Justice in Madrid: the “11-M” verdict

Fred Halliday
5 November 2007

A dark, rainy, early autumnal, 6am outside my hotel on the pavement of Calle Goya is perhaps not the most obvious place or time to begin an encounter with what is to be, in the history of Spain - and indeed of Europe as a whole - a historic day. This morning, the court set up on an exhibition site on the southwest side of the city, on the old road to Estremadura and Portugal, will aim to draw some line under the largest massacre (after Lockerbie in 1989) by a non-state group in the continent's history: the Atocha train bombings in Madrid on 11 March 2004, which killed 191 people and wounded over 1,000.

This is 30 October 2007: the day when, after three and a half months of hearings from over 300 witnesses and four months of deliberations, the court is to pronounce sentence on the twenty-eight accused in the "11-M" trial. As we drive through the still empty streets, the morning radio carries interviews with correspondents speculating on the outcome, predictable claims by representatives of the main political groups that the outcome will vindicate them, and a statement by the representative of one of the victims' groups: she wants to know who and how this attack took place, but above all why. A general anxiety is reflected in a report about the unlicensed and thus "clandestine" mosques operating in Spain (reportedly around 400 out of a total of 700). A temporary courthouse has been created in a low-lying building opposite the main Casa de Campo exhibition hall. By 8am, the victims' relatives and survivors have started assembling on the corner, visibly apprehensive and restless; those who by now know each other well exchange embraces. They are joined across the street by camera crews, which by midday number around thirty. Armed police are much in evidence; and a helicopter, glistening in the sun as we remain in morning shade, flies overhead.

More than just the fate of the twenty-eight accused (twenty-seven in court and one on a video link from Italy) hangs on the conduct of the court today. The Madrid bombings prompted a major political crisis in Spain, in an acrid debate which continues to this day. The then-ruling Partido Popular (Popular Party) accused the opposition, socialist PSOE of manipulating the event in an effort to to win the general election due three days later, on 14 March 2007; the PSOE itself, which indeed was elected to office, blamed the massacre on the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq; the relatives of those killed and wounded, and the many traumatised survivors are grouped in two politically rivalrous victims' associations, each of which are represented in court and in the post-verdicts public debate.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.The recent articles include:

"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world" (8 January 2007)

"Sunni, Shi'a and the "Trotskyists of Islam" (9 February 2007)

"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (25 March 2007)

"The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts" (4 May 2007)

"Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

"Cyprus's risky stalemate" (26 August 2007)

"Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam" (1 October 2007)

For the Spanish government this is an occasion to show the strength of its judicial system and of the rule of law, in a country whose democratic order has long been subjected to terrorist assault from the Basque group, Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA). The judges know too that they are addressing a wider range of publics even than the accused, the victims, the press, and the Spanish and European publics. The Muslim world too is part of their audience: most of the accused are Moroccans, from a community that originates in a country only twenty kilometres across the Straits of Gibraltar and forms the largest immigrant group in Spain. It is hardly by chance that on this very day it is announced that King Juan Carlos very soon will pay an official visit to the two Spanish enclaves that remain in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla - his first trip there in his thirty-three-year reign.

The end of the line

My job is to provide intermittent commentary to CNN on the day's proceedings - as what is called a "presenter's friend". The first interview comes at 8 am as the earpiece crackles with the news headlines of the day - from the Cuban hurricane to the tense border dispute between Georgia and Abkhazia. At this hour, I am under the control of an anchor in London; later in the day it shifts to Hong Kong, before ending under instruction from the CNN centre in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout I remain positioned on the piece of black tape our cameraman has laid down for me on the pavement opposite the courthouse.

On the other side of the flimsy tent-wall, I can hear the ex-BBC man who now works for Al-Jazeera's international service, choosing his words about Islamist groups with what feels like especial care. Faces familiar from the main Spanish TV news programmes rush back and forth. Between commentaries, the occasional Spanish crew approaches to interview me about the international attention (particularly from the United States) being paid to this event. None of the four major US channels (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox News) have bothered to show up, though it would be unseemly to point this out.

The first interviews cover the main issues of the day: how and why the March 2004 bombings became such a source of controversy in Spain, what Europe and the US are looking for in the verdicts, how the Muslim world may react. Several events of the past few years, I point out, have brought to an abrupt end the comparative insulation of Spain from broader international conflicts: among them the death of Spanish intelligence personnel in Iraq and the bombing of the Spanish cultural centre in Casablanca (2003), the 11-M massacre; the death of soldiers in Afghanistan; the killing of Spanish peacekeepers deployed after the war in southern Lebanon (2006), the murder of Spanish tourists in Yemen (2007).

