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Context of 'Shortly After March 14, 2004: Spanish Government Allegedly Wipes Out All Records of Attempt to Blame Basque Separatists for Madrid Bombings'

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Multiple bombs destroyed this train in Madrid, Spain.Multiple bombs destroyed this train in Madrid, Spain. [Source: Rafa Roa/ Cover/ Corbis] (click image to enlarge)At about 7:40 a.m., four trains are bombed in Madrid, Spain, killing 191 people and injuring about 1,800 more. These are not suicide bombings, but were set by cell phone timers. Basque separatists are initially blamed, but evidence later points to people loosely associated with al-Qaeda. It will later be reported that 34 out of the 40 main people suspected or arrested for involvement in the bombings were under surveillance in Spain prior to the bombings (see Shortly Before March 11, 2004). Most of the bombers had never been to any training camps. In 2006, Spanish investigators will announce that the bombings were inspired by al-Qaeda, but not ordered or funded by al-Qaeda’s leadership. Specifically, the bombers are said to have been inspired by a speech allegedly given by Osama bin Laden in October 2003 (see October 19, 2003). [New Yorker, 7/26/2004; Associated Press, 3/9/2006] However, there will also be evidence against this that will not be refuted. For instance, the investigators will claim that all the key participants are either dead or in jail, but a number of them remain free overseas. For example, Amer el-Azizi is implicated in the Madrid bombings (see Before March 11, 2004), and he has links to well-known al-Qaeda figures such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see (November 2001)), Ramzi bin al-Shibh (see Before July 8, 2001), and Zacarias Moussaoui (see Before August 16, 2001). In late 2002 or early 2003, el-Azizi is said to have met with Serhane Abdelmajid Fakhet, one of the key bombers, to discuss a bombing. He reportedly gave Fakhet permission to stage a bombing in the name of al-Qaeda, but it is unclear if he gave any funding or other assistance. [Associated Press, 4/10/2004; New Yorker, 7/26/2004] There are suggestions that el-Azizi was protected by Spanish intelligence (see Shortly After November 21, 2001), so the government may not be eager to highlight his involvement. Fakhet, considered one of the three masterminds of the bombings, may have been a government informant (see Shortly After October 2003). Many of the other plotters also appear to have been informants, and almost all the plotters were under surveillance before the bombings (see Shortly Before March 11, 2004). Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will say later in the month: “If we catch [bin Laden] this summer, which I expect, it’s two years too late. Because during those two years when forces were diverted to Iraq… al-Qaeda has metamorphosized into a hydra-headed organization with cells that are operating autonomously like the cells that operated in Madrid recently.” [USA Today, 3/28/2004] It will be noted that the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the Madrid train bombings are separated by a total of 911 days. [MSNBC, 3/19/2004; Bloomberg, 4/22/2005]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Amer el-Azizi, Al-Qaeda, Richard A. Clarke, Serhane Abdelmajid Fakhet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Four Madrid trains were bombed on the morning of March 11, 2004 (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004), and in the evening on the same day, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar calls the editors of Spain’s major newspapers and tells them that ETA, a Basque separatist group, is behind the attacks. In fact, so far there is no evidence suggesting ETA involvement in the bombings. However, investigators have found bomb detonators in a van near the sight of one of the bombings, and the van also has a cassette tape of the Koran in it, suggesting Islamist militants were behind the bombings (see 10:50 a.m.-Afternoon, March 11, 2004). At the same time, Spanish intelligence is wiretapping most of the top ETA leaders, and during the day they intercept calls between leaders expressing shock about the bombings. The bombings also do not fit with ETA’s modus operandi, which is to bomb government targets and avoid civilian casualties. Aznar is aware of all this, and even tells Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, leader of the opposition party, about the van evidence in a phone call that same evening. But Aznar nonetheless insists that “there is no doubt who did the attacks,” and that ETA is to blame. There are nationwide elections scheduled in just three days, and polls show that Aznar’s successor, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party, is leading Zapatero of the Socialist party by about five points. ETA has a long history of bombings in Spain, and Aznar himself survived an ETA car bomb in 1995. He has made the elimination of ETA his top priority. In fact, Aznar has planned a series of raids against ETA on March 12 in hopes that will help boost his party’s chances in the elections. If ETA is responsible, it will vindicate Aznar’s campaign against them and presumably boost his party’s chances in the election. [New Yorker, 7/26/2004]

