The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings

Atocha station
Atocha station

The 2004 Madrid train bombings (also known in Spain as 11-M) were nearly simultaneous, coordinated bombings against the Cercanías commuter train system of Madrid, Spain, on the morning of 11 March 2004 – three days before Spain’s general elections. The explosions killed 192 people and injured around 2,000. The official investigation by the Spanish judiciary found that the attacks were directed by an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell, although no direct al-Qaeda participation has been established. Though they had no role in the planning or implementation, the Spanish miners who sold the explosives to the terrorists were also arrested.

Controversy regarding the handling and representation of the bombings by the government arose, with Spain’s two main political parties (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Partido Popular (PP)), accusing each other of concealing or distorting evidence for electoral reasons. The bombings occurred three days before general elections in which incumbent José María Aznar’s PP was defeated. Immediately after the bombing, leaders of the PP claimed evidence indicating the Basque separatist organization, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) was responsible for the bombings, while Islamist responsibility would have had the opposite effect, as it would have been seen as a consequence of the PP government taking Spain into the Iraq War, a policy extremely unpopular with Spaniards. Nationwide demonstrations and protests followed the attacks asking the government to tell the truth. The predominant view among political analysts is that the Aznar administration lost the general elections as a result of the handling and representation of the terrorist attacks, rather than because of the bombings per se.

The bombings constituted the deadliest terrorist attack carried out in the history of Spain. It was the worst attack to occur in Europe since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

After 21 months of investigation, judge Juan del Olmo processed Moroccan national Jamal Zougam, among several others, for his participation carrying out the attack. The September 2007 sentence established no known mastermind nor direct al-Qaeda link, but experts have repeatedly said that there is no such thing as an intellectual author in Spanish law.

Description of the bombings

During the peak of Madrid rush hour on the morning of Thursday, 11 March 2004, ten explosions occurred aboard four commuter trains (cercanías). The date led to the popular abbreviation of the incident as “11-M”. All the affected trains were traveling on the same line and in the same direction between Alcalá de Henares and the Atocha station in Madrid. It was later reported that thirteen improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had been placed on the trains. Bomb disposal teams (TEDAX) arriving at the scenes of the explosions detonated two of the remaining three IEDs in controlled explosions, but the third was not found until later in the evening, having been stored inadvertently with luggage taken from one of the trains. The following time-line of events comes from the judicial investigation.

All four trains had departed the Alcalá de Henares station between 07:01 and 07:14. The explosions took place between 07:37 and 07:40, as described below (all timings given are in local time CET, UTC +1):

  • Atocha Station (train number 21431) – Three bombs exploded. Based on the video recording from the station security system, the first bomb exploded at 07:37, and two others exploded within 4 seconds of each other at 07:38.

  • El Pozo del Tío Raimundo Station (train number 21435) – At approximately 07:38, just as the train was starting to leave the station, two bombs exploded in different carriages.

  • Santa Eugenia Station (train number 21713) – One bomb exploded at approximately 07:38.

  • Calle Téllez (train number 17305), approximately 800 meters from Atocha Station – Four bombs exploded in different carriages of the train at approximately 07:39.

At 08:00, emergency relief workers began arriving at the scenes of the bombings. The police reported numerous victims and spoke of 50 wounded and several dead. By 08:30 the emergency ambulance service, SAMUR (Servicio de Asistencia Municipal de Urgencia y Rescate), had set up a field hospital at the Daoiz y Velarde sports facility. Bystanders and local residents helped relief workers, as hospitals were told to expect the arrival of many casualties. At 08:43, firefighters reported 15 dead at El Pozo. By 09:00, the police had confirmed the death of at least 30 people – 20 at El Pozo and about 10 in Santa Eugenia and Atocha. People combed the city’s major hospitals in search of family members who they thought were aboard the trains.

– Nationalities of the victims

Nationality Victims
Spain 143
Romania 16
Ecuador 6
Poland 4
Bulgaria 4
Peru 3
Dominican Republic 2
Colombia 2
Morocco 2
Ukraine 2
Honduras 2
Senegal 1
Cuba 1
Chile 1
Brazil 1
France 1
Philippines 1
Total 192

The total number of victims was higher than in any other terrorist attack in Spain, far surpassing the 21 killed and 40 wounded from a 1987 bombing at a Hipercor chain supermarket in Barcelona. On that occasion, responsibility was claimed by ETA. It was Europe’s worst terror attack since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.

