Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

Adrift in Madrid

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Rafael Bardaji


Full Text

MADRID-Spain was attacked by Islamists on March 11, 2004, but the new government that emerged from the polls three days later never learned the right lessons from that massacre. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Socialist government argued that Spain had been attacked because of its presence in Iraq and because of the conservative government's cooperation with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Based on this notion, they concluded that by pulling out of Iraq and distancing itself from America, Spain could insulate itself from Islamic terrorism.

The reality, of course, was quite different. Al Andalus (today, all of the Iberian Peninsula and part of France, not to be confused with Andalusia in Southern Spain) had been part of the historical claims made by Bin Laden in 2001, long before the Iraq War was even conceived. And in fact, the recovery of Al Andalus has continued to be a constant motif in the communiqués of Bin Laden and his lieutenants, even after Zapatero´s Socialist government withdrew from Iraq. In fact, it has been mentioned no fewer than fourteen times in jihadist messages in the last five years.

Spain, then, is not safe from Islamic terrorism-despite what the current government says. This is clear from the fact that, since the attacks of March 11, 2004, the country's police forces have repeatedly moved against Islamist cells on Spanish soil. The results have been notable; more than a dozen major operations, and more than 300 suspects arrested. Of course, not all were related to an imminent attack. But some have been, including attempts to replicate in Barcelona the attacks that happened in Madrid in 2004 and to blow up official buildings, including the seat of the anti-terror court.

Unfortunately, on too many occasions, the anti-terrorist fight carried out by Spain's law enforcement agencies has not yielded the hoped-for sentences, for various reasons. One is the clear inadequacy of the country's penal system in judging Islamists. Another is the government's hurry to abort any terrorist plot, which has prevented authorities from building the proper evidentiary case. The results are that a good number of those arrested are never brought to justice, and those that are end up being set free. In recent years, less than twenty percent of those arrested have been definitively sentenced.

In Spain, there is a temptation to think that the Islamist threat is distant, but this is not the case. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command, issued a call in 2006 to recover the two Spanish cities in North Africa, Ceuta and Melilla. At the same time, various North African groups (incorporating Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian elements) have coalesced into al-Qaeda's newest franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As such, Spaniards now find their worst enemies just kilometers from their own soil.

Awareness of the new threat has been steadily growing, spurred by increasing immigration from North Africa, which has seen an influx of younger Muslims intoxicated with radical ideas. Yet the ruling Socialist government remains unwilling to prepare for a sustained action against Islamic terrorism, either within or outside of Spain.

On the one hand, the constant preoccupation of the country's intelligence services, and a good part of its counterterrorism capabilities, with the Basque group ETA has impeded reflection on the institutional changes necessary to confront Islamic terrorism, whether foreign or homegrown. On the other, the current government has avoided making hard choices about jihadism, preferring small changes in the attention and resources devoted to preventing and combating it. For example, five years after 3/11, both the police and intelligence services still suffer serious deficiencies with regard to translators of Arabic and its various Spanish dialects-a flaw that could be alleviated with greater financial resources.

Meanwhile, the increasing marginalization on the world stage of Spain's Zapatero, a leader with no interest in international affairs, has impeded stronger strategic cooperation against terrorism with potential allies.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the vision that Spain's Socialist leaders defend-one based on explaining the terrorist phenomenon by referring to its so-called root causes. This is a philosophy that understands violence as an expression of poverty, economic desperation, or as a reaction to neo-imperialist policies. Rodríguez Zapatero has not only said that climate change is more dangerous than terrorism, but has argued that the best way to fight it is through an extension of feminism. These are rather unfortunate declarations from a country that has suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history at the hands of Islamists.

God willing, there will not need to be another terrorist attack for the Spanish Prime Minister to realize the error of his ways.