Spain’s Post-2004 Madrid Bombing: A Response to Terrorism

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On March 11, 2004, ten bombs on four separate commuter trains in Madrid exploded almost simultaneously. The blasts killed 191 and wounded at least 1,400 people, and left a nation trembling with grief and doubt. While the conservative Popular Party government of José María Aznar accused Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the police investigation quickly suggested the involvement of Islamic fundamentalists with an alleged link to al-Qaeda. Following the incident, Spain implemented new counterterrorism policies and apprehended 110 terrorism suspects, taking decisive action in response. The event compelled Spain to enact proactive measures against terrorism.

The first five suspects were captured on March 13, just two days after the episodes. Since then, Spanish authorities have imprisoned at least forty-eight people. As of the end of 2004, eighteen people were in lockup, while forty-one people had been dismissed without charge after questioning or freed on provisional release pending possible indictment.

Several of those doubted involvement in 11-M had been the subject of prior police surveillance on suspicion of membership in an al-Qaeda cell in Spain. Spanish authorities have been watching the group since 1995. Most were of Middle Eastern roots with Spanish citizenship. Authorities questioned them of involvement in movements in support of al-Qaeda including recruitment and monetary operations. Since mid-November 2001, when eleven men were captured, a total of twenty-four people have been imprisoned and accused of membership or affiliation with al-Qaeda; as of mid-November 2004, at least twenty-three were in pre-trial detention.

On March 14, three days after the blasts, the Spanish electorate suddenly gave the Partido Socialista Obrero Español a prevalence in parliament. The government of Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero does not envision making any modifications to Spain’s existing antiterrorism efforts, though the administration has revealed plans for the creation of a National Antiterrorism Center to correspond intelligence work between the National Police, the Civil Guard and the current National Intelligence Center, as well as for improving the number of agents in both agencies dedicated to intelligence-gathering on international terrorism.

The new government had presented and pursued new policies to react to concerns about so-called radical Islamic movements in Spain. In May, newly-appointed Minister of the Interior José Antonio Alonso said he would seek tighter control over Spain’s mosques and the range of Islamic religious services. 

After that, Spain continued to react effectively to the global terrorism threat in border and transportation protection, countering terrorist financing, and opposing violent extremism through bilateral and multilateral cooperation.  

Spanish authorities persisted in arresting individuals suspected of plotting terror attacks, facilitating terrorist financing, and hiring in ISIS- and al-Qa’ida-related recruitment and radicalization, both online and in these people communities.  

Over the years, the Spanish government persisted in implementing its National Strategy Against Terrorism.  The Ministry of Interior, via its Intelligence Center for Counterterrorism and Organized Crime — and with assistance from the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Justice — formed the strategy to align with the four pillars of counter-terrorism strategies of the EU and the United Nations:  contain, protect, pursue, and respond. 

The process includes measures to prevent and react to terrorist attacks against soft targets such as hotels, stadia, tourist resorts, and cultural sites, in line with UN Security Council resolution 2341 on defending critical infrastructure from terrorist attacks. Spanish authorities declared they had undertaken 35 counterterrorist operations and detained 56 suspects on terrorism-related charges. 

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