A series of bombings plunged Madrid into mourning five years ago. The Spanish legal system concluded that this operation, attributed first to ETA and then to Al Qaeda, was Islamist inspired, though not linked with international networks. The Spanish press, led by the newspaper El Mundo, today is calling into question that conclusion, which was of obvious political character. As in the cases of the September 11th attacks in the U.S., or those in Bali, Casablanca and London, we will take a look at an analysis of the issue.
192 dead and 1,800 injured. The Madrid attack represents an authentic trauma for Spanish society, above all because the controversy over the real perpetrators of the attack has not yet ended. On March 11, 2004, around 7:40 in the morning, ten bombs exploded on four trains in the space of a few minutes. The date appears to have been carefully selected because the events took place just three days before the general elections in which the People’s Party (of the political right) of outgoing President José María Aznar was presented as the favorite.
The suspicions of the press and of the majority of Spaniards turned immediately to ETA, the Basque nationalist group, against which the outgoing prime minister had preached a policy of force. But with the arrest of a group of Moroccan suspects on the eve of elections, the suspicions of the public were redirected towards al Qaeda.
The attack might have been in retaliation for Spain’s participation in the war against Iraq, although autopsies showed that it had not been a suicide attack. The subsequent insistence of the Aznar government in condemning ETA was interpreted as the result of a campaign calculation and in the elections of March 14 victory went to the Socialist Party of Jose Luis Zapatero. Three weeks later, on April 3, seven North African suspects ’committed suicide’ by blowing up the apartment in which they had been surrounded by police. The investigative proceedings then lasted more than two years until the opening of the trial for the bombings in February 2007.
The courts upheld the theory of an Islamist attack but the alleged organizers of the attack were acquitted. Only one defendant was found guilty of having planted bombs on the trains and most of the 29 defendants were convicted of being members of Jihadist groups, not for being involved in the attack. The appeals trial upheld that ruling in July 2008.
In Spain, an intense controversy continues even now around the attack, designated as “11-M”. The foreign press has essentially abstained from reporting the polarization of the Spanish media on the topic . Spain’s two main newspapers, in fact, take starkly opposing view points when addressing the terrorist attacks of March 11.
According to El Pais (center-left Atlanticist newspaper), there are no legitimate doubts about the Islamist theory, while for El Mundo (center-right nationalist newspaper) the Islamist theory is nothing more than a police set-up. The journalist most representative of the advocates of this nationalist view is undoubtedly Luis del Pino, who works for Libertad Digital, the leading online newspaper in Spain, and also the author of several books and documentaries on the subject for TeleMadrid . Other media, more willing to try to discredit than to initiate a rational debate, consider the position of Luis del Pino a conspiracy theory or “consparanoia”.
Division exists even among skeptics who oppose the theory of an Islamist attack. Some incriminate ETA while others suspect the secret services of Spain as well as of foreign nations. Our article does not take up the issue of the real perpetrators of the attack but rather is limited to showing that the official version is false.
Given that the Spanish justice system has endorsed the theory of an Islamist attack, it is essential to begin by laying out this theory. As incredible as it may seem, the evidence that supposedly confirms the theory can not stand up to rigorous analysis. And the suspicious behavior of certain elements of the police forces clearly indicates the existence of an intent to sabotage the investigation. All the information contained in this article comes from the Spanish media cited above and from official court documents, such as the indictment, hearings from the trial, and the verdict.
The Islamist trail
The theory of an Islamist attack is the final conclusion of an investigation that developed out of two tracks. We will present here the progress of that investigation, emphasizing the evidence accepted by the Spanish courts . The first track of the investigation begins with a bomb that did not explode. Three of the bombs placed in the trains were defective and failed to explode. So very soon after the attack, it was known that the bombs had been concealed in bags or backpacks. On the morning of March 11th, explosives specialists neutralized two of them by controlled explosions.
But no one noticed the third backpack and it was set aside with the victims’ possessions. It was upon inventorying these possessions that the backpack containing the bomb was found, in the police station of suburban Vallecas during the night of March 11th and 12th. That bomb, known as “the Vallecas backpack”, consisted of 10 kilograms of “Goma-2 Eco” dynamite, shrapnel, a detonator and a cell phone that should have triggered the explosion via its alarm setting.
The phone contained a SIM card which, when it was tracked through the sales network, made it possible to determine where it had been sold. The tracking led to a telephone store in Madrid belonging to a Moroccan, Jamal Zougam. Based on those elements, the police arrested Zougam, two of his employees and two Indians who had allegedly sold the phone. Those arrests came on March 13, the eve of the elections. The media announced the arrests and gave wide coverage to photos of the suspects. During the following days, several passengers on the metro said they had seen the detainees on the bombed trains. Finally, the inconsistency of the testimonies led to the release of four of the five suspects several weeks later. Zougam remained in prison because the testimonies against him seemed more solid.
