March 12, 2004 - Yesterday Spain suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. At least ten bombs exploded almost simultaneously, ripping through four commuter trains. Nearly 200 people were killed and over a thousand injured.
At this writing it is not yet clear who is responsible for the attack. At first Spanish authorities were certain it was the ETA, a Basque separatist organization. But there have been contradictory clues, some seeming to point to ETA and others to Al Qaeda.
On one hand, the explosives were of the same type that ETA traditionally uses. ETA has previously committed indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Madrid. It also tried unsuccessfully to bomb a train bound for Madrid last Christmas Eve.
On the other hand, this attack diverges from the ETA pattern in several respects. ETA has generally given warnings about its attacks. There was no warning this time. ETA has always claimed responsibility for its attacks. It denied responsibility this time. This attack was also much larger and claimed many more victims than anything ETA has done in the past. The simultaneous detonations in several different locations are in fact a trademark of Al Qaeda.
Other clues possibly implicating Islamic extremists: Spanish police discovered detonators and a cassette tape of Koranic verses inside a stolen van that was parked near the station from which three of the bombed trains originated. An Islamic extremist group sent a letter to an Arabic-language newspaper in London claiming responsibility for the attack and saying, "This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam." However, this last item does not really prove anything since the same group falsely claimed responsibility for other events, including last summer's blackout in New York City.
We cannot yet be certain that ETA is responsible, nor can we be sure it was Al Qaeda. A third, more frightening possibility has been suggested: both organizations are involved and were working in concert. This, however, is still speculation.
All we can say right now is that the attack was either the work of Islamic extremists or of home-grown European terrorists. Either possibility is cause for alarm.
If it is Al Qaeda, it means that Islamic terrorism is reaching beyond its traditional frontiers, Israel, America, and Kashmir, and is seeking new conquests in Europe. No one anywhere in the world is safe. Attacks are only likely to increase in number and in scope, as the terrorists become more experienced and acquire more lethal weapons.
If it is ETA, then the Basque separatists have taken a page from the Al Qaeda playbook and are playing for higher stakes. In the twenty-first century, only high-yield terrorist attacks will do. High body counts are now necessary for terrorists to get the attention and the notoriety they crave. Different terrorist groups are learning from each other how to make the world more dangerous.
Whichever of these two possibilities is the true one, the rules of the game have changed. The defining war of our times is the war of terrorism against civilization. Terrorism is not merely a Jewish problem or an American problem. It is everybody's problem. Israel's warning to the world, that if civilized nations do not present a united front against terrorism it will spread like cancer, is proving prophetic, and sooner than most would have expected.
Globalization is becoming complete with the globalization of terror. No nation and no individual can any longer afford to make the mistake of thinking, "terrorism is their problem, not mine."
Golden, Tim and Don van Natta Jr. "Investigation of Bombings in Madrid Yields Conflicting Clues." New York Times, March 12, 2004.
Richburg, Kenneth B. "Madrid Train Blasts Kill at Least 190: Ten Bombs Detonate Almost at Once; Nearly 1,500 Hurt." Washington Post, March 12, 2004.
Rodríguez, Jorge A. "Matanza en Madrid: Interior Apunta a Al Qaeda y No Descarta a ETA." El País, March 12, 2004.
Sciolino, Elaine. "Ten Bombs Shatter Trains in Madrid, Killing 192." New York Times, March 12, 2004.
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