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The 3/11 Madrid Bombings: An Assessment After 5 Years

Conventional wisdom about the 3/11 attacks is that it was a local, isolated terrorist cell at work. But the character of the attacks suggest Islamic jihadist terrorists as more likely perpetrators, explained Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Global Terrorism in Madrid's Elcano Royal Institute.

On March 11, 2004, Spain suffered its worst terrorist attack in history. Terrorists bombed four commuter lines into Madrid, killing 190 people and wounding 1,800. Ten bombs were detonated almost simultaneously, while another 3 devices failed to explode and were recovered by the Spanish authorities, providing crucial evidence about those responsible.

In the immediate aftermath, Spanish society was divided over who to blame: the government initially blamed the Basque separatist group, ETA. But the character of the attacks (multiple targets with the intention of inflicting mass casualties) suggested Islamic jihadist terrorists as more likely perpetrators, said Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Global Terrorism in Madrid's Elcano Royal Institute. Reinares recounted the events at a discussion co-sponsored by Georgetown University's Center for Peace, part of International Security Studies' ongoing Terrorism and Homeland Security Forum.

The 3/11 plot was followed on April 2 by an unsuccessful attempt to bomb the Madrid-Seville high-speed train, and on the next day by a police raid on a terrorist safe house during which the suspects carried out a suicide bombing rather than be taken prisoner.

The subsequent police investigation revealed that the terrorists had been planning the 3/11 attacks since August 2003. The terrorists had conducted surveillance on additional targets; had rented a safe house in Grenada (a city of tremendous symbolism for the jihadists), and had 1.5 million euro in cash on hand. The 3/11 attacks cost only 105,000 euro.

The conventional wisdom that soon emerged about the 3/11 attacks was that it was a prototypical example of a local terrorist cell at work: self-recruited, leaderless jihad—a "bunch of guys," as one analyst has put it.

"The media has astonishingly contributed to this [perception of] al-Qaeda as an amorphous phenomenon," Reinares said.

Reinares's analysis challenges this conventional wisdom. For evidence, he draws on the judicial review conducted by the Spanish authorities, as well as the trials of terrorist defendants prosecuted in Madrid and Italy. Most of those involved in the 3/11 attacks were from Morocco; they were first-generation immigrants, not homegrown terrorists (as they were in Britain).

Two terrorists who played a key role in the bombings had been members of the al-Qaeda cell established in Spain in the 1990s. This cell had extensive international contacts, including with the Hamburg cell headed by Mohammed Atta (who visited Spain during the preparations for the 9/11 attacks in America). These members of al-Qaeda in Spain were not self-radicalized and self-recruited, Reinares said.

The leader of the Spanish al-Qaeda cell attended a key meeting of North African jihadist groups in Istanbul in February 2002. That meeting, which occurred in the aftermath of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, led to a strategic decision by these groups operating in the Maghreb and Spain to launch renewed attacks. Members of those cells had received terrorist training, including instruction in using cell phones to trigger simultaneous explosions, in Afghanistan during the Taliban era.

The Moroccan members of the al-Qaeda cell in Spain had been "radicalized from above," using popular opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (which the Spanish government at the time had supported) as one recruitment tool.

Reinares posited that there is "suggestive evidence" of an al-Qaeda role in the 3/11 attacks. He noted that the date of the attack had been set by the Spanish cell on the day after a message in Osama bin Laden's name directly threatened Spain and other countries that had military contingents in Iraq.

The facts revealed by the 3/11 trials and investigation, Reinares concluded, suggest "a more complex reality"—one in which the diverse groups that constitute global jihadist terrorism in this transitional period after the loss of al-Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary are influenced from the "top down" as well as from the "bottom up."