Terrorism and its consequences: a tale of three cities

Fred Halliday
16 March 2005

To fly from Belfast to Madrid is to move between worlds. On a pale March morning, the grey roofs of Northern Ireland’s capital, and the wounded, still often barricaded and slogan-covered walls of its centre strike a dull note; what a contrast, half a day later, with the red tiles of Castille and the sunny expanses of the domain of Don Quixote. Few these days might note that the two locations have a special affinity: of all western European cities, in the entirety of the post-1945 era, it is Belfast and Madrid which have borne the greatest toll of terrorist attack.

As sites of violence, they are not alone. Munich had its 1972 Olympic massacre of Israeli sportsmen, London was the target of more than a few IRA explosions (some with devastating economic consequences), the Paris metro was bombed by Islamists in the 1980s, Bologna saw its railway station attacked by rightwing extremists in 1980. But the terrorist experience of Belfast and Madrid is exceptional in its durability and scale.

In the context of the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security from 8-11 March 2005, openDemocracy writers continue to debate the roots of terror and the justice and effectiveness of democratic responses.

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From 1969 Belfast was for three decades and more the site of sectarian violence, bombings and assassinations that claimed almost half of the 3,400 lives lost during the period. They include events like “Bloody Friday” in 1972 and the bombing of a fish-and-chip shop in 1993, just two incidents (killing nineteen civilians) in a desolating catalogue of “lost lives”. Nor are the “troubles” definitively over; a climate of fear and intimidation still reigns in parts of the city, as indicated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA)-linked Northern Bank robbery in December 2004 and the gruesome pub killing of Robert McCartney in January 2005.

Madrid was a persistent target of the Basque separatist group Euzkadi ta Askatasuna (Eta) in its own long campaign from 1968, in which assassinations like that of the Spanish prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973 mixed with targeting of civilians and security forces during the 1980s. Most recently, the 11 March 2004 attacks – which claimed 191 lives and wounded over 2,000 people, and in more subtle, insidious ways, shattered the lives of thousands more – represented the terrible irruption of Islamist terrorism (and, in a twisted echo of Eta, irredentism) onto Spanish soil.

In the anniversary week, Madrid was the scene of an international summit on democracy, terrorism and security, organised by the Club de Madrid and attended by dozens of politicians, civil society groups and activists, scholars and writers from around the world. Its core purpose was to contribute to evolving a response to terrorism that links the issue of security to the preservation and promotion of democracy.

The need for such a link is rooted in the historical and political cycle that began on the “two hours that shook the world” of 9/11 and continued with the planting of bombs on commuter trains in Madrid on “11-M”. In this sense, the high-level gathering in Madrid represents one of the most searching explorations of the ideas underlying policy on terrorism to have been undertaken in this new era.

At the summit’s climax, King Juan Carlos of Spain and United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan were joined by Nato and European Union leaders, and over forty heads of state or government, in presenting the Madrid Agenda: “a global democratic response to the global threat of terrorism”.

From these days and nights of intense discussion, plenary sessions, working groups, and informal exchanges, three lessons and four questions emerge.

Three lessons

The first lesson is that any response to terrorism must be international, based on the United Nations and international law, and guided by discussion and cooperation between states. Kofi Annan appealed in Madrid for a stronger UN regime on terrorism, building on the twelve anti-terrorist conventions already in place. The contrast with the American approach – nationalist in tone, unilateralist in practice and contemptuous of the UN and international law (not least the Geneva Conventions of 1949) – could not be clearer.

Second, the theme of democracy is one that goes to the heart of the terrorist issue: democracy alone will not abolish terrorism, as the cases of the IRA and Eta make all too clear, but it does provide a context in which the phenomenon can be contained and in which eventually (perhaps after a very long, gruelling period) negotiation can take place. But more important is the message, which Spain along with several Latin American countries exemplifies, that it is possible to make a transition to democracy, and to reduce the role of the armed forces and the intelligence services in society, even while a terrorist campaign continues. This is what, with some aberrations such as the secret paramilitary force known as Grupo Antiterrorista de Liberacion (Gal), the socialist government of Spain did in the 1980s.