The other track that serves as a starting point for the investigation are revelations by Rafa Zouhier, a petty drug dealer from Morroco and an informant for the Guardia Civil (the second largest police force in Spain) . A few days after the attack this individual told police in a taped telephone conversation that he harbored strong suspicions about a man named Jamal Ahmidan, alias “El Chino”. El Chino is another Moroccan petty drug dealer and Zouhier had put him in contact with a gang from Asturias (a region of northern Spain) suspected of smuggling, among other things, explosives originally intended for mining activities.
One member of that gang, Emilio Trashorras, confirmed to the police that he had provided El Chino with Goma-2 Eco explosives, an assertion corroborated by a young gypsy who participated in the transaction. Moreover, communications among various members of El Chino’s gang were being intercepted as part of an investigation into drug trafficking, and the recordings confirm that the persons concerned had traveled to Asturias.
The two tracks of investigation lead to completely different individuals. On one hand, Zougam, and on the other, El Chino and his gang. No personal links have been found between the two. The only connection comes from seven SIM cards whose numbers appear during tracking of phone marketing networks. And they are connected to El Chino because the telephone carrier Amena said that the cards were activated for the first time the day before the attack in the antenna reception area that covers El Chino’s house.
Apparently, the explosives were found in that house and the bomb preparation took place in that same location. No activity was ever generated from the seven SIM cards after their activation, which seems to indicate that they might have been used to detonate the bombs. This is how the link was established between Zougam and El Chino’s gang.
Around noon on April 3, three weeks after the bombing, police finally located El Chino’s gang in an apartment in Leganés outside Madrid. Upon discovering the presence of the police, the suspects refused to surrender and opened fire. At the end of the day, the GEO (Special Operations Group of the Spanish police) launched an assault to try to capture the members of the terrorist group. The intelligence services warned the police that the besieged suspects had made several telephone calls in which they announced their intent to commit suicide. The police forced open the apartment door and an explosion occurred that killed the 7 suspects and a GEO police officer.
Amid the rubble of the apartment were found Goma-2 Eco explosives, some documents and a video claiming responsibility for the attack, but the people featured in the video were not identifiable due to masks they were wearing. Like El Chino, most of the seven dead were petty drug dealers. The rest were members of radical Islamist circles. The trial sentence concluded that these people set the bombs, with the participation of Zougam, and planned to commit other attacks in the region of Granada, where they had rented an apartment.
A certain amount of secondary evidence supports the conclusions of that investigation. Among the exhibits is a Renault Kangoo van which was the first important element found during the investigation and its discovery led to numerous controversies. This vehicle was discovered in the parking lot of the Alcala subway station, where all the trains that exploded had passed on March 11. An attendant in the neighborhood said that on the morning of March 11 he had seen three suspicious individuals loitering around the Kangoo. They were essentially masked with scarves and hats and one of them walked to the subway station carrying a bag.
Towards the end of the morning, the police opened the van and inspected it. Two dogs trained to detect explosives checked the Kangoo without finding anything suspicious. Upon discovering that it was on a list of stolen vehicles, the van was taken to a police location. There, after a new inspection, 7 detonators appeared in the van, along with a fragment of Goma-2 Eco explosive wrapped up under a seat and, most importantly, an audio cassette with a recording of the Koran, which would have a decisive impact on Spanish public opinion. The trial verdict concluded that the objective of the terrorist group was to impose Islamic law in Europe by force and that the group was inspired by Al Qaeda, while not being actually linked to that organization .
The cracks in the verdict
We have just presented here all the important pieces of evidence that served as the basis of the Islamist attack theory. All, nevertheless, are plagued by suspect elements, as we will see as we analyze them again one by one. The primary physical evidence relates to one of the bombs that did not explode on March 11 — the one that appeared in the backpack in Vallecas. Serious suspicions of fabrication exist, however, with regards to its composition and with regard to the circumstances in which the discovery occurred. In the first place, the bomb did not explode because of a cable that simply was not connected. The explosives expert in charge of deactivating it testified in court that this “shoddy piece of work” did not match the complexity of the rest of the device . There is also an essential difference between the composition of this bomb and those that did explode.
The Vallecas backpack contained 640 grams of screws and nails intended to serve as shrapnel. However, autopsies revealed that none of the victims had been struck by metal projectiles . And, according to the police who handled them, the two bombs defused on the morning of March 11 contained no such projectiles. What motivated the terrorists to put shrapnel in just one of the bombs? And finally, the circumstances of the discovery of the Vallecas backpack are unclear.
During the trial, explosives experts explained that they had searched all the objects left in the train cars four times and confirmed that it was impossible that the found bomb had been among them . Its origin is even more doubtful because the abandoned objects, among which the bomb was purportedly found, were moved 3 times throughout the day of March 11, not always under the best surveillance , and ended up at the Vallecas police station, contrary to what the judge had ordered. If one adds to this the conflicting testimony about when it was discovered , the fact that the bomb was not mentioned in the inventories of abandoned objects , and the fact that there are no photos of the bomb before the time that it was dismantled, the inconsistency of such evidence becomes clear. Notwithstanding all this, the court used it as a key element in rendering its verdict.