Entity Tags: Mariano Rajoy, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, Jose Maria Aznar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Massive demonstrations in Madrid on March 12, 2004.Massive demonstrations in Madrid on March 12, 2004. [Source: Associated Press]In the early morning of March 12, 2004, a police officer searching through the wreckage of the Madrid trains bombed the day before (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004) discovers a bag containing 22 pounds of explosives surrounded by nails and screws. Two wires run from a cell phone to a detonator. Police use the memory chip inside the phone to find who the owner of the phone has called recently. They quickly discover a network of Islamist militants, many of them already under surveillance. They hone in on Jamal Zougam, who owns a cell phone shop that is connected to the phone, and who had been under investigation for militant links since 2000 (see 2000-Early March 2004). He will be arrested a day later. But the ruling party has already blamed the bombings on ETA, a Basque separate group (see Evening, March 11, 2004). Interior Minister Angel Acebes had blamed ETA within hours of the attacks (see 10:50 a.m.-Afternoon, March 11, 2004), and again he publicly claims that ETA is the prime suspect, even though police are now sure that Islamist militants were behind the bombings instead. He even calls those who suggest otherwise “pathetic” and says their alternative theories are “poisonous”. But news that ETA is not to blame is already leaking to the media. That evening about 11 million Spaniards protest around the country—about one fourth of Spain’s population. They are protesting the violence of the bombings, but also, increasingly, growing evidence of a cover-up that attempts to falsely blame ETA. The New Yorker will later comment, “It was clear that the [national election on March 14] would swing on the question of whether Islamists or ETA terrorists were responsible for the bombings.” [Guardian, 3/15/2004; New Yorker, 7/26/2004]

Entity Tags: Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, Angel Acebes, Jamal Zougam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Angel Acebes.Angel Acebes. [Source: Luis Magan / El Pais]At 4:00 p.m. on March 13, 2004, the day before national elections in Spain, Interior Minister Angel Acebes announces on television that Jamal Zougam and two other Moroccans have been arrested for suspected roles in the Madrid train bombings two days before (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004). A day earlier, evidence found at one of the bomb sites was linked to Zougam (see March 12, 2004), and he had long been monitored for his Islamist militant links (see 2000-Early March 2004). Nonetheless, Acebes continues to suggest that ETA, a Basque separatist group, was behind the bombing instead. The ruling party has staked its reputation on its assertion that ETA is to blame. [New Yorker, 7/26/2004] That evening, the national public television station even changes its regular television programming to show a movie about Basque terrorism. [Australian, 11/2/2007] But by now the opposition Socialist Party is publicly accusing the government of lying about the investigation in order to stay in power. [New Yorker, 7/26/2004] Zougam will later be sentenced to life in prison for his role in the Madrid bombings. [Daily Mail, 11/1/2007]

Entity Tags: Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, Angel Acebes, Jamal Zougam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On March 14, 2004, just three days after the Madrid train bombings (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004), Spain holds national elections. The opposition Socialist party wins. The Socialists go from 125 seats to 164 in the 350-seat legislature. The ruling Popular Party falls from 183 seats to 148. As a result, Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero replaces Jose Maria Aznar as Spain’s prime minister. Zapatero had pledged to withdraw Spain’s troops from the war in Iraq. In declaring victory, Zapatero again condemns the war in Iraq and reiterates his pledge to withdraw. He keeps his pledge and withdraws all of Spain’s troops over the next couple of months. [Associated Press, 3/15/2004; New Yorker, 7/26/2004]
Victory for Al-Qaeda? - Some will see this as a strategic victory for al-Qaeda. A treatise written by al-Qaeda leader Yusef al-Ayeri in late 2003 suggested the political utility of bombing Spain in order to force them to withdraw their troops from Iraq (see December 2003). For instance, an editor at the conservative Spanish newspaper ABC will later say, “I doubt whether anyone can seriously suggest that Spain has not acted in a way that suggests appeasement.”
Angry Voters - But Spanish voters may not have voted out of fear of being attacked again because of its Iraq commitment so much as anger at the ruling party for attempting to hide evidence linking the bombing to al-Qaeda and falsely blaming Basque separatists instead (see Evening, March 11, 2004, March 12, 2004, 4:00 p.m., March 13, 2004). [New Yorker, 7/26/2004] For instance, the Guardian will report, “The spectacular gains made by [the Socialist party] were in large part a result of the government’s clumsy attempts at media manipulation following the Madrid bombs on Thursday.… The party had just three days to avoid the charge that it had attracted the bombers by supporting a war that was opposed by 90% of Spaniards.… There would have been a double bonus for the [Popular Party] if they could have successfully deflected the blame onto the Basque terrorist group, ETA. A central plank of the government’s election platform had been that [the Socialists] are ‘soft’ on Basque terrorism.” [Guardian, 3/15/2004]

Entity Tags: Yusef al-Ayeri, Al-Qaeda, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Jose Maria Aznar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The Popular Party led by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar is voted out of power on March 14, 2004 (see March 14, 2004). In December 2004, the incoming prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the Socialist party, will claim that shortly after the election Aznar wiped out all computer records at the prime minister’s office from the period between the Madrid train bombings on March 11 (see 7:37-7:42 a.m., March 11, 2004) and the elections three days later. Zapatero will tell a parliamentary commission: “There was nothing, absolutely nothing… everything had been wiped. There is nothing from March 11 to March 14 in the prime minister’s office.” Only some paper documents remain. During those days, the ruling party strongly asserted that ETA, a Basque separatist group, was behind the bombings, even as investigators quickly uncovered overwhelming evidence that Islamist militants were the real culprits (see Evening, March 11, 2004, March 12, 2004, 4:00 p.m., March 13, 2004). Zapatero will accuse Aznar’s government of having tried to frame ETA for the bombings. “It was massive deceit,” he says. [Guardian, 12/14/2004]

Entity Tags: Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, Jose Maria Aznar, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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