The effect has been felt on the public and media culture. Alarmist authors publish books on Jihad in Spain and play up the wilder rhetoric of al-Qaida about reconquering "Andalus" - medieval Muslim Spain - for Islam. The Catholic bishops' often rabid Radio Cope feeds its listeners with a seamless web of anti-socialist, anti-secular and anti-Islamist patter. I try gently to correct the occasional insinuation that Spaniards sense have been singled out for attack, and point out that all major western countries (Britain, France, and Germany as well as the United States) as well as many Muslim countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco) have also been targeted.

After 11 am, expectation rises that the verdicts will come soon. The resident CNN correspondent has been allowed into the courtroom, while the rest of us huddle over a small monitor displaying intermittent feeds of the presiding judge and a broken translation. The judge delivers his summation in the rapid mechanical Spanish heard every day on radio and TV news programmes which - reinforced by the legal and factual complexity of this case - here is almost impossible to understand or digest for the viewer. Rumours about what he actually said sweep through the assembled press corps.

By 1 pm, however, the outcome is clear: of the twenty-eight accused, only three are found guilty of the most serious charges and sentenced to sentencias millenarias (multiple terms in prison), while several others are given lesser sentences for complicity in a crime or membership of a terrorist group. The group has no connection to the Basque ETA, nor any evident linkage to al- Qaida.

The search for closure

In the CNN interviews I am repeatedly asked about the prospects for "closure", on both collective and levels: whether this verdict will end the controversy within Spanish politics about 11 March and bring some solace to the victims' relatives and survivors. In one sense, this is an impossible demand to make of the court: the traumas of bereavement and of physical and psychological damage cannot be eliminated by one court hearing (and some traumas could never find "closure" even in the best of subsequent circumstances). But the immediate response of the victims' groups is not encouraging: they are disappointed by the acquittals, and declare that they may appeal what they consider to be the inadequate sentences. The spokesperson for the main group, Pilár Manjon - now a public figure in Spain - appears later on a TV show clasping and unclasping her hands, and looking visibly distraught.

Political closure is possible if there were general consensus that the verdict was correct in its essentials. The immediate post-11M controversy will hopefully ebb once the next elections (scheduled for March 2008) are held. In any case, the row over the 2004 bombings is only one of several potent sources of of inter-party dispute in contemporary Spain: they include the role of the Catholic church in education, the constitutional status of Catalonia and the Basque country, and the "law of memory" in regard to crimes of the Franco period. For the moment, both prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (PSOE) and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy (PP) welcomed the outcome, the latter with evident unease. But the PP, some of whose leaders long claimed an ETA connection with 11-M, still tries to keep the controversy going by saying that it would welcome "further investigations".

If such partisan and speculative considerations were to prevail, this would only compound the damage and pain caused by 11 March itself. The conduct of this trial, the attitude of the government throughout, and the content and manner of delivery of the verdict, were a tribute to democratic Spain. Everyone was perhaps too muted and restrained to make this point, but the contrast with the United States response to 9/11, and the frenzy of nationalist, extra-judicial and aggressive behaviour it has occasioned, could not be greater. Nor could the outcomes: Spain has detained, tried and convicted dozens of those responsible and who remain alive, as well as others involved in jihadi activity; the US's record in convicting anyone involved in 9/11 or subsequent Islamist activity within the homeland bears no comparison.

There is a pscyhological dimension in the relatives and survivors' search for "closure" that is too rarely recognised. Their disappointment at the acquittals, the sense that something was not completed, misses a very important point: of the dozen or so who committed the crime of 11 March 2004, eight are already dead (seven in a confrontation with police outside Madrid three weeks later and an eighth reportedly after going to fight in Iraq). The seven blew themselves up (along with one policeman) on 3 April 2004, when they were located by police in a first-floor flat in the Madrid suburb of Leganès; one member of the Islamist gang managed to run away, but was later detained.

Both the symbolism of Leganès and the psychological distortions it occasioned need recognition. When I visited the site in June 2004, the mangled four-storey apartment block in this quiet, clean and modern Spanish suburb was surrounded by streets endowed - by some curious quirk of ideological fate endowed - with feminist names: Avenida Petra Kelly, Calle Flora Tristan. Nothing could more poignantly illustrate the clash of values, the contrast of true with false emancipation, that the choice of this suburb (a favourite for young couples to bring up children while commuting to central Madrid) for the bombers' final act. That one of the sites they had apparently planned to bomb was a recreational farm outside Madrid with the improbable name of "Masada" only added a further macabre twist.