Further bombings spur investigation

A device composed of 12 kilograms of Goma-2 ECO with a detonator and 136 meters of wire (connected to nothing) was found on the track of a high-speed railway line (AVE) on 2 April. The Spanish judiciary chose not to investigate that incident and the perpetrators remain unknown. The device used in the AVE incident was unable to explode because it lacked an initiation system.

Shortly after the AVE incident, police identified an apartment in Leganés, south of Madrid, as the base of operations for the individuals suspected of being the perpetrators of the Madrid and AVE attacks. The suspected militants, headed by Jamal Zougam, Sarhane Abdelmaji “the Tunisian” and Jamal Ahmidan “the Chinese”, were trapped inside the apartment by a police raid on the evening of Saturday 3 April. At 9:03 pm, when the police started to assault the premises, the militants committed suicide by setting off explosives, killing themselves and one of the police officers. Investigators subsequently found that the explosives used in the Leganés explosion were of the same type as those used in the 11 March attacks (though it had not been possible to identify a brand of dynamite from samples taken from the trains) and in the thwarted bombing of the AVE line.

Based on the assumption that the militants killed at Leganés were indeed the individuals responsible for the train bombings, the ensuing investigation focused on how they obtained their estimated 200 kg of explosives. The investigation revealed that they had been bought from a retired miner who still had access to blasting equipment.

Five to eight suspects believed to be involved in the 11 March attacks managed to escape. In December 2006, the newspaper ABC reported that ETA reminded Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero about 11 March 2004 as an example of what could happen unless the government considered their petitions (in reference to the 2004 electoral swing), although the source also makes it clear that ETA ‘had nothing to do’ with the attack itself.

Aftermath

In France, the Vigipirate plan was upgraded to orange level. In Italy, the government declared a state of high alert.

In December 2004, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero claimed that the PP government erased all of the computer files related to the Madrid bombings, leaving only the documents on paper.

Plaque in memory of the casualties in the 11-M terror attack in Madrid: In memory of the victims of the attacks of 11 March 2004, who were transported to the field hospital established here in the Municipal Sports Centre of Daoiz y Velarde. As an expression of sympathy from Madrid's citizens, and of gratitude for the courage and generosity of all the services and people who came to their aid.
Plaque in memory of the casualties in the 11-M terror attack in Madrid: In memory of the victims of the attacks of 11 March 2004, who were transported to the field hospital established here in the Municipal Sports Centre of Daoiz y Velarde. As an expression of sympathy from Madrid’s citizens, and of gratitude for the courage and generosity of all the services and people who came to their aid.

On 25 March 2005, prosecutor Olga Sánchez asserted that the bombings happened 911 days after the 11 September attacks due to the “highly symbolic and qabbalistic charge for local Al-Qaida groups” of choosing that day. Because 2004 was a leap year, 912 days had elapsed between 11 September 2001 and 11 March 2004.

On 27 May 2005, the Prüm Convention, implementing inter alia the principle of availability which began to be discussed after the Madrid bombings, was signed by Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Austria, and Belgium.

On 4 January 2007, El País reported that Algerian Daoud Ouhnane, Who is considered to be the mastermind of the 11-M bombings, has been searching for ways to return to Spain to prepare further attacks, though this has not been confirmed.

On 17 March 2008, Basel Ghalyoun, Mohamed Almallah Dabas, Abdelillah El-Fadual El-Akil and Raúl González Peña, having been previously found guilty by the Audiencia Nacional, were released after a Higher Court ruling. This court also verified the release of the Egyptian Rabei Osman al-Sayed.

Responsibility

On 14 March 2004, Abu Dujana al-Afghani, a purported spokesman for al-Qaeda in Europe, appeared in a videotape claiming responsibility for the attacks.

The Spanish judiciary stated that a loose group of Moroccan, Syrian, and Algerian Muslims and two Guardia Civil and Spanish police informants were suspected of having carried out the attacks. On 11 April 2006, Judge Juan del Olmo charged 29 suspects for their involvement in the train bombings.

Anonymous protest: 'The brave are brave until the coward wants'.
Anonymous protest: ‘The brave are brave until the coward wants’.

No evidence has been found of al-Qaeda involvement, although an al-Qaeda claim was made the day of the attacks by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. U.S. officials note that this group is “notoriously unreliable”. In August 2007, al-Qaeda claimed to be “proud” about the Madrid 2004 bombings.

The Independent reported that “Those who invented the new kind of rucksack bomb used in the attacks are said to have been taught in training camps in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, under instruction from members of Morocco’s radical Islamist Combat Group.”

Mohamed Darif, a professor of political science at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, stated in 2004 that the history of the Moroccan Combat Group is directly tied to the rise of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. According to Darif, “Since its inception at the end of the 1990s and until 2001, the role of the organisation was restricted to giving logistic support to al-Qaeda in Morocco, finding its members places to live, providing them with false papers, with the opportunity of marrying Moroccans and with false identities to allow them to travel to Europe. Since 11 September, however, which brought the Kingdom of Morocco in on the side of the fight against terrorism, the organisation switched strategies and opted for terrorist attacks within Morocco itself.”

Memorial plaque to the victims in Haría, Lanzarote.
Memorial plaque to the victims in Haría, Lanzarote.

Scholar Rogelio Alonso said in 2007, “the investigation had uncovered a link between the Madrid suspects and the wider world of al-Qaida”. Scott Atran said “There isn’t the slightest bit of evidence of any relationship with al-Qaida. We’ve been looking at it closely for years and we’ve been briefed by everybody under the sun… and nothing connects them.” He provides a detailed timeline that lends credence to this view.

According to the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, this is the only Islamist terrorist act in the history of Europe where international Islamists collaborated with non-Muslims.

Former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar said in 2011 that Abdelhakim Belhadj, leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and current head of the Tripoli Military Council, was suspected of complicity in the bombings.

– Allegations of ETA involvement

Immediate reactions to the attacks in Madrid were the several press conferences held by the Spanish prime minister José María Aznar involving ETA. The Spanish government maintained this theory for two days. Because the bombs were detonated three days before the general elections in Spain, the situation had many political interpretations. The massacre also took place exactly two and a half years after the 11 September attacks on the United States in 2001. Other interpretations of this date since 9/11 points out that the bombing took place 911 days exactly since the 11 September terrorist attack. The United States also initially believed ETA was responsible, then questioning if Islamists were responsible.[60] Spain’s third largest newspaper ABC, immediately labelled the attacks as “ETA’s bloodiest attack.”

Due to the government theory, statements issued shortly after the Madrid attacks, including from lehendakari Juan José Ibarretxe identified ETA as the prime suspect, but the group, which usually claims responsibility for its actions, denied any wrongdoing. Later evidence strongly pointed to the involvement of extremist Islamist groups, with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group named as a focus of investigations.

Although ETA has a history of mounting bomb attacks in Madrid, the 11 March attacks exceeded any attack previously attempted by a European organisation. This led some experts to point out that the tactics used were more typical of Islamist militant extremist groups, perhaps with a certain link to al-Qaeda, or maybe to a new generation of ETA activists using al-Qaeda as a role model. Observers also noted that ETA customarily, but not always, issues warnings before its mass bombings and that there had been no warning for this attack. Europol director Jürgen Storbeck commented that the bombings “could have been ETA…. But we’re dealing with an attack that doesn’t correspond to the modus operandi they have adopted up to now”.

Political analysts believe ETA’s guilt would have strengthened the PP’s chances of being re-elected, as this would have been regarded as the death throes of a terrorist organisation reduced to desperate measures by the strong anti-terrorist policy of the Aznar administration. On the other hand, an Islamist attack would have been perceived as the direct result of Spain’s involvement in Iraq, an unpopular war that had not been approved by the Spanish Parliament.

– Investigation

All of the devices are thought to have been hidden inside backpacks. The police investigated reports of three people in ski masks getting on and off the trains several times at Alcalá de Henares between 7:00 and 7:10. A Renault Kangoo van was found parked outside the station at Alcalá de Henares containing detonators, audio tapes with Qur’anic verses, and cell phones.

The provincial chief of TEDAX (the bomb disposal experts of the Spanish police) declared on 12 July 2004 that damage in the trains could not be caused by dynamite, but by some type of military explosive, like C3 or C4. An unnamed source from the Aznar administration claimed that the explosive used in the attacks had been Titadine (used by ETA, and intercepted on its way to Madrid 11 days before).

In March 2007, the TEDAX chief claimed that they knew that the unexploded explosive found in the Kangoo van was Goma-2 ECO the very day of the bombings. He also asserted that “it is impossible to know” the components of the explosives that went off in the trains – though he later asserted that it was dynamite. The Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez replied “I cannot understand” to these assertions.

