- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

“It’s a declaration of war against democracy,” said Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, of last Thursday’s attacks in Madrid. On that point, there is no debate. What is debatable, however, is who is responsible for the senseless slaughter of innocents.

While many fingers in Spain are pointing at the Basque separatist movement ETA as the perpetrators of Thursday’s atrocious train bombings that left some 200 dead and more than 1,400 wounded, the attacks carry all the markings of al Qaeda and its jihadi affiliates.

For starters, the Brussels-based World Observatory of Terrorism, an independent policy institute affiliated with the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, points to five major reasons to doubt ETA involvement.

(1) ETA generally warns Spanish authorities moments before launching their attacks in which civilians are likely to be harmed. This, obviously, was not the case Thursday.

(2) ETA traditionally targets representatives of the government or the administration, such as policemen, the military, magistrates or even journalists who oppose ETA.

(3) ETA customarily selects “symbolic” targets, such as military barracks and administrative buildings. Though ETA’s largest attack so far was in 1987 against a Barcelona supermarket, killing 21 people, this was the exception rather than the norm.

(4) ETA always claims its attacks. Following any ETA bombing, ETA militants call in a claim to Spanish authorities. That was not done this time.

(5) ETA in the past has never carried out multiple attacks. According to some sources, at least 10 bombs were detonated almost simultaneously on Thursday.

On the other hand, these murderous attacks bear the traditional hallmark of al Qaeda: multiple bombs detonating a few seconds apart and programmed to cause the largest possible number of human casualties.

Again, the World Observatory of Terrorism sees several elements pointing to the “International Jihad Movement.” The “multiple targeting,” reports the WOT, is the standard operating procedure of the fundamentalist Islamist movement.

Just look at the past attacks attributed to al Qaeda; the twin attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Aug. 7, 1998, the double attacks in Istanbul last year, the various attacks in Iraq and of course, the September 11, 2001, bombings against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Furthermore, attacks planned to cause large numbers of civilian casualties is the preferred jihadi approach.

Spain, says the WOT, is “an acceptable target” for al Qaeda for its unfaltering support of the United States in the war in Iraq. Spain, along with the United Kingdom, contributed troops to the war effort, and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar showed unflagging support to President George W. Bush and the war. Mr. Aznar stood side by side with Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a prewar summit in the Azores.

The Madrid bombings appear unlike anything ETA did in the past. French and German intelligence officers said to United Press International on terms of anonymity: “The Madrid attacks are far too sophisticated to be the work of ETA. There was too much logistics involved for this to be the work of ETA.”

Several Islamist movements were traced to Spain, and some were apprehended and dismantled, intelligence officials reported. The Brussels think tank had previously reported Spain was “classified in eighth position on the list of Western countries most threatened by the jihadist movement.” “We underlined that the countries participating in the coalition in Iraq — including Spain — could expect to be the target of Islamic attacks,” said Claude Moniquet of the WOT.

Another reason it does not seem logical ETA would be behind these attacks is that the Basque separatist movement already lacks popular sympathy. If these murderous killings were provably tied to ETA, the group would stand to lose even more support and would have a hard time sustaining itself politically. Even the Basque population would reject such thoughtless killings and begin distancing itself. Of this, the ETA leadership is well aware.

Finally, discounting the Istanbul bombings, al Qaeda has not struck in the West since September 11, and Osama bin Laden and his followers largely have been on the defensive. This would be the perfect time for them to show supporters and the Western powers they remain very much a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, Spain was the ideal target. It’s a Western European nation, a NATO member and U.S. ally and a participant in Iraq war. Further, Spain’s experience combating terrorism over the years made it far from a “soft target.”

As a German intelligence officer lamented, “Now the war has reached Europe.”

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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