The investigation into the telephone marketing network concluded that the SIM card found in the backpack in Vallecas had been on sale in Zougam’s store. On what was the investigation based to reach that conclusion? Before their sale to a customer in a store, SIM cards usually pass through the hands of three or four intermediaries. But only the initial brokers list on their invoices the identification number of each SIM card sold. Subsequent brokers only record the total number of SIM cards.
In this case, there is no invoice showing that the SIM card in question was sold to Zougam . The only thing that allows one to reach that conclusion is the testimony of his supplier, who says he remembers specifically the sale of that SIM card among hundreds of other cards. Let us accept, nevertheless, that fact as sufficient proof and continue examining the course of the investigation.
The fact of having sold a SIM card does not make the seller responsible for any possible criminal use that the buyer might make of that card. But Zougam had appeared as a witness in a previous investigation about Islamist terrorists. It would seem that was the only motive for his arrest on March 13, given that no witness had described him nor had identified him before that date. A re-analysis of Zougam’s behavior up until his arrest shows that apparently he committed a series of truly incredible indiscretions. In the first place, he used a SIM card on sale in his own store to make the Vallecas bomb.
Secondly, he left that SIM card in the phone even though it was not necessary to use its alarm clock function. And, thirdly, he continued his normal activity until the day of his arrest on the afternoon of March 13, despite the fact that all of Spain had known since the morning of March 12 that police had dismantled one of the bombs. From that moment on, Zougam had to know that the investigators were in possession of a SIM card that would lead to him. But he did not try to hide or flee. The incoherence of that behavior leads to doubts about his guilt.
The media gave wide publicity to the arrests of March 13 and to photos of the suspects. Passengers from the attacked trains spontaneously showed up to testify about the suspects seen on trains on March 11. Some of these testimonies implicate Zougam and constitute the only evidence of his involvement in the attack. There is also in this case an incredibly inconsistent piece of evidence, in relation to the seriousness of the facts.
The first problem is the spreading of Zougam’s picture across the media, thereby preventing testimonies from complying with a fundamental rule: memory must not be influenced by other images seen after the events. Moreover, some witnesses did not agree as to the trip that Zougam allegedly made on the trains, with contradictions regarding his description, how he was dressed or stating that he placed a bag in a place where no bomb exploded .
Finally the verdict of October 2007 only takes into account 3 testimonies incriminating Zougam . In the appeals trial of July 2008, the court invalidated one of those 3 testimonies because the witness had given his statement to the investigative judge rather than before the court, where he had not even been convoked, a fact which prevented Zougam’s defense from questioning him despite already existing doubts about his statement. For example, according to that witness, the suspect got off the train, onto the platform, and then returned to the same train car through the door that connected to the other car, all strangely indiscreet behavior for someone who is planting bombs. There are, therefore, only two statements accusing Zougam and these come from two Romanian friends who were traveling together. The first came forward as a witness three weeks after the bombings.
At that moment her description of the suspect is very brief: a person 1 meter 80 centimeters tall, of average build, and carrying a handbag. Without further details. But that same description becomes more precise days later when the police show her a series of photos among which she recognizes Zougam: shoulder-length hair, a rather thick nose, a goatee, lower lip thicker than upper, etc. It is reasonable to ask then if what this witness is describing is what she saw in the photograph rather than what she remembered. In addition, her statements continued to change with regard to other details, such as the position of the car in the train. After a year, the witness recalled that the suspect had pushed her, justifying in that way why she remembered his face, and then saying for the first time that she was traveling with a friend, who thus became the second accusing witness against Zougam.
Why did a whole year pass without her mentioning the friend who was traveling with her? Why did that other witness wait a year before coming forward? What could this new witness still remember after all this time? Can her testimony be considered as independent of that of her friend? And it is precisely on the basis of these two dubious declarations that the only guilty finding for the carrying out of the bombings on March 11 was reached. For his part, Zougam always denied any involvement in the bombings.
All the others who allegedly planted bombs on April 3 died in the explosion of the Leganés apartment, three weeks after the attacks. An important consequence of the deaths of these individuals is that the investigation did not reconstruct the exact role of each one in the carrying out the attack, thus focusing attention on those accused. The court acknowledged in its ruling that it ignored which of these 7 individuals were involved in placing the bombings and where they did it .
This contrasts with the case of Zougam, clearly accused of having placed the bombs on the train that exploded at the Santa Eugenia station. Considering the difficulties involved in maintaining the records of the accusation against Zougam, one might think that the lack of information [about the people killed in Leganés] was paradoxically beneficial to those attempting to prove the guilt of those 7 suspects since it avoided any contradiction with reality. The investigation then focused on demonstrating that the death of those in the Leganés apartment was a suicide, a suicide that was used as proof of the fanaticism of the suspects, while the discovery of documents which claimed responsibility for the attack among the ruins of the apartment was interpreted as a posthumous confession.
The circumstances under which that apartment was discovered, just at the time when the 7 suspects were inside, remain unclear. For a long time, the police spoke of a shootout in the street between several of its officers and a gang of North Africans. The incident allegedly resulted in a chase that led the gang to take refuge in the apartment in Leganés . But this episode later disappears from the official version to make way for another explanation.
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