly shatter the illusions of many Europeans who had mistakenly believed that the war on terror could be won through UN resolutions, international courts, and appeasement. While there is undoubtedly more to the war on terror than military action, intelligence co-ordination among major states such as Spain and the United States remains a prerequisite for dealing with Osama bin Laden.


The bombings should be a wake-up call for the many high-level European Union officials who believe that the war on terror could be won simply by applying the gentle nostrums of economic aid. The tragedy in Madrid once again illustrates that Prime Minister Aznar has been right all along: any effort to win the war on terror must have a military and intelligence-sharing component if it is to be successful.


The terrorist atrocities in Madrid should strengthen the resolve of Europe's leaders to work more closely with Washington in intelligence-gathering, criminal prosecutions, and military action to combat international terrorism. The United States and Europe have a common interest in defeating the scourge of global terrorism, and it is to be hoped that these tragic bombings will draw the two closer together.

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and John Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuma, or Fatherland and Liberty. The organization was formed in 1959.


[2] In an address to the Spanish nation following the bombings, King Juan Carlos called for "Unity, firmness and calm in the fight against terrorism, with all the instruments with which the rule of law provides us, redoubling our joint efforts to put an end to this scourge, counting on police action, the work of the justice system, and international co-operation… In these hours of immense grief, we Spaniards are called more than ever to reaffirm our determination to put an end to terrorist violence."


Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow