Who Was Behind the Madrid Massacre?

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That Basque terrorists would top the list of the Spanish authorities' suspects in Thursday's devastating is hardly surprising: The terror group ETA has grown desperate as it finds itself increasingly marginalized even in Basque politics, and hounded by a sustained police crackdown both in Spain and France that has reduced its active ranks to an estimated 250. Two alleged ETA operatives were arrested in a failed attempt to bomb Spanish trains just last Christmas; it had promised an "action" to coincide with Spain's general election this coming Sunday; and its four decades in the profession, during which time it has killed more than 800 people, have quite simply made ETA the default suspect in Spanish terror attacks. Some of the forensics amplify the case for making the Basque group the prime suspect: The explosive used in Thursday's multiple train bombings was of a type previously used in ETA operations, and the fact that they were remotely triggered using cell phones — rather than by suicide bombers — reinforces the suspicion.

Still, there are good reasons for avoiding a rush to conclude that the almost 200 people killed in Madrid on Thursday were ETA's victims. For one thing, the Basque group has previously avoided mass-casualty attacks, preferring to target what they regard as symbols of the Spanish state — policemen, judges, politicians, army officers; and it has often telephoned warnings ahead of time in the style of the IRA. When one of its bombs killed 24 people in a Barcelona supermarket in 1987, the group publicly apologized and said the attack had been a "mistake." The scale of the casualties, and of the operation itself — ten bombs detonated almost simultaneously on four different trains — would certainly mark a dramatic turnabout both in the fortunes and the tactics of the separatist terror group. Last year, only three people died in ETA actions, and the movement is believed to have twice as many members in prison as it does out on the streets. Then again, that would certainly point to the movement having its back to the wall, and analysts believe those holding the leadership reins now may be even more ruthless and desperate.

But if the explosive substance and the remote detonation point to ETA, then the simultaneity and the scale of the attacks bear the signature of al-Qaeda. And Bin Laden's movement has a motive equal to, or greater than ETA's to conduct such an attack. Spain has been in the forefront of a vigorous campaign throughout Europe to round up al-Qaeda cells in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and a number of operatives have been detained and convicted there over the past three years. The movement had used Spain primarily as a staging ground for attacks elsewhere, but the clampdown has made it a hostile environment for the Islamist militants. More importantly, perhaps, by aligning himself with the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, despite the opposition of upward of 80 percent of Spain's electorate, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar certainly deepened the ire of radical Islamists — al Qaeda has promised to "punish" all those countries who backed the invasion, and Spain alongside Britain had been Washington's closest supporter on Iraq.

The government's rush to blame ETA slowed late on Thursday with the discovery of a stolen van containing seven detonators and tapes of Koranic verse in the town from which two of the trains departed and through which a third had passed. And a London-based Arab newspaper reported Friday that it had received an emailed statement from the "Abu Hafs al-Masri" brigade, an al-Qaeda offshoot, claiming responsibility (although this group has previously claimed responsibility for attacks subsequently attributed to others). Spanish authorities announced that they had opened a "second line of inquiry" and were not precluding the possibility that al-Qaeda was to blame.

A third possibility raised speculatively by some security analysts is the notion that independent cells from both organizations could have worked together — a scenario that remains unlikely because it conforms to neither side's ideological perspective, track record or interests.

The attack was clearly timed to coincide with Sunday's vote, in which Aznar is not a candidate but which his Popular Party's candidate, Mariano Rajoy, was expected to win — although by a narrower margin than at the last poll. To the extent that the electorate blames ETA for the attack, that will play well for Rajoy, because the Aznar government has taken a hard line on Basque separatism, even closing down the main nationalist political party, Batasuna, and reversing efforts by previous Socialist Party governments to pursue a political solution to the conflict. The Spanish public will demand that its next government maintain that hard line, or intensify it, particularly if ETA is responsible for the carnage in Madrid. But to the extent that it blames al-Qaeda, the political equation is more difficult to read — the overwhelming majority of Spanish voters opposed Aznar's support for the Iraq invasion, and if these attacks are perceived as a consequence of that support, it could cost the ruling party.

Some Spanish newspapers are demanding answers before the polls open on Sunday, suggesting that the authorship of the bombings might influence the vote. But answers are unlikely to come within two days, meaning that Spanish voters may simply take their own best guesses with them into the voting booth. And on that basis alone, the overwhelming public outrage against ETA on Thursday suggests that, if anything, Aznar's party may fare even better than previously expected.