– Examination of unexploded devices

A radio report mentioned a plastic explosive called “Special C”. However, the government said that the explosive found in an unexploded device, discovered among bags thought to be victims’ lost luggage, was the Spanish made Goma-2 ECO. The unexploded device contained 10 kg (22 lb) of explosive with 1 kg (2.2 lb) of nails and screws packed around it as shrapnel. In the aftermath of the attacks, however, the chief coroner alleged that no shrapnel was found in any of the victims.

Goma-2 ECO was never before used by al-Qaeda, but the explosive and the modus operandi were described by The Independent as ETA trademarks, although the Daily Telegraph came to the opposite conclusion.

Two bombs—one in Atocha and another one in El Pozo stations, numbers 11 and 12—were detonated accidentally by the TEDAX. According to the provincial chief of the TEDAX, deactivated rucksacks contained some other type of explosive. The 13th bomb, which was transferred to a police station, contained dynamite, although it did not explode because it was missing two wires connecting the explosives to the detonator. That bomb used a mobile phone (Mitsubishi Trium) as a timer, requiring a SIM card to activate the alarm and thereby detonate. The analysis of the SIM card allowed the police to arrest an alleged perpetrator. On Saturday, 13 March, when three Moroccans and two Pakistani Muslims were arrested for the attacks, it was confirmed that the attacks came from an Islamic group. Only one of the five persons (the Moroccan Jamal Zougam) detained that day was finally prosecuted.

The Guardia Civil developed an extensive action plan to monitor records corresponding with the use of weapons and explosives. There were 166,000 inspections conducted throughout the country between March 2004 and November 2004. About 2,500 violations were discovered and over 3 tons of explosives, 11 kilometers of detonating cord, and over 15,000 detonators were seized.

– Suicide of suspects

On 3 April 2004, in Leganés, south Madrid, four terrorists died in an apparent suicide explosion, killing one Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO) (Spanish special police assault unit) police officer and wounding eleven policemen. According to witnesses and media, between five and eight suspects escaped that day.

Damaged building in Leganés where the four terrorists died.
Damaged building in Leganés where the four terrorists died.

Security forces carried out a controlled explosion of a suspicious package found near the Atocha station and subsequently deactivated the two undetonated devices on the Téllez train. A third unexploded device was later brought from the station at El Pozo to a police station in Vallecas, and became a central piece of evidence for the investigation. It appears that the El Pozo bomb failed to detonate because a cell-phone alarm used to trigger the bomb was set 12 hours late.

– Conspiracy theories

Sectors of the People’s Party (PP), and certain media, such as El Mundo newspaper and the COPE radio station, continue to support theories relating the attack to a vast conspiracy to remove the governing party from power. Support for the conspiracy was also given by the Asociación de Víctimas del Terrorismo (AVT), Spain’s largest association of victims of terrorism.

These theories speculate that ETA and members of the security forces and national and foreign (Morocco) secret services were involved in the bombings. Defenders of the claims that ETA participated in some form in the 11 March attacks have affirmed that there is circumstantial evidence linking the Islamists with two ETA members who were detained while driving the outskirts of Madrid in a van containing 500 kg of explosives 11 days before the train bombings. The Madrid judge Coro Cillán is continuing to hear conspiracy theory cases, including one accusing government officials of ordering the scrapping of the bombed train cars in order to destroy evidence.

– Invasion of Iraq policy

The public seemed convinced that the Madrid Bombings were a result of the Aznar government’s alignment with the U.S. and its invasion of Iraq. The terrorists behind the 11-M attack were somewhat successful because of the election outcome. Before the attack, the incumbent Popular Party led the polls by 5 percent. It is believed that the Popular Party would have won the election if it had not been for the terrorist attack. The Socialist Party, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, ended up winning the election by 5%. The Socialist Party had called for the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq during its campaigning. Zapatero promised to remove Spanish troops by 30 June 2004, and the troops were withdrawn a month earlier than expected. Twenty-eight percent of voters said that the bombings influenced their opinions and vote. A massive amount of 1 million voters switched their vote to the Socialist Party after the Madrid bombings. These voters who switched their vote were no longer willing to support the Popular Party’s stance on war policy. The bombings also influenced 1,700,000 citizens to vote who did not plan on originally voting. On the other hand, the terrorist attacks discouraged 300,000 people from voting. Overall, there was a net 4 percent increase in voter turnout.

