MARCH 11: Remembering Spain’s worst terrorist atrocity

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BLASTED: The wreckage of one of the trains. Credit: Ramón Peco /Wikipedia


TODAY Spain remembers the worst terrorist atrocity to hit the country. On March 11, 2004, at 7.39 am three bombs ripped through a train arriving at Madrid’s Atocha station. Seven more blasts soon followed on other trains.

Once the flames and dust had settled and smoke cleared, a scene of carnage was revealed.  The grim toll was to reach 192 dead and more than 1,800 injured. The last victim to pass away was in 2014, after remaining in a coma for 10 years.

Thirty four people perished in the train that exploded in the Atocha station; 63 in the one that exploded in front of Calle Tellez; 65 on a train at El Pozo station; 14 in the one at Santa Eugenia station and 16 in different hospitals.

There is no doubt that the emergency services and the people of Spain rallied together – initially to offer immediate help and later to show solidarity for the victims in marches attended by thousands.

Images that are remembered the best, apart from the scorched and twisted wreckage of the trains, are of ordinary people ‘doing their bit’.

Neighbours still dressed in their pajamas helping and comforting the wounded and shocked victims. Buses converted into makeshift ambulances. Hundreds of people abandoned their work and studies to queue and donate blood.

Then there were the demonstrations to show solidarity for the victims. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the events.

The attack by Al Qaeda terrorists also had far-reaching consequences on the political landscape in Spain. Just three days after the attack The PP (conservative) government of José María Aznar was to unexpectedly fall in a general election. At the time many foreigners harshly criticised Spain for ‘giving in’ to terrorists and letting them affect the nation’s democracy.

The truth of the matter was that it was the government’s own actions that led to the country turning against them.

Within hours of the attack, and with no evidence, Aznar’s government was laying the blame at the door of Basque separatists ETA. This was viewed by many as either a cynical election ploy by the traditionally hard-line anti-ETA party, or an effort to avoid any imagined responsibility for the attacks having supported the US led war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Spanish people took a dim view of what they saw as playing party politics over the deaths of 192 people.

They reacted by voting in the socialist PSOE led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who held power until 2011.

According to an investigation, the attack was carried out by the Al Qaeda affiliated Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM), which killed 45 people in Casablanca in May 2003, and the bombs were prepared on a farm in Chinchón (Madrid).

On April 3 the police found seven of the terrorists in a flat in the Madrid town of Leganés. Surrounded by anti-terror police, the cell committed suicide with a strong explosion that also killed Deputy Inspector Francisco Javier Torronteras, bringing the number of victims to 193.

It was not until 15 February 2007 that a trial began in Madrid. The court concluded that 22 men participated in the attacks: the seven who committed suicide in a flat in Leganés and 14 other defendants  and one unidentified person.

The court decided that the Leganés’ seven,  along with Jamal Zougam, arrested two days later, and Otman Gnaoui, arrested on March 30, placed 13 backpacks loaded with explosives (three did not detonate).

Zougam and El Gnaoui were sentenced to 42,922 and 42,924 years in prison respectively (under Spanish law they will serve a maximum of 40 years.) The rest of those found guilty were jailed for up to 15 years.

Of the victims, 89 still suffer from injuries that have left them totally disabled or with a degree of physical incapacity that makes them unable to work.

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