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New Reality of Terrorism Hits Home in Europe

The massacre in Madrid dispels complacency about the threat. 'We're all in the crosshairs of terrorism,' a German newspaper declares.

March 13, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Europe has found its ground zero.

The blood on the Madrid train tracks, the dead lined up in zippered bags, the shredded clothes and the bruised, confused faces have all swirled together in a new picture of suffering for the continent. Europe empathized with the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001, but it did not feel the sting and breadth of terrorism until 10 synchronized bombs blew through Spain's Thursday morning rush hour.

"The mass terror of Madrid was aimed at the heart of Spain, but we're all in the crosshairs of terrorism," proclaimed Bild, Germany's largest newspaper. "Who is safe today? Terror is like a hydra with a thousand heads."

Spanish authorities suggest that the Basque separatist group ETA is behind the attacks that killed nearly 200 people and wounded 1,500 others. There are hints that Islamic terrorists may have been involved, raising the specter that extremists with a cache of powerful explosives may be punishing Spain for supporting the U.S.-led Iraq war.

Europe is not immune to militant organizations. Italy's Red Brigades murdered scores in the 1970s. ETA has been killing Spanish politicians for three decades. The Irish Republican Army has left a swath of dead. But the Madrid bombings come in a new era of global terrorism, and intelligence authorities are concerned that the attacks may indicate a resurgence of European groups that were believed to have gone dormant.

Another prospect is that these cells are working with -- or borrowing tactics from -- Islamic terrorists. A letter discovered on Red Brigades member Nadia Lioce after a 2003 shootout with police on an Italian train urged Europe's leftist militants to unite with Islamic fundamentalists.

"There may now be a realization that what Europe is facing is something wider: international understanding among extremists, who copy each other's methods, supply each other with arms and coordinate attacks on their common enemies," stated an editorial in the Times of London. "It certainly appears that the [Madrid] bombers had learnt much about tactics, surprise and viciousness from Al Qaeda, underlining the ugly concept of terrorist 'franchising.' "

In many ways, Europe believed that it was removed from the reach of such spectacular attacks. America, after all, was target No. 1.

But the Madrid blasts, arriving just two months before the European Union is to expand from 15 to 25 nations, have spurred some nations to tighten borders and increased concern over the Olympics to be held in Greece this summer.

"Whoever thought the American 'devils' were the only ones in the sights of Islamic terrorism was wrong," wrote Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. "We are all in the same boat."

Europe prides itself on tolerance and equality. But the continent's Muslim population has doubled in the last decade and many Europeans are calling for stricter immigration and asylum laws. These debates are likely to intensify after Thursday's bombings, as they did immediately after Sept. 11.

"The real threat of terrorism to democracy is ... that it will stampede us into curbing the freedoms and legal rights that are inseparable from democracy," Robin Cook, Britain's former foreign secretary, wrote in the Independent newspaper.

The conservative Daily Telegraph in London said: "The global stakes for terrorist activity have been dramatically raised.... As George W. Bush and Tony Blair have claimed, Sept. 11 truly did change the world. It forced all terrorism to become organized and fiercely professional. We are now only as safe as we are vigilant."

The attacks come as U.S. and European capitals have been bickering over how to fight terrorism and "rogue" states. The Bush administration prefers preemptive strikes, while Europe stresses instigating social and economic change in countries that spawn militants.

The Spanish and Polish governments sent troops to Iraq against the overwhelming wishes of their people.

Warsaw announced Friday that it was tightening security around Poland's airports and train stations to counter any terrorist attack. Some newspapers in Europe have satirically asked whether Spaniards would accept Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Iraq policy if they must live with the threat of more explosions.

"If international terrorists took revenge for Madrid's support of the U.S., then the [Aznar] government would be to blame for the deaths of hundreds of people," said the Moscow daily Kommersant.

Rather than divide, the bombings appear to have brought Europe together. France's bitter opposition to the Iraq war often marred relations between Madrid and Paris over the last year. But President Jacques Chirac -- who survived an assassination attempt in 2002 by a man with neo-Nazi links -- and other French leaders said the threat of terrorism must be countered with a united approach.

"France is at Spain's disposal. Terrorism shall not pass," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Many Europeans spent Friday watching TV and thumbing through newspapers, fixated on images of blood and battered train cars.

"It's like if a brutal shock has woken us from a long, blissful, stupid dream of extraneousness and immunity," stated a front-page editorial in Italy's Corriere della Sera. "Suddenly we can't any longer ... act as if the devastation of the world doesn't regard us."


Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and Janet Stobart in London, correspondent Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw and Livia Borghese in The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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