Spain: trials and tribulations

Ivan Briscoe
12 March 2007

If terrorism is ever to swap genre from war movie to courtroom intrigue, then Hollywood's best could do little better than pay a visit to Spain. Three weeks into a mega-trial of 29 suspects linked to the 11 March (11-M) bombings - whose third anniversary was marked on Sunday - 500 buses travelled the country's roads this weekend on a rather different mission, mounting a vast protest against the parole handed to a hunger-striking ETA assassin.

Never has the country been so wall-papered with news derived from the legal proceedings of terror cases. Spain's commitment to due process is double-edged. Recent revelations have reaffirmed the necessity of grounding counter-terrorism in slow police work, culminating in a trial. At the same time, however, that very process has led to public acrimony and political controversy that inhibits clear action.

Uncovering the truth

Take the March 11 trial first. There is no doubt that the ringleaders of the attacks, which left 191 dead in 2004, killed themselves in the Madrid suburb of Leganes while surrounded by police just weeks after the attacks. Yet, the remaining accomplices and associates that were picked up allow an extraordinary demystification of the contemporary terrorist nemesis.

These are not bearded nihilists, but spivs, ex-strippers, drug-pushers and police informers from a Chandleresque underworld. A key meeting in the deal to bring dynamite from a mine in Asturias in return for hashish from Madrid was held in a McDonald's. The man who headed the dynamite sale, José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, also traded in used cars and cocaine. His best friend, a witness said, was a local anti-narcotics police inspector.

Adepts of the right-wing conspiracy theory, which maintains that Basque terrorists in fact played a major part in the bombing - along with the now ruling Socialist party (PSOE) - have been left to appear more risible than ever. Mumbled testimonies, vast panels of lawyers and an intemperate judge may not be highly seductive television fare, but it does create a convincingly finished version of truth. The suspects have neither heard of ETA, nor met anyone from it if they have. They do, however, know a lot about handling explosives and dealing with people "brain-washed" by Islamic fundamentalism.

Devil in the details

For counter-terrorist strategists and future historians, two lessons stand out so far. One is the way in which hard-headed ideologues such as Serhane Ben Abdelmajid - aka "The Tunisian", who died in Leganes and is credited with leading the attacks - were able to recruit, convince the faint-hearted, and utilize the various criminal networks in which his various followers subsisted. Secondly, the emerging evidence points indubitably to the radicalizing role exerted by time in prison.

One of the terrorists, Jamal Ahmidan - aka "The Chinaman" - was a well-known figure around Madrid for years before the bombing, dealing in hashish or whatever substances came to hand. But a Spanish wife (with a heroin addiction), a Spanish son, and a multi-ethnic ring of acquaintances in Madrid gave way during various stays in jail - the last of which occurred in Morocco at the time of the invasion of Iraq - into a loathing for western values. A similar tale, albeit without the drugs, could be told of Allekema Lamari, who graduated from humble farm work in Navarre to prison on the apparently mistaken charge of being an Algerian terrorist, only to emerge from jail determined to become one.

Meanwhile, the proximity of the police to many of the suspects and the dead ring-leaders has underlined the complacency of the Spanish authorities - despite a spate of al-Qaida arrests in Spain months after the 11 September attacks. Two hundred Islamists were reportedly being monitored at the time of the train bombings, but only 70 police and intelligence officers were available for the work. As a result, the shift system determined that each suspect only received two to three months of investigation per year.

ETA and the right

Many more agents were, of course, devoted to what was seen as the more compelling threat of the time: ETA. While the mega-trial has buried speculation about an ETA role in the bombings, it has in no way alleviated the doubts surrounding Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodri­guez Zapatero's handling of a Basque peace process that appeared to have withered on the stem after the killing of two people in the Barajas airport bombing of 30 December.

Yet, the parole (or rather, "house arrest") accorded on 1 March to Inaki de Juana Chaos, involved in the murder of 25 people in terrorist attacks in 1987, has plunged Zapatero into one of his most gruelling periods in office, and probably consigned his PSOE to a plunge in the opinion polls. De Juana Chaos, an unrepentant Basque secessionist, was being force-fed after over 100 days of hunger strike, only for him to rip the tubes from his stomach. A bewildering battery of court rulings, political decisions and confidential meetings suddenly saw him taken back to a Basque hospital, where he started to eat again.

A martyr for the radical Basque cause would certainly have done no good for what is left of the peace process. Yet, the Spanish public, overwhelmingly opposed to the release, has been left to wonder how the obstinacy of a convicted murderer should take precedence over justice for his victims – especially so soon after the truce-breaking Barajas bombing. The official answer, offered by the government and sympathetic media outlets, involves a series of changing penal codes, poorly improvised legal judgements and certain humanitarian considerations of state. Significantly, De Juana Chaos' initial jail sentence ended two years ago, and he only remained in prison thanks to an ad hoc and harsh sentence for making veiled threats in two newspaper articles.

Even so, the overriding impression is that the law courts - whose judges are grouped into conservative and progressive associations, not unlike the country's two main parties - and above all Zapatero's desire to kick-start the dormant peace process, worked in combination to rush through De Juana Chaos' expedient and highly politicized release. Invited to express their wrath by the conservative Popular Party, over 300,000 people flocked to the rally in Madrid on Saturday. Having long been lost in the absurdities of a supposed 11-M conspiracy, the country's right-wing suddenly seems to have found an issue that gives it power and appeal on the Spanish street. The next day, at the opening of a monument to victims of the train bombings, right and left barracked each other somewhat disgracefully over counterterrorist policy.

As the Basque moderate nationalist leader Josu Jon Imaz argues, ETA has never been organizationally weaker, yet never has it had greater power to divide parties and opinions in Spain's national political life. The origins of this antagonism must be traced to the bitter aftermath of the 11-M attacks and a conservative party bent on returning to government at any cost.

This friction has been aggravated by the grey area between politics and law, where legal principles appear to be swallowed at the very same time that they are articulated, where secret manoeuvring in government becomes the basis of court rulings. Public frustration grows, even as the judicial system simultaneously shows what it can achieve by aiming for truth before action.

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