Third, a gathering like that of Madrid highlights the need for discussion, questioning, and even some doubt about how best to address the current Islamist challenge. There are two important lessons to be learned in this respect from earlier experiences of terrorism, as in Ireland and the Basque country: that these Islamist groups are in essence political groups, with political aims and calculations; and that the struggle to isolate and wear them down will be long and costly. Al-Qaida, or some variant or offshoot thereof, will probably be with us for decades to come.

Beyond these lessons are new and complex issues involving the “greater west Asian crisis”, the integration of Muslim immigrants in western society, and the appropriate combination of military and legal measures needed to counter the terrorist threat within a constitutional framework. No one has all the answers to such questions, but the very openness of the Madrid event was another stark contrast to the thumping certainties and simplifications of current Washington orthodoxy.

Four questions

Madrid’s exhaustive exploration of how anti-terrorist and human rights agendas might be brought into a common frame still leaves four large questions unresolved.

First, there is as yet no effective, coordinated international response to terrorism. The Anglo-American axis treats the conference with contempt: the United States representative is, of all people, its new attorney-general, Alberto Gonzalez, the man who (as White House counsel) recommended the abandonment of legal guidelines preventing torture of prisoners of the US after 9/11; the British send no one at all. The Europeans make a show of unity but it is known that the EU anti-terrorism office set up after the Madrid attacks hardly functions at all, that states do not collaborate, and keep their specialist information to themselves.

Second, the dominant trend in dealing with terrorism is not the liberal multilateralism of Madrid but US unilateralism. This approach fails on two counts: it ignores the political and cultural dimensions of relations with the Muslim world, and it misleadingly confuses quite separate issues – the overthrow of the Iraqi dictatorship and Iran’s regional policies – with the matter of terrorism.

Third, for all Madrid’s discussion of terrorism’s causes, it seems impossible for the global public realm to register a central, inescapable fact: that al-Qaida is a product not of timeless Muslim or Arab mentalities but of the cold war; that is, of sustained US, Saudi and Pakistani backing for Sunni mass murderers in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Unless and until this central historical fact is recognised, there will be no understanding of the nature of the challenge al-Qaida and its cohorts now pose.

Fred Halliday’s incisive analyses of world politics, terrorism, and the middle east appear regularly in openDemocracy:

“Looking back on Saddam Hussein” (January 2004)

“Terrorism in historical perspective” (April 2004)

“America and Arabia after Saddam” (May 2004)

“The crisis of universalism: America and radical Islam after 9/11” (September 2004)

“Bush’s triumph: three ends and a beginning” (November 2004)

“Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe” (December 2004)

“Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects” (January 2005)

“Mr Howard’s Australia” (March 2005)

Fourth, the political divisions created by 9/11 and 11-M are still unresolved. The former split much of Europe from the US and (even if Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious dichotomy between “old” and “new” was highly simplistic) smashed the unity of the EU itself; the latter left Spain’s polity bitterly polarised, ending the virtually bipartisan policy on issues of violence and state legitimacy that had lasted since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

What’s in a face

The conference ends on the evening of 10 March. The king and the United Nations secretary-general have spoken. The heads of state and government have repeated themselves. Bromides are duly recorded. The next day dawns cold. We head to the Atocha railway station where, at 7.37 am – the time of the first of the four train explosions – a dozen live TV broadcasts are positioned above the tracks. The 600-plus church bells of Madrid toll. Later, Spain’s people observe a five-minute silence. At a ceremony in the Retiro park in central Madrid, at which no speeches are made, the king plants the first of what will be 192 trees (including one to commemorate a bomb disposal expert killed during the search for suspects) in a “forest of the absent”.

In Atocha itself, the red cercanías (commuter trains) – immortalised in the photographs of mangled metal of a year ago – come and go, disgorging passengers on what remains for them a normal working day. In Spain those who catch the train to central stations at this time of the morning are not the middle-class commuters of London or New York, but the dishevelled, the cold, the immigrants – those, as Spaniards say, no tienen coche, without a car to drive to work.

The faces in the waiting room say it all: they are in social terms replicas of the faces of the dead. The fact that those who died on 11 March 2004 were Madrid’s ordinary workers, including immigrants from sixteen countries, symbolises the long retreat from any universalist or emancipatory concept of international political action. Here, brutally and from below, is the reverse of the nationalism, the particularism, the global narcissism that Washington so arrogantly proclaims from above.

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