The Real Story Behind Europe’s Most Deadly Terror Attack Since 9/11

David Sterman, a research associate with New America’s International Security Program, recently sat down with Fernando Reinares, a senior analyst on international terrorism at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute and a professor of political science at Madrid’s Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, to discuss his new book on the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid: ¡Matadlos! Quién ...

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

David Sterman, a research associate with New America's International Security Program, recently sat down with Fernando Reinares, a senior analyst on international terrorism at Spain's Elcano Royal Institute and a professor of political science at Madrid's Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, to discuss his new book on the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid: ¡Matadlos! Quién Estuvo Detrás del 11-M y Por Qué Se Atentó en España (Kill Them! Who Was Behind 3/11 and Why Spain Was Targeted). In the book, Reinares contends that the bombings have been incorrectly ascribed to an independent jihadist cell when they were actually conducted by a network with deep ties to al Qaeda. The following is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed.

Sterman: Can you explain the narrative regarding the 3/11 Madrid bombings that your book responds to?

Reinares: The attacks, which killed 191 people, were presented as the product of an independent, self-constituted cell made up of individuals who radicalized in the context of the Iraq war and had no significant international connections; a cell characterized by former delinquents who turned into jihadists; and that the bombings ought to be considered an example of how amorphous global jihadism became after 9/11, an example of leaderless jihad. My research into the case proves just the opposite.

David Sterman, a research associate with New America’s International Security Program, recently sat down with Fernando Reinares, a senior analyst on international terrorism at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute and a professor of political science at Madrid’s Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, to discuss his new book on the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid: ¡Matadlos! Quién Estuvo Detrás del 11-M y Por Qué Se Atentó en España (Kill Them! Who Was Behind 3/11 and Why Spain Was Targeted). In the book, Reinares contends that the bombings have been incorrectly ascribed to an independent jihadist cell when they were actually conducted by a network with deep ties to al Qaeda. The following is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed.

Sterman: Can you explain the narrative regarding the 3/11 Madrid bombings that your book responds to?

Reinares: The attacks, which killed 191 people, were presented as the product of an independent, self-constituted cell made up of individuals who radicalized in the context of the Iraq war and had no significant international connections; a cell characterized by former delinquents who turned into jihadists; and that the bombings ought to be considered an example of how amorphous global jihadism became after 9/11, an example of leaderless jihad. My research into the case proves just the opposite.

S: You point to three clusters of individuals who were involved in the attack. What are they?

R: The case all started with a cluster of individuals tied to the Abu Dahdah al Qaeda cell, which was established in Spain in 1994 and led by Abu Dahdah, a man who multiple police reports called "Osama bin Laden’s man in Spain" and who was later convicted of terrorism offenses. The cell was dismantled in November 2001 following information connecting it to the Hamburg cell behind 9/11.

But not every member of the cell was arrested then. One individual belonging to the cell’s core was not arrested because he was out of the country, Amer Azizi, a Moroccan. He had been in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and was an important associate of Abu Dahdah. At least five other Abu Dahdah cell followers were not among the nearly 30 individuals arrested. Those individuals, following instructions from Azizi, started to form the Madrid bombing network as early as March 2002.

S: Were the members of the original group taking direct orders from al Qaeda?

R: The decision to attack Spain was made by Azizi in December 2001 in Karachi. Abu Dahdah’s cell had just been dismantled and Azizi was on his way to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas to join al Qaeda central. He became a member of al Qaeda central by the time his former cell members started to reactivate the group.

Azizi’s idea was to lead those members in attacks on Spain as revenge. Azizi’s decision was ratified in Istanbul in February 2002 during a meeting attended by delegates from three North African al Qaeda-related entities: the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the Tunisian Combatant Group.

It is important to stress the continuity between the Abu Dahdah cell and the Madrid bombing network. For instance, the network’s operational base south of Madrid was the property of a convicted member of the Abu Dahdah cell who was in prison at the time of the bombings. It was through intercepted phone numbers belonging to Abu Dahdah cell members still under police investigation at the time of the Madrid attacks that the hideout in Leganés –where seven of the terrorists died in a suicide explosion– was found on 3 April.

S: When and how does the second cluster enter?

R: The second cluster, introduced by the GICM as a result of the Istanbul meeting, joined the network by the middle of 2002. In those days the Moroccan jihadist organization was largely confined to cells within Western Europe, and its node inside the 3/11 network was Youssef Belhadj, a prominent GICM member then residing in Belgium.