– Trial

Judge Juan del Olmo found “local cells of Islamic extremists inspired through the Internet” guilty for the 11 March attacks, not Armed Islamic Group or Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. These local cells consist of hashish traffickers of Moroccan origin, remotely linked to an al-Qaeda cell that had been already captured. These groups bought the explosives (dynamite Goma-2 ECO) from low-level thieves, police and Guardia Civil confidants in Asturias using money from the small-scale drug trafficking.

According to El Mundo, “the notes on the Moroccan confidant ‘Cartagena’ prove that the Police had the leaders of the cell responsible for the 11 March attacks under surveillance.” However, none of the notes refer to the preparation of any terrorist attack.

The trial of 29 accused began on 15 February 2007. According to El País, “the Court dismantled one by one all conspiracy theories” and demonstrated that any link or implication of the bombings with ETA was either misleading or without any foundation. During the trial the defendants withdrew their previous declarations and denied any involvement. According to El Mundo the questions about “who, why, when and where were the Madrid train attacks planified” are still “open”, because the alleged masterminds of the attacks were absolved. El Mundo also claimed, among other misgivings, that the Spanish Judiciary reached “scientifically unsound” conclusions about the kind of explosives used in the trains, and that no direct al-Qaeda link was found, thus “debunking the key argument of the official version”. Self-declared expert Scott Atran, an anthropologist by trade, described the Madrid trial as “a complete farce” pointing at the fact that “There isn’t the slightest bit of evidence of any operational relationship with al-Qaida”. Instead, “The overwhelming majority of terrorist cells in Europe have nothing to do with al-Qaida other than a vague relationship of ideology.”

Though the trial proceeded smoothly in its opening months, 14 of the 29 accused mounted a hunger strike in May, protesting against the alleged “unfair” role of political parties and media in the legal proceedings. Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez refused to suspend the trial despite the strike, and the hunger strikers ended their fast on 21 May.

The last audience of the trial was held on 2 July 2007. Transcripts and videos of the audiences are visible on datadiar.tv.

On 31 October 2007, the Audiencia Nacional of Spain delivered its verdicts. Of the 28 defendants in the trial, 21 were found guilty on a range of charges from forgery to murder. Two of the defendants were sentenced each to more than 40,000 years in prison.

Police surveillance and informants

In the investigations carried out after the to find out what went wrong in the security services, many individual negligences and miscoordinations between different branches of the police were found. The group dealing with Islamist extremists was very small and in spite of having carried out some surveillances, they were unable to stop the bombings. Also some of the criminals involved in the “Little Mafia” who provided the explosives were police informants and had leaked to their case officers some tips that were not followed up on.

Some of the alleged perpetrators of the bombing were reportedly under surveillance by the Spanish police since 2001.

At the time of the Madrid bombings, Spain was well equipped with internal security structures that were for the most part effective in the fight against terrorism. It became evident that there were problems of coordination among police forces as well as within each of them. The Interior Ministry focused on correcting these weaknesses. It was Spain’s goal to strengthen its police intelligence in order to deal with the risks and threats of international terrorism. This decision for the National Police and the Guardia Civil to strengthen their counter-terrorism services, let to an increase in jobs aimed at preventing and fighting global terrorism. Counter-terrorism services increased its employment by nearly 35% during the legislature. Human resources in external information services, dealing with international terrorism, grew by 72% in the National Police force and 22% in the Guardia Civil.

Thousands of people have died in Europe over the decades in violent attacks by groups like ETA in Spain and the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, but no single incident has approached the scale of Thursday’s attacks here. Libyan terrorist operations killed 270 people in the bombing of an American airliner, Pan American Flight 103, over Scotland in 1988, and 171 people in UTA Flight 772, a French airliner brought down over Africa in 1989.

Controversies

The authorship of the bombings remains a controversial issue in Spain. Sectors of the Partido Popular (PP) and some of the PP-friendly media outlets (primarily El Mundo and the Cadena COPE radio station) claim that there are inconsistencies and contradictions in the Spanish judicial investigation.

As Spanish and international investigations continue to claim the unlikeliness of ETA’s active implication, these claims have shifted from direct accusations involving the Basque separatist organization to less specific insinuations and general skepticism. Additionally, there is controversy over the events that took place between the bombings and the general elections held three days later.

Reactions

In the aftermath of the bombings there were massive street demonstrations across Spain to protest against the train bombings. The international reaction was also notable, as the scale of the attack became clearer.

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