April 9, 2006

Intelligence Briefing:
Revolution & Terrorism

Derailing Spain’s 3/11 Investigation

Part 1: Decoys and False Leads

Madrid, Spain
Francesco Cepolina
Target of Terror: Madrid, Spain.
For over forty years, the terrorists of the ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, or “Basque Homeland and Freedom”) waged war against Spain. Kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings in the names of Marx and Lenin, fueled by training and weapons from throughout the Communist Bloc, left a trail of thousands of victims injured or dead.

Well known for attacks during election campaigns to try to shift the vote leftward, the ETA’s hardened revolutionaries had been escalating the frequency and intensity of their shootings and bombings in the months leading up to the March, 2004 national elections. The incumbent prime minister, José María Aznar, was known as a conservative with a reputation for cracking down on the terrorists; his challenger, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had established quite a different reputation for his links to the Communists and the ETA. Aznar held a far lead over his opponent, who stood little chance of winning. The Etarra revolutionaries gambled on intimidation to shift the political balance, and each of their bombings grew larger and deadlier than the one before. As election day neared, Spanish police went on alert for the anticipated big one.

It struck Thursday morning, March 11 — three days before the election. At 7:39 am, a train filled with commuters on their way to work stopped in the Atocha station, largest hub in the capital city of Madrid. As passengers boarded the crowded train, three bombs exploded in rapid sequence, shredding the cars and everyone nearby. Five minutes later, during the ensuing panic, another train approaching the station was incinerated in a series of four on-board explosions. At 7:49, a bomb destroyed a train only nine miles down the track, at the Santa Eugenia station, and after another five minutes two more bombs detonated on a train at the El Pozo station.1

Blood and severed limbs littered the blast zones, in many cases the sole remains of the 191 dead. A staggering 1,500 injured victims occupied the attention of emergency services. The carnage horrified all Spaniards, even many ETA sympathizers.2

The Spanish government and law enforcement recognized the ETA’s hand in the attacks, and the U.S. State Department was forced to agree.3 So did leftist leaders, including the heads of the Socialist Party, the United Left, and the Esquerra Republicana of Catalonia.4 “ETA writes its own epitaph with this,” proclaimed President Juan José Ibarretxe of the Basque Autonomous Region, a political entity long working hand-in-hand with the Etarra revolutionaries.5

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the ETA itself veered sharply in a new direction. Hours after the attacks, amidst growing national outrage, the organization denied responsibility through its political wing, the illegal Batasuna party — and, oddly enough, blamed Arabs instead, despite claiming to know nothing about the bombings. Officials didn’t buy the denial, in light of ETA’s known habit of waiting until after bombings before deciding whether to take credit, thus giving themselves time to gauge public reaction.6

At about the same time, someone e-mailed a letter to the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in London, claiming responsibility on behalf of “Al Qaeda” and a group referred to as the “Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades.” With the very existence of the mystery “Brigades” in doubt, U.S. officials questioned whether the group had any ties to “Al Qaeda,” and discounted the group’s claim.7

Also later on the day of the attacks, police discovered a stolen van abandoned at one of the train stations — precisely where it was most likely to be discovered, as if someone wanted it found — containing bomb components and, for good measure, an Arab-language audiotape of Koranic verses, a common item easily purchased in many Islamic stores. The whole thing looked obviously like a setup, and one police commander admitted it could well have been planted by the ETA.8 Nevertheless, that afternoon the Interior Ministry did open a new investigation into the unlikely possibility of an “Al Qaeda” connection.9

As the Spanish political Left realized its ETA comrades couldn’t shake off the blame, it mobilized wave upon wave of noisy demonstrations nationally during the last two days leading up to the March 14 election, demanding that the government stop investigating the Etarras and redirect attention to “Al Qaeda” groups. Meanwhile, a mysterious videotape ended up in the hands of law enforcement, featuring an unknown man speaking Moroccan Arabic and taking credit for the March 11 attacks on behalf of “Al Qaeda.”10

The Spanish police had solid evidence of the ETA’s role in the bombings, whereas the flimsy evidence for “Islamic” involvement could not be verified at all — neither the abandoned van and the Arabic tape, nor the two competing claims on behalf of “Al Qaeda.” Indeed, the first “Al Qaeda” claim, having been recognized as a fake, had already vanished into thin air. Clearly, somebody wanted the heat redirected from the ETA to “Al Qaeda,” and was willing to fabricate claims of responsibility. Yet within two days after the 3/11 attacks, the government had caved in to political pressure and largely dropped the hot Etarra trail, pursuing instead any lead, no matter how weak, into foreign Arab or Muslim connections.

By Sunday, March 14, the bombings, the subsequent protests, and the government’s weakness had combined to produce an incredible electoral upset: Zapatero and his Socialist Workers’ Party defeated the incumbent Aznar and swept a hard-Left government into power. The ETA was off the hook, and had even won its political victory.

The ensuing investigation of “Al Qaeda” involvement only confused matters more. Every new finding raised more questions than it answered, making the Arabic connection seem ever less likely even as the new Zapatero government moved quickly to save its ETA friends.

– Continued in Part 2 –


1. Wilkinson, T., “Train bombings kill nearly 200 in Spain,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2004, pp. A1, A15.

2. Ibid.; Wilkinson, T., “Basque separatist group ends four-decade war with Spain,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2006, pp. A1, A5.

3. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda link is one possibility,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2004, pp. A1, A14.

4. Aznar, J.M., “The truth about 3/11,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2004.

5. Wilkinson, T., “Train bombings kill nearly 200 in Spain,” Op cit.

6. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda link is one possibility,” Op cit.; Aznar, Op cit.

7. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda link is one possibility,” Op cit.; Wilkinson, T., “Train bombings kill nearly 200 in Spain,” Op cit.; Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda now focus of Spain’s bombing probe,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2004, pp. A1, A15.

8. Ibid.; Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda link is one possibility,” Op cit.; Mateo-Yanguas, C. & Wilkinson, T., “Lead Madrid terror suspect among those killed in blast,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2004, p. A3.

9. Aznar, Op cit.

10. Rotella, S. & Wilkinson, T., “Al Qaeda now focus of Spain’s bombing probe,” Op cit.