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Al Qaeda Link Is One Possibility

Although separatists remain prime suspects, authorities wrestle with competing theories.

March 12, 2004|Sebastian Rotella and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

MADRID — The size and savagery of Thursday's synchronized train station bombings suggest a significant shift in tactics by Basque separatists -- or the work of an entirely new player in Spain.

Spanish authorities are wrestling with competing theories over who was responsible for the attacks that killed nearly 200 people and injured 1,400 others. Swift to blame militants of the Basque separatist group ETA fighting to secede from Spain, officials by the end of the day were forced to acknowledge that they were pursuing a more complex investigation.

Forensic evidence, including the type of explosives used, and the arrests in recent weeks of purported Basque terrorists armed with powerful bombs point to ETA as the prime suspect in Thursday's attacks, investigators said in interviews, echoing Interior Minister Angel Acebes.

ETA purportedly had planned a Christmas Eve bombing at another Madrid train station, which was foiled by police. Recent intelligence revealed that a young, ruthless generation of Basque militants has pushed since last summer to pull off a spectacular blow, according to a senior Spanish law enforcement official.

But Thursday's well-coordinated strikes aimed at inflicting mass civilian casualties were out of character with ETA's three-decade-old armed campaign. ETA has traditionally targeted the symbols of Madrid's power, such as police and politicians, or its economic base, with strikes on tourist resorts.

The methods recalled the brutal choreography refined by Al Qaeda in its Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and more recently around the world.

The discovery of an Arabic audiotape along with detonators in a stolen van thought to have been used by the Madrid attackers forced investigators to consider a grim alternative scenario: Islamic terrorists may have chosen Spain for the attack in what would mark their first successful strike in Western Europe.

"We are pursuing both the possibilities of Basque terrorism and Islamic terrorism," a Spanish police commander said. "ETA remains the stronger possibility. But these attacks were rather strange. There are elements that resemble Al Qaeda, elements resembling ETA, and some things that are neither one nor the other."

The method of attack fed a third theory: that the coordinated strikes resulted from an alliance of Basque and Islamic networks.

In past decades, ETA's worldwide contacts have brought it into contact with Arab militants in places such as Libya and Lebanon. Last year, attacks by suicide bombers in Morocco and Turkey showed the ability of Al Qaeda operatives to join forces with other terrorist groups.

But most investigators regard a partnership between the secular nationalists of ETA and today's violent Islamic fundamentalists as unlikely.

Nonetheless, the calculated plan to inflict massive casualties in Thursday's attacks suggests that the Al Qaeda terrorist network has become an influence for post-Sept. 11 terrorism and may have been copied by ETA, authorities said.

" ... They see that spectacular, coordinated attacks like those carried out by Al Qaeda are the ones that cause the most impact. So instead of killing a city councilman somewhere, they do this," said an investigator with Spain's paramilitary Civil Guard.

The investigator said that Thursday's attacks had no such value. "The targets were not symbolic: just working people taking the train at 7:30 a.m.," he said

ETA has shown its own brand of ruthlessness. One trademark, which police detected again Thursday, involves setting time bombs designed to kill police and rescue personnel arriving at the scene of an initial blast.

Attacks blamed on ETA have killed about 800 people over more than 30 years.

Normally an ETA member telephones a warning shortly before an explosion.

Before Thursday, ETA's deadliest strike was a bombing that killed 22 people at a Barcelona supermarket in 1987. The group later apologized for killing so many civilians.

In recent years, aggressive police work has chipped away at ETA's old guard leadership, including some veterans old enough to remember the years of the Franco dictatorship, when ETA's fight against the regime elicited some sympathy in Spain.

The ETA old guard has been pressured by young radicals intent on reinvigorating a weakened and widely despised group, according to the senior Spanish law enforcement official.

"At the end of the summer, there was intelligence that the moderate sector had rejected pressure from the more radical ones pushing for a big massacre," the official said.

"This is a generation ... born and raised in democracy, yet they are the most radical of all. And basically [they are] street thugs, without ideology, really brain-dead. The older ones have a certain philosophy when they talk to you, a political discourse. Not these guys," he added.

The type of timers and the explosives used in Thursday's coordinated attacks closely resembled some of the material used in past strikes by ETA, investigators said.

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