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The Madrid blasts, ten years later

In the tenth anniversary of the attack on Madrid’s rail network, Diego Muro analyses the consequences of the blasts for both the European Union and Spain. "Europe’s 9/11", he says, contributed to the decline of the Basque group ETA and to the creation of new mechanisms of coordination and cooperation at the European level.

The gruesome details of the Madrid blasts are well known. Ten years ago today, in the morning of 11 March 2004, ten synchronised bombs went off on regional commuter trains killing 192 people and injuring more than 1,500. The explosions ripped through train carriages during the morning rush hour in what was the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the second world war.

The Madrid blasts were Europe’s 9/11. As the aftermath was broadcast in real time, viewers watched the horror of a premeditated act of mass murder with a sense of grief and shock. The Spanish and European reactions to the attack, however, were very different to the military response triggered by the collapse of the twin towers.

Why was Madrid targeted?

Madrid was targeted because of Spain’s military presence in Iraq. At the time, Spain had 1,300 troops stationed in Iraq (out of a multinational force of 154,000) and was perceived to be one of the weakest links of the United States-led coalition. Osama bin Laden had explicitly threatened Spain in an audiotape and documents released after 2004 indicated that the terrorists had intended to influence the elections, due to be held three days later.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Spanish authorities insisted on blaming the Basque terrorists of ETA, in spite of evidence pointing to Islamic terrorism. As Spaniards prepared to go to the polls, citizens marched in the streets and accused the government of exploiting the attack for electoral expediency. The conservatives of the PP were swept out of office (against all predictions) and the social democrats of the PSOE were returned to power on 14 March. The new government withdrew the Spanish troops from Iraq, somewhat abruptly, acting upon a central pledge of the election campaign.

The change of government from PP to PSOE was not the result of an apprehensive electorate desperate to withdraw troops from any involvement in the middle east as a way of avoiding another terrorist attack. Rather, the poor handling of the crisis by the conservative government and the insistence on playing down evidence pointing to al-Qaida angered Spaniards who believed that their rulers were deliberately misleading them. But what were the domestic and international responses to the Madrid attacks? And what were the impacts for both Spanish and European counter-terrorism?

The domestic response

The Madrid attacks contributed to the decline of the terrorist group ETA, which had been fighting for an independent Basque homeland since 1968. The so-called "11M" was a transformative event that radically changed the context in which European ethno-nationalist groups like ETA fought. With the irruption of the indiscriminate and choreographed violence of al-Qaida, the popular view that terrorism was the legitimate weapon of the weak was changed forever.

Figure 1 shows that ETA had used targeted violence as a means of sustaining significant levels of popular support in the Basque provinces. The organisation was most lethal during the late 1970s when Spain was transitioning to democracy, though the number of killings steadily declined in the following decades.


Figure 1 - ETA killings per year, 1968-2013

The domestic and international outrage against terrorism further isolated ETA, which found it difficult to legitimise its continuing use of political violence to pursue its tactical and strategic goals. In addition to 11M, the failed peace process of 2006 intensified the authorities’ efforts against ETA. The group entered a final period of decline that culminated in the unilateral ceasefire of October 2011. Since then, a gradual process of disarmament and disbandment has unfolded.

The Europeanisation of counter-terrorism

The Madrid blasts also created a political need to respond to the attacks and contributed to develop the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy. The process of institutionalisation gained momentum and a number of EU initiatives that had been stuck in Brussels were fast-tracked. In short, the carnage opened a window of opportunity for the approval of initiatives in at least three areas of the European counter-terrorist strategy.

The Madrid blasts first strengthened the cooperation and coordination at EU level. The trend towards greater coordination had started in the aftermath of 9/11 but it was intensified after the attacks on Madrid and London. On top of the creation of the "EU counter-terrorism coordinator", the European commission instigated the harmonisation of norms and practices and the institutionalisation of data-sharing and cooperation through EU institutions (such as Europol, Eurojust, and the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre).

Second, the EU decided to focus on preventive strategies to combat radicalisation and the recruitment of terrorists. The goal was to prevent the development of violent extremism by disrupting the methods, propaganda and the instruments used by terrorists at a much earlier stage. As is well known, the attacks in Madrid and London were carried out by "home-grown terrorists" who had been born and raised in Europe.

Third, the Madrid blasts brought attention to the internal and external aspects of security. The nature of the Madrid attacks made the idea of "external" militants targeting "internal" victims meaningless. The transnational character of terrorism became a reality and, in parallel to an emphasis on border control, member-states increasingly devoted resources to monitoring their own nationals.

The idea that Europe has become more vulnerable to terrorism does not withstand the test of empirical evidence. As can be seen in Figure 2, the number of victims of terrorism worldwide has increased dramatically since 1970. By contrast, the number of western European victims has remained low with the exception of the "bump" caused by both 11M and 7/7. Besides, the proportion of European victims has declined dramatically from the early 1970s, when they accounted for up to 80% of the worldwide victims to current percentages of zero (or close to zero).

Figure 2: Victims of terrorism in western Europe and worldwide, 1970-3013

The tenth anniversary of the Madrid blasts provides an opportunity to remember the dead and commemorate those who were injured in the attacks. As the EU decided to declare 11 March the "European day of victims of terrorism", there will be acts of commemoration for those who most suffered terrorism. And yet, a balance of the past decade cannot ignore the fact that, in spite of the challenges of the new global security environment, Europe continues to be relatively untouched by terrorist incidents. The reactions and policy responses to the terrorist attacks of Madrid contributed to improving the security situation during the last decade.

About the author

Diego Muro is Lecturer in International Relations at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews and Research Associate at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). Prior to joining St Andrews he was associate professor in European Studies at King’s College London and senior fellow at the St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Read On

Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI)

La Matanza del 11M - El País

11-M, Masacre en Madrid - El Mundo

Sebastián Balfour, The Politics of Contemporary Spain (Routledge, 2005)

Global Democratic Database

Sebastián Balfour & Alejandro Quiroga, The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Paddy Woodworth, Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2003)

More On

Diego Muro is assistant professor in comparative politics at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI). Before then he was associate professor in European Studies at King’s College London and senior fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford


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