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Spain still healing 10 years after Madrid '11-M' train bombings

A sense of justice denied compounds victims' pain over the 2004 Madrid terrorist attack that killed 191 and injured nearly 2,000.

March 09, 2014|By Henry Chu
  • Bodies are removed from a train near Madrid's Atocha station on March 11, 2004, after explosions on four trains in Spain's capital that left 191 dead.
Bodies are removed from a train near Madrid's Atocha station on March… (Christophe Simon / AFP/Getty…)

MADRID — Reminders of her son hang close to Pilar Manjon's heart.

There's the necklace she wears with his name, Daniel, and the golden pendant bearing his first initial. A locket holds a tiny snapshot of his handsome face, smiling with the promise of a life that was abruptly cut short, along with scores of others, a decade ago in the deadliest Islamic terrorist attack on European soil.

Daniel, 20, was heading into downtown Madrid the morning of March 11, 2004, when a series of bombs exploded within minutes aboard four packed commuter trains. The coordinated attack killed 191 people and injured nearly 2,000.

Many of the survivors and the relatives of those who died are still wrestling with their trauma — as well as their anger over a sense of justice denied, or at best, only partially fulfilled.

None of the suspected ringleaders is behind bars, though some are now dead. A few of those convicted of playing smaller roles in the plot have been released from prison for various reasons; and another is due to walk free on March 16, having served his sentence.

"It's cheap to kill," said Manjon, who heads an association of victims of "11-M" — Spanish shorthand for the incident — and their loved ones. "We saw them go to jail, but not for enough time. Those who have come out of prison and those who will come out have never repented."

The unhealed wounds are aggravated, some victims say, by the mystery of who ordered the attack. There is wide consensus that the bombings were carried out by Islamic radicals. But though many believe they were inspired by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, some think they were undertaken at Al Qaeda's behest, as a new book contends.

A few other Spaniards cling to the notion that the Basque separatist group ETA was behind the bombings, as the Spanish government alleged in the immediate aftermath. But authorities quickly dismissed that theory and concluded that Muslim militants were to blame.

Less than a month afterward, seven people suspected of being key players blew themselves up in a suburban apartment as Spanish police surrounded it.

In 2007, a Spanish court convicted 21 people in the bombings. Two Moroccans and a Spaniard who supplied explosives were found guilty of mass murder and sentenced to thousands of years in prison, which under the Spanish legal system means, in effect, a maximum of 40 years behind bars.

But seven defendants were acquitted, including, to the surprise of many observers, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed. Known as "Mohammed the Egyptian," he was once touted by authorities as the mastermind of the plot. His attorneys succeeded in casting doubt on the reliability of the evidence.

Victims of the bombings were outraged by the acquittals, and then again, when Spain's high court overturned four of the lesser convictions weeks later.

Experts said the mixed verdicts showed the difficulty of building strong cases against members of militant organizations with no formal structures or hierarchies. Spanish law at the time also made it tough to prosecute defendants for association with terrorist groups, a legal issue since rectified.

"I believe that justice has only been half done. There are still guilty people out there," said Araceli Cambronero, who was a passenger on one of the bombed trains.

She cited the case of Rafa Zouhier, the man set to emerge from prison next weekend after serving his sentence for acting as a middleman in the procurement of dynamite used in the bombs. Zouhier, who is Moroccan, is expected to be expelled from Spain.

"It's incredible that after 10 years this guy is going to be out," Cambronero said, shaking her head. "And it's scary — scary that he could do something like this again. He has his ideology; he could do this again to other people."

But one positive result of the 11-M bombings is that attacks are now harder to mount in Spain because law-enforcement and intelligence agencies have greatly improved their counter-terrorism capabilities, said Fernando Reinares, senior terrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank, and a professor at Rey Juan Carlos University.

In 2008, for example, detectives were able to foil what they said were plans for a major suicide attack on Barcelona's subway system.

Reinares is the author of the book "Kill Them!," a newly published inquiry on who ordered the Madrid train bombings. Based on documents and interviews in a number of countries, Reinares has concluded that the idea was hatched in December 2001 by an Al Qaeda operative who wanted to strike back at Spanish authorities for dismantling his terrorist cell in Spain soon after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

"The decision to attack Spain was the result of vengeance. Spain had made this huge operation against Al Qaeda individuals … [and] arrested many people," Reinares said.

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