29 people are on trial in Madrid for the 11-M bombings
The Madrid bombings marked one of the most tragic and dramatic moments in Spain’s modern history. Just three days before Spaniards were due to vote in a general election, a series of bombs exploded in and around the Spanish capital’s train stations early on the morning of March 11th, 2004—the day that would become infamously known as 11-M. The worst damage was done by 10 backpack bombs planted under the seats on four commuter trains pulling in and out of the Atocha terminal. A total of 191 people were killed and over 1,800 injured, making it the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. The attack contributed substantially to the Popular Party’s (PP) electoral defeat. Now, almost exactly three years since the blasts, some of those accused of planning the attacks are facing one of Spain’s biggest-ever trials.
The immediate aftermath of the bombings and the lead-up to the trial have been defining moments in Spanish politics. As the horror of 11-M became apparent, two versions of what had happened unfolded on Spanish TV screens. The state-owned TVE network and the majority of commercial channels echoed the government line that the bombings were undoubtedly the work of the Basque terrorist group ETA. With the general election just days away, José María Aznar’s PP government insisted from the outset that ETA was responsible, even as evidence to the contrary rapidly mounted up. The logic was that admitting the bombs had been planted by Islamic fundamentalists would have linked the attacks to Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq—an issue almost 90 percent of the country had been opposed to in the first place.
The Spanish intelligence services almost immediately concluded it was an Islamic terrorist group, according to a report by the European Security and Intelligence Centre, but were categorically instructed to deny it. President Aznar ordered all foreign embassies to support the ETA version and personally called several newspaper editors to ask for their support. Even when ETA had officially denied responsibility for the attacks, the PP continued to peddle the theory. Meanwhile, websites, blogs and many regional channels such as Catalunya’s TV3 were reporting increasing circumstantial evidence that pointed towards an Islamic terrorist group.
The pre-election timing of the event meant the bombers seemingly hoped to sway votes in favour of the Socialist party (PSOE), who had promised to withdraw troops from Iraq if elected. Exactly how much influence the attack had on the election is hard to gauge, but in the end José Luis Zapatero’s PSOE party won and José María Aznar’s PP party bowed out in disgrace. Afterwards, Zapatero revealed to the commission investigating the bombings that his government arrived in office to find all computer records relating to the period during the bombings and election had been permanently deleted. All that remained was a €12,000 bill from an IT firm for erasing the files.
The political turmoil of 11-M didn’t end there, however. In an attempt to recover from its election shame, and discredit the new government before it had even taken office, hardliners in the PP inflated the ETA theory into a conspiracy that implicates the PSOE plus both the Spanish and Moroccan secret services. These conspiracy theories continue to be propagated by right-leaning media such as El Mundo and La Razón newpapers and COPE radio. The crux of the claims has rested on the types of explosives that were used in Madrid. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists continued to maintain that they were the same type as used regularly by ETA. In addition, declassified secret service documents have revealed that key Spanish suspect José Trashorras—a former miner who is alleged to have supplied most of the explosives—never once implicated ETA during police questioning. Instead, he said he gave the explosives to “moros” (a derogatory term for Moroccans) from Madrid. Although Trashorras later told El Mundo that he did talk to ETA, security services say they secretly recorded a conversation between him and his parents in which he boasted, “As long as El Mundo keeps paying, I’ll tell them about the Civil War if they like.”
The trial itself finally began on February 15th this year and is expected to last around five months. It will examine more than 100,000 pages of evidence and bring almost 100 lawyers and as many as 650 witnesses to the converted trade-fair building on the outskirts of Madrid where it’s being held. The government is prosecuting for a total of 270,000 years in prison for the accused, although nobody can serve more than 40 years under Spanish law. If found guilty, they can realistically expect to serve around 30 years each. Twenty-nine people stand accused, the vast majority of them of North African origin. The seven suspected ringleaders are seated in a special bullet-proof enclosure in the court. The alleged mastermind behind the explosions is Rabei Osman El Sayed (known as ‘The Egyptian’); his alleged accomplices include Said El Harrak and Rachid Aglif (‘The Rabbit’). Eight other main suspects are already dead, seven of whom committed suicide shortly after the bombings when police surrounded their flat in the Madrid suburb of Leganés. The other suspect is thought to have died in a suicide bombing in Iraq. All are what the investigating magistrate Juan del Olmo calls “home-grown Moroccan terrorists” who were involved with “local cells of Islamic extremists inspired through the Internet”. These cells mainly consist of hashish traffickers with ideological, rather than direct financial, or operational, links to al-Qaida.
However, it’s not only Islamic suspects that are on trial. Nine Spaniards are charged with supplying the dynamite Goma-2 ECO explosives that were found at the scene. The accused range from petty thieves to corrupt Spanish police allegedly involved in drug trafficking. At the time of writing, the trial has dealt with the main suspected ringleader, El Sayed, who denies any involvement. The court heard secret tape recordings taken by Italian police where a voice, alleged to be his, is heard saying, “The bombing was entirely my idea”. El Sayed denies the claim saying simply, “I’m a normal human being and I have nothing to do with that attack.” The rest of the trial has followed a similar pattern. Most of the other defendants questioned so far have exercised their right to refuse questions or denied any involvement whatsoever.
This constant flow of denials indicates that any kind of convincing rapid resolution to the trial is unlikely. Pilar Manjón, leader of a group representing relatives of more than 90 fatal victims and 500 injured, told the press: “Those that are standing trial are the ones. We will know part of the truth, but there are other truths as well that may never come out.”
For more information, look at the following websites:
• An English blog following the trial
• An El País special on 11-M
• Live coverage of the trial