TCS Daily

911 Days Later

By Eric Bovim - March 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Following the worst terrorist event in Spanish history yesterday, one is left to ponder whether the ten train bombs that killed 198 commuters and wounded over 1,400 will tell a Spanish or a European story.

Today's headlines struggle to reconcile this question as details of the blasts at the Atocha station in the heart of Madrid during morning rush hour unfolded. Was it yet another bloody chapter in Madrid's 40 year battle with the Basque guerilla group, ETA? Or, if the work of Al Qaeda, was it Europe's first brush with September 11-style terrorism?

I would have covered events like these two years ago as a foreign correspondent in Madrid, and, while largely ignored by major western media, ETA car bombings and assassinations of political figures were standard fare in a week's work. At Reuters, it was routine to write two or three ETA stories per week, though nothing like what transpired in Madrid has ever happened at the hands of ETA before.

ETA, founded in the late 1950s as a resistance movement against the brutal Franco dictatorship, has been waging a guerilla war for independence of the Basque homeland against Madrid. ETA terrorists have killed over 800 Spaniards since, but in recent years, the center-right government of Jose Maria Aznar -- a staunch supporter of the Iraq war despite popular opposition -- has waged a debilitating counter-offensive against the group.

What was once a band of freedom fighters devoted to the ideal of a Basque nation, by the late 1990s had become a heavily armed "gang" of hundreds that recruited poor, urban males to conduct its violence. By 2002, it was not uncommon for ETA to detonate bombs in empty parking garages; or to call before exploding a bomb in a commercial area.

Civilians have rarely been targets, save for ETA's worst attack in Barcelona, when a bomb killed 21 people in a grocery store in 1987. A car bomb almost killed Aznar during elections in 1995. But ETA violence has always been very selective and strategic, save for the few instances like Barcelona.

That is why the Madrid massacre was so unusual, considering yesterday's death toll is equivalent to roughly a decade of ETA terrorism.

Spanish media is now characterizing yesterday as Spain's 9-11, although it remains unclear how, in the aftermath, the Spanish psyche will be affected. Coincidentally - or perhaps not -- the attacks came exactly 911 days after September 11 on 3-11. By late last evening, Spain's leading daily, El Pais, was starting to back away from the earlier claim that it was the handiwork of ETA. Arnaldo Otegi, the spokesman for the outlawed Basque political party, Batasuna, denied ETA was behind the attacks, blaming instead "Arab resistance."

So what does this mean for one of Washington's closest European allies and a cornerstone of "New Europe?"

If indeed this turns out to be ETA terrorism, then that suggests an alarming radicalization of what has so far been a beleaguered, provincial resistance movement. Are the professional terrorists tutoring the tyros? For many years, ETA was known to be trained by the IRA; now are Islamic terrorists, working with ETA, trying to unsettle a vital ally by proxy?

But far deeper and more profound questions abound if Al Qaeda is responsible for the Madrid attacks. Still aware of the Moorish occupation, Spaniards can be fiercely bigoted towards Arabs. But, still fresh out of the Franco era, they are also fiercely pacifist. In that competition of histories, who will become the enemy to everyday Spaniards: Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush?

Last night in Barcelona, hundreds gathered to beat pots and pans to protest Aznar's support of the Iraq war, giving a glimpse at what may signal the widespread outcome of these bombings. Unlike Americans, who channeled their grief towards eradicating the Taliban after September 11, Spaniards may well find their grief leads them to lay blame on the U.S. and Aznar for invading Iraq.

A galvanizing terrorist event in Europe may well be what awakens the old continent to the realities of the bin Laden century. Sadly, this may not be it.

Eric Bovim was a correspondent for Reuters. He recently reported for TCS from Africa.


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