As the third anniversary of the Madrid train bombing approaches, jittery Spanish police arrested three people on Thursday it accuses of aiding the escape of Islamic militants after the bombing. Police arrested two Moroccans in Madrid and a local-born in the southern city of Algeciras. They join 29 others (15 Moroccans, 9 Spaniards, two Syrians, an Egyptian, a Lebanese and an Algerian) who have been on trial for the last two weeks for the largest terrorist attack on European soil since the Lockerbie bombing of 1988.
191 people were killed and more than 1,700 people were injured in multiple attacks on four morning rush-hour trains in Madrid on 11 March 2004. All four trains had departed the same station, Alcalá de Henares, in the fifteen minutes after 7am. The attacks happened a half hour later all within 3 minutes of each other. At 7.37am a train sitting at Atocha station was hit with three exploding bombs. A second train 800 metres away was approaching Atocha when four bombs struck it simultaneously. Meanwhile at the same time a train leaving El Pozo station was hit by two bombs and a fourth train at Santa Eugenia station suffered one hit. The numbers of dead and injured completely overwhelmed emergency services. Eventually they set up a field hospital at a sports facility near Atocha.
Initially Spanish Interior Minister Ángel Acebes held the Basque separatist organisation ETA responsible for the bombings. ETA spokesmen immediately denied any links to the bombings. It was wishful thinking on the Government’s part. Arab extremist groups had already warned Spain to withdraw its “crusader army” from Iraq or there would be consequences. The ETA theory began to unravel almost immediately. Instead the investigative trail led to Muslim extremists. Security forces in Madrid found an abandoned van near the initial station Alcala de Henares with timing devices for explosives. The van also had an audiotape with passages from the Koran. The next day, a videotape was found in the rubbish outside Madrid’s largest mosque after an Arabic-speaking man with a Moroccan accent led Madrid TV to that location. The tape said “We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a-half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies.”.
By the end of March, the investigating judge issued international arrest warrants for five suspects. The judge named Moroccan national Abdelkrim Mejjati as the mastermind of the attacks. Although Mejjati was never captured by the Spanish, he was shot and killed by Saudi forces in 2005. In April police trapped seven more suspects were trapped in a house in Leganes, a southern suburb of Madrid. However the men they blew themselves up rather than be arrested. They also killed one policeman in the explosion.
All the wanted men were members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (known as GICM from its French acronym) GICM were founded in the early 1990s by veteran mujahideen of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. However they did not gain public prominence in Morocco until a year before the Madrid bombing when they detonated five simultaneous bombs in Casablanca, killing 45, including 12 bombers. They have links to Al-Qaeda. GICM member Mohamed Fizazi got 30 years for the Casablanca mosque preached in the same mosque that 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta attended during his stay in Germany.
So far only one person has been convicted for his part in the Madrid bombing. The sole conviction is that of a 16 year old nameless youth who authorities only refer to as El Gitanillo (Little Gypsy.) He was convicted of stealing and transporting the explosives used in the attack and was sentenced in 2004 to six years in a juvenile detention centre. The others have been detained on provisional charges. Spanish law requires a prosecution within two years of the arrest.
Jose Trashorras is the leading Spanish suspect in the current trial. Trashorras has denied selling the terrorists dynamite stolen from a northern mine where he worked. He admitted to buying hashish from one of the main suspects, Jamal Ahmidan (who killed himself in the Leganes bombing) but claimed he did so as a police informer helping to investigate the man’s criminal activities. Trashorras claims he did not know about the bombing plan, but he tipped off police about the house and showed it to them less than two weeks before the attack.
The last of the 29 accused were called to trial in the National Court on Thursday. Next week the laborious process of interviewing over 600 witnesses begins. The trial is expected to last for several weeks. The dead and injured were not the only casualties of the bombing. Within three days, Spain held a general election and the pro-American Jose Maria Aznar government was voted out of office. The new Socialist government soon fulfilled a pledge to withdraw Spanish soldiers from Iraq. With the crusader army now back home, there have been no more attacks on Spanish soil.