11M: Lessons Learned from the Madrid Train Attacks

11M: Lessons Learned from the Madrid Train Attacks

Thirteen bombs were placed on four lines of the commuter train system in Madrid, Spain on March 11, 2004. When those devices exploded, nearly simultaneously, it created the largest terrorist attack in European history. More than 2000 people were injured and 192 people were killed. Whether knowingly or not, the event also created radical changes in the course of the country’s political path, as there was an election three days away.

Left, the iconic Atocha train station in Madrid was one of the sites of the 11M bombings that occurred March 11, 2004.  Above is the memorial built to honor the victims of the bombings.
Left, the iconic Atocha train station in Madrid was one of the sites of the 11M bombings that occurred March 11, 2004. Above is the memorial built to honor the victims of the bombings.

In the aftermath of the attack, there was confusion surrounding who carried out the attack. The ramifications of the event not only include the death and injuries of so many, but divided a nation, due complexities in politics, conspiracy theories, the media and more. The event has become known as 11M in Spain.

Initially, many assumed the domestic terror group ETA was responsible. ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty), is a group of nationalists and separatists, in the Basque Country of northern Spain and southwestern France known for committing terrorist activities focused on gaining independence for the Basque region.

Exploded Train

Miscommunications and misunderstandings led to bad information being spread within the various government agencies who were striving to do their best to come to terms with searching for and helping the many wounded, finding the victims, securing the bombing sites and investigating the areas for clues to assist in catching the culprits.

Top image shows a badly damaged train as investigators comb through the wreckage for clues.  Lower image shows each of the four stations that was bombed, nearly simultaneously, and the number of bombs that exploded per train. Three additional bombs were found that did not detonate. 11M documentary image.
Top image shows a badly damaged train as investigators comb through the wreckage for clues. Lower image shows each of the four stations that was bombed, nearly simultaneously, and the number of bombs that exploded per train. Three additional bombs were found that did not detonate. 11M documentary image.

One year earlier, on March 20, 2003, the United States led a coalition of 30 countries into Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Spain was a member of the coalition and provided a force of 1,300 troops, according to a paper by William E. Baird Jr. MAJ, USAF. This was a hugely unpopular action in Spain and some public opinion polls suggested as many as 90 percent of the population of Spain opposed supporting the Iraq War with troops, Baird’s paper says.

What Happened?

At Madrid’s iconic Atocha Station that morning at 7:37am there was an explosion. Some managed to get out of the damaged train car, but as the crowds rushed for exits, two more bombs exploded. The third bomb reached those trying to get out of the station — on the platform.

At almost the same time, 7:38am, at El Pozo Station, witnesses reported a “flash and smoke” followed a “black cloud that…enveloped everything.” There was screaming: “What is this? What is this? It’s a bomb. It’s a bomb,” one survivor recounted. Then another bomb detonated.

There were also explosions at the Eugenia Station at 7:39am as well as Tellez Street Station at 7:39am. Soon, the magnitude of the tragedy became apparent. First responders began to arrive to assist the injured and take them to hospital. The windows in nearby houses were shattered.

People who lived nearby began throwing blankets to first responders through the shattered open windows, to cover the dead and wounded, according to news reports. Others ventured into the melee to offer help. After triaging many patients, one first responder said in an interview that a bystander asked what she could do and he responded, “Hold his hand and help him die peacefully.” Among the victims were students and workers commuting into the city for their jobs.

Investigation Begins, Assumptions are Made

It was still morning when the victims and injured were removed from the scene and the investigation began in earnest. “Then we began examining and carefully removing all evidence,” according to Juan Jesús Sánchez Manzano, the chief commissioner of the explosive’s unit of the National Police. They discovered more bombs that had not detonated. One at El Pozo Station which was safely deactivated, and another at Atocha Station which was allowed to explode as it was too unstable to manually defuse. In all, there were 13 bombs, ten of which detonated as the terrorists planned. See image this page.

According to María Ponte, criminal lawyer in the 11M trial, in the documentary “11M: Terror in Madrid,” “The use of Titadine was a rumor that spread in the hours immediately after the attacks. Titadine is a type of compressed dynamite manufactured in southern France. However, at that point, no one had been able to determine the type of explosive.” Titadine was ETA’s typical weapon. The rumor took off like wildfire. Many spread the inaccurate information that it was Titadine that had been used (and not Goma-2 ECO which was found later to be the explosive used).

Meanwhile Politicians will be Politicians

The government convened an emergency cabinet later the same day. “To our surprise, we found out that the people who were called to participate in the cabinet were people who had no experience at all with security or investigations and had more to do with the Popular Party,” said Iñaki Gabilondo who was a journalist and news anchor covering the story at the time. “What’s worse is the director of the national intelligence service wasn’t asked to join.”

“There were two meetings that morning,” said Jorge Dezcallar, chief of the National Intelligence Center. “One was at Montcloa [Palacio de Moncloa is the headquarters of the Ministry of the Presidency] and was led by the president of the government [José María Aznar].” And another at the ministry of the interior led by Minister Ángel Acebes, the country’s interior minister, who shortly thereafter announced, “There is no doubt ETA is responsible.” Meanwhile, José María Aznar, Prime Minister of Spain called the editors of the country’s largest newspapers. According to Gumersindo LaFuente, chief editor of El Mundo, President Aznar said he was certain ETA was behind the attacks.

Jesús Ceberio, chief editor of El País, at that time, said, “The president of the government said without any doubt he considered those responsible for the attacks to be ETA. I changed the wording of the headline from Terror Massacre in Madrid to ETA Massacre in Madrid after Aznar’s call. How could we not trust the word of the president of the government?”

But many were beginning to doubt ETA’s involvement. “It wasn’t ETA,” said Baltasar Garzón, magistrate of the national court in 2004. It wasn’t ETA’s modus operendi. “I can tell you at this moment, ETA doesn’t have enough people to carry out an attack of this size.” Questions began to arise about the type of explosive used as well, now that forensics were more involved.

Confusing reports began to fly back and forth between agencies, media and individuals. “The police, due to the MO, didn’t consider ETA almost from the beginning,” said Juan Del Olmo, investigative magistrate. And Mariano Rayon, chief police commissioner agreed. “I felt pretty uncomfortable because an attack of such magnitude was something that ETA, unless it was a faction trying to split from them, wasn’t interested in,” Rayon said.

Because of the election coming in just three days, there was intense pressure on the government to say something before the evidence could definitively prove anything. News reports seemed to imply that chaos and panic were being planted at the end of the election cycle. At the time, the station RETV was controlled by the national government — the government of the current controlling party of Aznar. The Spanish news followed the government line, saying ETA carried out the attack. The information the government was giving out was not being challenged by the media.

A massive protest of more than 11.4 million people — a quarter of Spain’s population — demonstrated across Spain on March 12, 2004, the day after the bombings. Still images this page from video news report in 11M documentary.
A massive protest of more than 11.4 million people — a quarter of Spain’s population — demonstrated across Spain on March 12, 2004, the day after the bombings. Still images this page from video news report in 11M documentary.

The interior minister again confirmed ETA as the perpetrator and Spain called on the UN to condemn the attacks in a statement. The security council was asked to specifically out ETA as the responsible party at the urging of the Spanish government. All of this seemed to be in an attempt to salvage the election for President Aznar, who had appeared to be a shoo-in up until that point.

Crucial Evidence Found

Then, an audio tape and detonators were found in a Renault Kangoo van parked outside a train station in Madrid around noon on the day of the attacks. The evidence found didn’t match up to what they expected to see in a vehicle owned by ETA. Explosives found in the van were made from Goma2 ECO, not Titadine. There was a discrepancy between what was being told to the public and what police were discovering.

“A van was found in Alcalá de Henares, and in the front seat we found seven detonating devices and also among other tapes we found one in Arabic containing Quran verses…” Acebes, the interior minister, later said. “This made me instruct our police forces and corps not to dismiss any line of investigation. I insisted our main line of investigation, the one the police and national guard was considering as essential, was that of the terrorist group ETA.”

At that point, CNN reported breaking news. “A letter supposedly from the terrorist organization al-Qaeda was sent to an Arabic newspaper in London and in it the group claims to be behind the attacks in Madrid,” the news agency reported. “Al-Qaeda justifies the attacks as part of old unsettled debts in what they call the Spanish Crusade,” said Professor Fernando Reina, director of the program on violent radicalization and global terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute, in the 11M documentary.

Spanish TV news, however, stuck to the party line that ETA was responsible. That was just the first day.

More Evidence Found Day Two

Another backpack containing a phone, a sim card and an explosive device was found in the train wreckage. With that evidence, the police began to determine where the explosives, phone and sim card were purchased. Meanwhile, President Aznar, growing more fearful of losing the election in two days stated, “Does anyone believe after 30 years of terrorism in Spain and after facing an attack like yesterday’s, wouldn’t logically, reasonably, believe that that gang [ETA] might be behind it?” Because Aznar had supported the invasion of Iraq, the idea that al-Qaeda could have been behind the attack would have been damaging to him as most Spaniards had opposed it.

A backpack containing a phone, a sim card and an explosive device was found in the train wreckage. It proved crucial to tracking down the terrorists.
A backpack containing a phone, a sim card and an explosive device was found in the train wreckage. It proved crucial to tracking down the terrorists.

Washington D. C. Jumps In

The U. S. president, George Bush, visited the Spanish foreign ambassador in Washington. Bush offered to give an interview at the ambassador’s residence. Bush, the first lady, Laura Bush, Colin Powell and others attended the meeting. Spanish television did not broadcast the interview, saying they felt it wasn’t appropriate to link what had happened to President Bush because that led to Iraq.

“Bush held me back and asked if we could talk privately,” said Javier Rupérez, Spanish Ambassador to the U. S. “He asked me who we thought was behind this and I said we are getting the impression it’s ETA. Then he said, ‘My intelligence services say there’s a possibility it wasn’t ETA.’” I called Aznar to tell him, and I imagine that Aznar knew much more than I did that moment, right? He was already aware of the issue since a rumor mill had already started in Madrid,” the former ambassador said in the 11M documentary.

The Spanish People Demonstrate

Demonstration against terrorism took place the next day. It was a massive protest. More than 11.4 million people — a quarter of Spain’s population — demonstrated across Spain, it was reported later. Even members of the royal family, the Prince of Asturias and his sisters, Elena and Cristina, took part in the demonstration, according to Global Oneness, “Aftermath of the 11 March 2004 Madrid Train Bombings.”

As law enforcement closed in on the terrorist group in this apartment building, the terrorists detonated a bomb that used the same explosives that had been used in the train bombings. GEO Agent, Javier Torronteras, did not survive the blast. The remains of seven terrorists were recovered from the rubble. Still from video from 11M documentary.
As law enforcement closed in on the terrorist group in this apartment building, the terrorists detonated a bomb that used the same explosives that had been used in the train bombings. GEO Agent, Javier Torronteras, did not survive the blast. The remains of seven terrorists were recovered from the rubble. Still from video from 11M documentary.

Disbelief Grows

Eduardo Zaplana government spokesman said in a press conference at the time that some people wanted to dismiss the possibility that ETA was responsible. But as the investigation went on, the evidence began to point towards al-Qaeda and not ETA. The sim cards found in the vehicle and backpacks were traced back to a store owned by a man named Jamal Zougam, a person with a jihadist background.

“No Spaniard can be surprised that the priority is the terrorist organization that’s spent 30 years attacking Spain causing nearly 900 deaths,” Minister Acebes said. He also reiterated that he hadn’t heard the al-Qaeda angle from anyone at the law enforcement agencies which emphasizes the disconnect between the government and the boots on the ground agencies working to determine the perpetrators.

Then five people were arrested in conjunction with the phone found in the backpack. They were from Mahgreb in Northern Africa. National Intelligence Center head, Jorge Dezcallar, who had been excluded from earlier meetings was then abruptly asked to make a statement blaming the attacks on ETA. Dezcallar said it was clear the “Islamist terrorist was the way to go.” He implied the Aznar team already knew blaming ETA was useless. He said he felt bad, manipulated and wanted to quit right then. “But if I had resigned, it would have directly caused [Aznar] to lose and that was a burden I didn’t want to carry either. The election was going ahead with officials saying if it was postponed, it was tantamount to giving in to terrorism.” Then ETA made a statement denouncing the attacks and saying they were not responsible.

Aznar’s political opposition seized the moment to use that as ammunition to derail the Aznar’s campaign. The Spanish left wing criticized the government’s response to the attacks. It was one of the first times protesters were organized by the use of cell phones and social media. The opposition party, PSOE, a socialist party, said, “The Spanish citizens deserve a government that doesn’t lie to them.”

Sunday — Election Day

The turnouts for the elections were much higher than normal. Victory went to PSOE and José Zapatero became Spanish prime minister three days later. Shortly thereafter he gave orders to bring the Spanish troops in Iraq home. Some thought it appeared to look as though the terrorists got what they wanted.

The former president, Aznar said, “What was the goal of the attacks — a change in government? Well, they achieved their objective.”

Were election outcomes the goal? There is evidence that points to the date being chosen prior to the election date being set and therefore unrelated.

Two Weeks After Attacks

“Once we had all the information about where the cell phone sim cards had been bought, we were able to locate the phones through the cellular network,” Mariano Rayón, chief police commissioner central external intelligence unit said. “And they were near a house we were already aware of where the explosives were made near Morata de Tajuña, a town to the southeast of Madrid. All the explosives and the detonators had all come from the same mine — a place in Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. The linking piece was a man named Rafa Zouhier who knew the perpetrators and the people at the mine in Asturias.”

Another Attempted Bombing

Twenty-two days later there was an attempt to put another bomb on the AVE Line from Seville to Madrid. Security guards patrolling near the AVE rail lines happened to see a vehicle and individuals acting suspiciously. The civil guard was called. The suspects realized they had been spotted and left. They had cut the fence and twelve kg of explosives and detonators were placed under the rail and hidden with rocks. It would only have required detonating manually, as the train passed.

The General Information Precinct believed the perpetrators of the 11M attacks were all from a jihadist cell that were from Morocco. One, Said Berraj, had been to Afghanistan and returned. It is believed that he was the one who taught the group how to make the explosive devices.

While investigating all the phone numbers, a map was made with points of contact with people who could have been involved in the attacks. One number stood out to investigators. It was an incoming call from a Spaniard that had rented an apartment to a group of who had given him their foreign number and the name of Mohammed Belhadj. This led investigators to the terrorists’ hideout.

Abdelmajid Bouchar was one of the people in the apartment and when he went down to take out the trash he noticed a vehicle from the Exterior Information Central unit. He ran. They were unable to apprehend him, even after a chase. From the apartment, shooting began. It was later confirmed the group had made calls to their families to say goodbye. The area was sealed off. The group in the apartment detonated explosives as officers came close and forced entry into it.

One GEO Agent, Javier Torronteras, did not survive the blast. The remains of seven terrorists were also recovered from the rubble. In a bizarre conclusion, the body of Agent Torronteras was desecrated — removed from the grave burned in what police believe was an act of revenge by individuals linked to the terrorist cell.

A parliamentary inquiry about the government’s actions took place three months after the attack. NIC Head Dezcallar said he was not given the information needed because he was not included in the investigation. “There were no meetings in which we participated and in which investigations were assigned or distributed to us,” he said during the investigation.

Madness

“What Madness took over the country in that moment?” journalist Iñaki Gabilondo later asked. “Insults were hurled at the expense of the victims. The 11M commission served no purpose. A very bitter controversy between the political forces that were running against each other in the election. This divided the country more than ever. Then the new government came in and it all changed.”

The divided country could not let go of the ETA possibility — newspapers began finding links to possible alternate theories which almost always included a link to ETA and the Spanish Secret service working for the Socialist Party. That conspiracy theory seemed to grow roots and the papers continued to fuel the flames of conspiracy between ETA and terrorists.

ETA leaders announced in 2018 that the group decided to cease armed activity. “It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,”  they said in a video in 2011. The still above is from that video. El Diario image.
ETA leaders announced in 2018 that the group decided to cease armed activity. “It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,” they said in a video in 2011. The still above is from that video. El Diario image.

Chief prosecutor of the 11M Commission Zaragoza said emphatically there was never anything linking ETA with the jihadists. Some people don’t feel they know the real truth about the attacks, even to this day. Some officials were accused of being part of a conspiracy and even accused of participating in the attacks. One of those accused was Rodolfo Ruiz, whose wife took her own life a year after the 11M trial.

The Truth Will Out

Experts say an al-Qaeda cell was formed in Spain in 1994 and a man named Abu Dahdah was put in charge. He funneled money from the mosque in Spain to London and Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel, former CIA counter terrorism expert and White House advisor, called the group in Spain, “the most important supporting network to the 9/11 attack outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Other sources say the attack was planned long before Spain’s decision was made to support and participate in the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration didn’t seem to mind that blame for the attack initially went to the local group, ETA.

A trial started in February of 2007, lasted more than six months. Six hundred witnesses were called and 52 lawyers participated. It was technically complicated involving many defendants with multiple charges. In the end Antonio Ivan Reis, Antonio Toro and Sergio Alvarez Sanchez were convicted of distribution of explosives. Rafa Zouhier, Nasreddine Bousbaa and Mahmoud Slimane were convicted of aiding a terrorist organization. Nine others were convicted of belonging to a terror organization. Jose Milio Suarez Trashorras was convicted of being an accessory to 192 counts of terrorist murder. Jamal Zougam, Othman El Gnaoui and Rabei Osman were convicted of 191 counts of terrorist murder. Six others were convicted in other countries or dead or believed dead.

Although the mastermind behind the attacks was not determined at the trial, Amer Azizi was connected to the operation and presumed to be the leader. Azizi was later killed in a drone attack in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2005. This was not publicly known until 2009.

ETA Stands Down

One positive result that may be attributable to these events is that ETA, in a letter to El Diario published on May 2, 2018, formally announced that it had “completely dissolved all its structures and ended its political initiative” on April 16, 2018. In a video released earlier, three masked ETA leaders announced that the group “has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity. It is time to look at the future with hope. It is also time to act with responsibility and courage,” they added, raising their fists in the air at the end of the video.

There are still many unknowns about the events of 11M, but one thing is certain. The loss of 192 human lives and the damage to the survivors — 2000 of whom were injured — and their families, was devastating and had a profound impact on the country of Spain.