We know, because of police and intelligence reports, that Belhadj often traveled to Spain to meet with other members of the GICM cluster. His last trip was just one week before the Madrid bombings. It was in a document — dated October 19, 2003 –about Belhadj’s acquisition in Brussels of pre-paid phone cards that we find the first known written date for the Madrid bombings: March 11.

S: How does the third cluster enter the network?

R: By the end of 2002, everything is in place. There was no intention to incorporate further elements, but it took place. An individual named Jamal Ahmidan, a drug trafficker whose radicalization started in the late 1990s in Spain’s penitentiaries and illegal immigrant internment centers, escaped in 2000 and went to Morocco. There, he was arrested and charged with murder. He was then released in July 2003. He wasn’t allowed to go back to Spain, but he did.

He manages to contact Serhane ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, who was then the local ringleader within the Madrid bombing network. They have their first meeting outside Madrid’s M30 mosque in July 2003. As a result, several members of a criminal gang whose lynchpin was Ahmidan joined the network. Until that moment, the network was thinking about using TATP [triacetone triperoxide] for the attacks. It was Ahmidan who convinced Fakhet to trust them with producing the explosives instead.

S: At that point, what’s the status of the plot?

R: You now have all three components of the network, but even without the third component, the plans to attack Spain were there. The decision was made. Al Qaeda Central adopted the plans in the summer of 2003 — certainly before October. Azizi had joined al Qaeda central. He became a field sub-commander in Afghanistan, and then was charged with an important role in al Qaeda’s propaganda office. Following Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s arrest, al Qaeda’s external operations command was assigned to an Egyptian, Hamza Rabia. Shortly after that, bin Laden himself appointed Azizi as Rabia’s adjunct.

So it was thanks, on the one hand, to Azizi’s presence in this al Qaeda senior leadership circle, and on the other hand, the initiation of the conflict in Iraq that led to al Qaeda central’s adoption of the plot.

S: Did al Qaeda central contribute logistical support or just adopt the existing plan?

R: That is the most likely scenario. Although the decision was prompted by vengeance, the Iraq war led al Qaeda’s senior leadership to consider the plan, thinking that it would benefit al Qaeda’s general strategy of creating differences between members of the international coalition with respect to the Iraq war. Al Qaeda senior leadership was active in making the most of the 3/11 attacks, particularly with respect to the Spanish general elections held three days later, a political event unexpected when the precise date for the attacks was decided.

Although it is likely that al Qaeda’s approval influenced the modus operandi. Choosing the eleventh day of a month and targeting four trains — the same as the four planes on 9/11 for example.

S: How do the Madrid bombings compare to other plots at the time?

R: Between 9/11 and the Madrid bombings, we have attacks decided, planned, and executed by al Qaeda central — Djerba, Tunisia and Mombasa, Kenya in 2002 — and we have attacks decided and planned by al Qaeda’s affiliates, such as the Casablanca attacks in 2003. We also know about independent cells active in Europe in those days.

The Madrid bombing network combined all these different kinds of actors. Post-9/11, far from being an amorphous leaderless phenomenon, global terrorism was a polymorphous phenomenon. The Madrid train bombings shows how different components merged to successfully plan and execute the second most lethal act of terrorism in Europe to date, second only to the December 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. 

S: Your book ties together sources from various countries, but it is not yet out in English. How did language differences affect your work?

R: The importance of Spain’s al Qaeda cell was underestimated by think tanks and experts in the United States, perhaps because of a problem accessing sources in languages other than English. One of the lessons I draw from my research is that the sources are extremely important. The criminal proceedings for the Madrid bombings consist of 100,000 documents.

From an analytical point of view you have far more information to consider. Unless experts have the privilege of access to non-open sources we risk making huge mistakes. Additionally, critical data in my book comes from documents and testimonies which were not there when the criminal proceedings on the Madrid train bombings were closed in 2006, nor when the sentences were handed down in 2007.

Initially, even U.S. intelligence agencies got it wrong and did not change their minds until around 2008. They thought it was an independent cell in the context of the Iraq war. I can produce the documents showing when U.S. intelligence agencies communicated with Spanish intelligence about Azizi. It was late — after the criminal proceedings, the trial, the commission, everything.

S: What lessons should be drawn from the analytic failure going forward?

R: That jihadist terrorism is a global phenomenon that is likely to always be more complex than we think, better organized than we think, and certainly far from lacking leadership and strategy, even when we think those features are not present. Also, to advance knowledge empirically on the major attacks and plots, far more interaction is needed between academia and the intelligence community. Maybe of all the facets of terrorism research, this is what’s most important when it comes to doing in-depth investigations on major attacks.

David Sterman is a program associate at New America and Assistant Editor of the South Asia Channel. He tweets at @DSterms Twitter: @Dsterms

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