Spain's Retreat After The Madrid Bombings Rewards Terrorism

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Spain's Retreat After The Madrid Bombings Rewards Terrorism

March 16, 2004 3 min read
Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
James Phillips is a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Mounting evidence indicates that Al Qaeda may have been behind the March 11th bombings in Madrid. Whether this is the case or not, however, it is clear that the bombings contributed greatly to the Socialist Party's surprise victory at the polls three days later and the election of a new Prime Minister, Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Already, Zapatero has promised to withdraw Spanish troops from duty in Iraq. This is, unfortunately, a political triumph for radical Islamic terrorism and may well embolden Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to strike similarly in the future.


The Al Qaeda Connection    

The identity of the terrorists who carried out the March 11th multiple bombings of the Madrid commuter trains, which killed 201 people and wounded more than 1600, still has not been determined. The bombings, initially suspected to be the gruesome handiwork of the ETA Basque terrorist group, now appear to be an attack launched at least in part by foreign Islamic militants, possibly linked to Al Qaeda.


Spanish authorities have arrested six Moroccans. One of these suspects, Jamal Zougam, had ties to an Al Qaeda cell based in Spain that helped plan the September 11 attacks in the United States. He also is a suspect in the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed 33 people and 12 suicide bombers affiliated with Al Qaeda. A videotape communiqué from someone claiming to be "the military spokesman for Al Qaeda in Europe" proclaimed that the bombings were meant to punish Spain's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.


The Politics of Capitulation

The bombings have had a major political impact, propelling the opposition Socialist Party to an upset victory over the conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a staunch U.S. ally, in the general elections held three days later. As a result of the bombings, Aznar's government, which initially sought to lay the blame on Basque separatists who have conducted a terrorist campaign against the Spanish government for more than 20 years, was swept out of office by a voter backlash.


The newly elected Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, already has pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. Such a withdrawal would weaken the coalition's effort to build a stable democracy in Iraq and make Iraq a safer place for Al Qaeda terrorists to operate. This decision has made the Iraqi people the biggest losers in the Spanish elections and Osama bin Laden the biggest winner.


This Spanish retreat will be perceived as a huge political triumph for Al Qaeda and like-minded Islamic radicals -- probably their most important achievement since September 11, 2001. Zapatero's act of appeasement has handed Osama bin Laden a major victory. This will only encourage further attacks, from Al Qaeda or from other terrorist groups emboldened by the successful operation in Spain, targeting other members of the coalition involved in liberating Iraq from Saddam's brutal regime. Spain's cave-in on Iraq after the bombing will particularly heighten the threat of copycat attacks on other countries that have contributed peacekeeping troops to Iraq, such as Britain, Poland, Italy, Ukraine, South Korea, and Japan.


Even if it turns out that Al Qaeda was not involved in the horrendous Madrid attacks, it now will be encouraged to launch terrorist attacks against democracies just before scheduled elections, in order to stampede panicky voters and undermine political leaders and governments that have stood strong against terrorism. This raises the already-high risk of an attack in the United States before the November elections.


By turning its back on its allies and unilaterally withdrawing from the 36-member coalition seeking to build stability in Iraq, the new Socialist government of Spain has weakened the Western alliance, undermined the future of free Iraqis, and rewarded terrorists for a bloody attack. While this policy may be politically popular in Spain right now, it is not likely to buy Spain a separate peace in the war against terrorism, any more than opposition to the war against Iraq bought Turkey protection from the Al Qaeda affiliates who killed 52 people in a series of bombings in Istanbul last November.


The 500-Year War

Al Qaeda is at war with Western ideas, ideals, and societies, and not just with states. The Islamic extremists who support Al Qaeda consider southern Spain to be occupied Muslim land that deserves to be liberated from the "crusaders" who drove out Muslim rulers in 1492. Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, referred to this loss of "Andalusia" in the first Al Qaeda videotape released after September 11, long before Spanish support for the war in Iraq was an issue.


The misguided and unfortunate Spanish reaction to the Madrid bombings therefore is likely to pave the way for much more terrorist bloodshed, inside Iraq and throughout the Western world. Winston Churchill once said that: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." It appears that Spain's new Zapatero government has fed a voracious crocodile a substantial meal that will only enlarge its future appetite.


James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies