The Strategic Significance of March 11th
Rafael L. Bardají
March 18, 2004

The attack on March 11th was much more than an act of terrorism against innocent commuters. Even more, its repercussions are not confined to Spain alone. Everything appears to indicate that the authors of the massacre were Islamic fundamentalists.If this is true then Al Qaeda will have crossed the Rubicon and carried out its first attack on European soil. Furthermore it cannot be said that it was held back by a lack of capacity. Rather, it appears that until now this kind of agression did not suit its plans.

In recent years the Spanish intelligence community believed that this country was only being used by Islamic militants as a logistical base or staging area. Now we can see that Al Qaeda (or the groups that shelter under that name) had actually put together an infrastructure much more lethal than that. In the same way, the idea that Al Qaeda would not attack in Europe because that would certainly drive Europeans and Americans closer together, was also destroyed on March 11th. In order to get at the reasons behind this initial attack and to avoid future ones, we must understand the macabre logic of the terrorists. The sooner the better.

The immediate political impact of the bombs may have been a coincidence but if M-11 was connected to M-14th (election day) the situation is even more worrying. It would mean that Al Qaeda has acquired the ability to understand Spanish society and its reactions even better than we do ourselves and can thus time its attacks to achieve maximum damage. The terrorists could have quite easily used an off-peak moment to blow up the trains but they chose the rush hour. They could have attacked on 14th February or 14th April but they did it three days before the general elections. It remains to be seen if the person responsible for the attack knows us so well because he has been living in Spain for years or because he is as evil as he is intelligent.

Clausewitz tells us that war is the continuation of politics by other means. And now terrorism has become the continuation of war by other means. Many call it 4G warfare, a sort of asymmetric post-industrial conflict. New ways and new weapons are used by the weak to subjugate the strong. In any action the goals are clearly political, be their symbolic or not. From this point of view M-11th can be seen as a tactical action with a strategic outcome: the removal of the government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.

That’s for Spain. But the truth is that the terrorists’ message has sent a shudder that passes far beyond Spain’s frontiers. To start with there is one aspect of extreme concern. No intelligence agency or information service – whether police-based or otherwise – had any data or suspicions that might have sounded a warning before the attack took place. Contrary to what happened a few weeks ago, when several French and UK flights to the US were cancelled and grounded for days, on this occasion nothing was found and not even a single lead was uncovered before the attacks. As in the case of the Americans and 9-11, perhaps there was a dominant feeling that an attack by Al Qaeda on European soil was impossible and this could explain, though not justify, the absence of intelligence. Or more likely our intelligence services were looking hard but the fundamentalists knew how to hide their plans and went undetected. Whatever the explanation it will offer little comfort to those who fear that M-11th may be a prelude to further attacks in Europe.

In any event M-11th has issued a clear warning: an attack has been made on Europe through Spain and another could quite easily take place in the not so distant future. Although the capacity of the terrorists may be limited, they can cause enormous damage and this capability seems to be well in place in Spain and in Europe. Moreover the attack carries a clear message: terror pays dividends – in this case high political ones. Of course this message depends on the social and political response to the attacks, but as we all know, the government of the conservative Popular Party was overthrown and power has passed to the socialists based on the idea that Spanish involvement in the Iraq war was the basic reason behind the attacks.

Since the Hispano-American War of 1898, the safety of Spaniards has only been threatened by internal forces. Perhaps this is the main explanation for a wide-spread social mentality that does not perceive or foresee risks or threats that come from abroad. However perceptions do not always match reality. In reality we live in a turbulent world where there are people who are ready and willing to destroy our way of life. Some might be tempted to think that if we had not sent troops to Iraq or if we had not supported Mr Bush, Al Qaeda would have chosen London as its target instead of Madrid. The problem here is that global terrorism has not become less daring. On 9-11 it used commercial airliners and on M-11th it used conventional explosives. But if it attacks London, Warsaw or Rome with non-conventional weapons – as it constantly threatens – we would be unavoidably affected whether we like it or not. A larger attack or one of even greater devastation than that inflicted on commuters in Madrid, would demand collective action and response. In addition, recent history shows that indecision or irresolute behaviour does not appease terrorists but encourages them to be more aggressive and daring. That is a danger that no responsible politician can ignore. It is too much what it is at stake.

Lastly, for some years I have been using the C-2 commuter line to travel between home and my office. I also used it on March 11th. By chance and by just a couple of minutes, I and many others who were lucky that day, did not travel on any of the four trains that were blown up. But it will be difficult to forget the horror seen from the platform. I have, however, no desire to forget – just the opposite. Only memory can keep us alert to the threats that surround us. What I really want is for the government, whoever is in power, to promise me it will do everything it can to avoid another M-11 in Spain. And I would also like it to help ensure that there will not be another M-11th in Europe or in any other part of the world. Of course I also want it to track down the perpetrators of this carnage whether they are in Spain, Iraq or in Afghanistan.

We Spaniards have the tragic experience to fight ETA for 30 years now. But ETA is not global terrorism. No country can protect itself from global terrorism or fight it single-handed. Let us not fall into the deadly trap of thinking that the Spanish government can negotiate an individual truce with Al Qaeda.

Rafael L. Bardají is a fellow of the Strategic Studies Group (GEES), Madrid.