The 11-M enigma

More complex, and obscured by the partisan political dispute between the Spanish parties, is the inability of the court to satisfy the need for explanation. The whole question of "why" - the reasons for this group's coalescence and its choice of 11M and the slaughter of civilians - remains unanswered. This is perhaps the greatest failure both of the trial and of the whole public debate in Spain.

The very important question of the date of is no better answered than is the choice of 11 September in New York, of 7 July in London. Was 11 March selected because of its proximity to the Spanish elections, in order to promote a PSOE victory or simply for maximum political impact? The Leganès flat's material evidence suggests that a series of attacks was planned, implying that a particular objective (influencing the election result or securing a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq) was not the central aim.

The issue of explanation is all the more elusive because of the vocabulary, and indeed legal terms of reference, of the Spanish investigation. The final verdict refers to "terrorist cells or groups which, by using all sorts of violence, aim to bring down democratic regimes and eliminate the Christian-western cultural tradition replacing them with an Islamic state under the domination of the sharia or Islamic law in its most radical, extreme and minoritarian interpretation". If this were a serious analysis of the causes, it would have to be deemed a failure: by implying that such groups are only aimed at western, democratic and Christian states the verdict ignores the record of the past two decades, wherein most of the violence of such Islamist groups has been directed at Islamic, or (in the case of India) Hindu-inspired states.

openDemocracy writers debate the Madrid bombs and their aftermath:

Diego Hidalgo, "Why the Spanish government lost" (March 2004)

Diego Muro, "ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end?" (16 March 2004)

Douglas Murray, "Spain's shame" (18 March 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (18 March 2004)

"Terrorism, democracy and Muslims after the Madrid bombs" (March 2004) - a discussion involving Timothy Garton Ash, Maï Ghoussoub, Stephane Gompertz, Diego Hidalgo, Isabel Hilton, Kirsty Hughes, John Lloyd, and Matthias Matussek

Peter R Neumann, "Madrid, London, and beyond: don't reinvent the wheel" (27 July 2005)

Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

Plus, read Luisa Barrenechea's blog reports on the trial for toD hereMoreover, very little is revealed about any of the Madrid cell's links to groups active in north Africa, the most likely source of inspiration and organisation. One of the leading accused (who received a sentence of fifteen years), Hassan al-Haski, was said to be a member of Morocco's Islamic Combatant Group, but even that was left unexplored; and the identity, even existence, of this organisation is debated. Such a failure to examine the causes, even the most immediate political and social, is of course not specific to Spain: the greatest failure of the US response to 9/11 has been its silence on the background of the war in Afghanistan and Washington's role in creating the forces, the Islamist sorcerer's apprentices, who hit Manhattan on that day.

Here, perhaps, the very form of the judicial investigation and trial precluded an answer to these questions. The case was treated as a criminal one, thus framing it in terms of the conventions of crime (perpetrators and "masterminds" - what in Spanish legal terminology are called the "intellectual authors"). The demand of the victims and survivors to know who "conceived of" or "inspired" the cell's actions was in a similar vein. But the by-now-familiar decentralised, often self-starting, nature of Islamist groups across the world means that they cannot be understood in terms of a model of "orthodox" criminal organisation. The inspiration comes from young men watching militant videos, the news, and of being radicalised at certain kinds of mosques. No wonder that the judges did not answer the question: the very concepts of "intellectual authorship" and "mastermind" are inappropriate one. The inspiration comes from contemporary international politics and society. In this sense, the "intellectual author" is world history.

A Spanish moment

The greatest lesson of the 11-M verdicts is, however, of a more positive nature. The care, calm and authority of the Spanish court were, in judicial and human terms, impressive. This will and must serve as an inspiration for future cases and responses. For, much as the deeper causes of 11-M were not examined, it is clear that this is far from being the last trial of Islamist groups in Spain: already two other major judicial processes are in train, one of a group charged with trying to blow up the main courthouse in Madrid, another with recruiting and fundraising via an Islamist website in Burgos.

Other countries in Europe already have, and for sure will have more, such cases. Violence, fear and suspicion are fed by both sides in a spiral that only democratic rule and law can counter. The alternative is the road of Guantánamo, arbitrary arrest and rendition, the legitimation of torture, a chauvinist and aggressive interpretation of international law.

Spain can be truly proud of its stand on these issues and of its exemplary conduct on this historic day, 30 October 2007. It would take a Goya, with his eye for the grotesque sufferings and cruelty of war, to transform the nightmare of 11 March 2004 into art. But were he to be painting today, he would have seen too the redemptive dignity of the aftermath.

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