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Madrid train bombings

The Madrid train bombings (also known in Spain as 11-M) took place on March 11, 2004 when ten bombs exploded on four trains in three stations during the morning rush hour. Each of the trains was laden with commuters. Some 191 people were killed and a further 1,800 wounded. Alan Cain, head of security at the University of Leeds, who as featured in the September 2013 print issue of Professional Security is taking a St Andrew’s University advanced certificate in terrorism studies.

The Spanish government initially accused the Basque separatist group ‘Euskadi ta Askatasuna’ (ETA) of the attacks, which occurred three days before Spain’s general election. However the official investigation by the Spanish Judiciary later determined that the Madrid train bombings were directed by an Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist cell.

The attacks may be considered ‘a major terrorist event’ in terms of both the number of casualties inflicted and their effect. By April 28, 2004 the countries newly elected Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government had pulled all of Spain’s 1,300 combat soldiers out of Iraq.

Event map

Three of the trains set off from Alcala de Henares, about 12km to the east of Madrid. The fourth originated from Guadalajara, but passed through the station en route for the city. As each train passed through the station the bombers loaded rucksacks (each containing about 10 kg of explosives) onboard. These bombs would later be detonated by cell phones.

At 7:37am local time the first three bombs exploded inside the third, fourth, and sixth cars of a train inside Atocha Station, killing at least 34 people and wounding many more.

At 7:39am local time, four more bombs exploded in the first, fourth and sixth carriages of another train about 500m away from the Atocha train station. At least 59 people were killed and many more were injured. This train was running two minutes late and it seems likely that the bombers intended for both this and the previous bombs to detonate simultaneously inside the station.

Police carried out two controlled explosions of bombs found in backpacks at the Atocha train station and a further controlled explosion of a bomb found in a backpack at El Pozo train station. Emergency services set up a temporary hospital at a sports centre on Tellez street close to Atocha station to deal with hundreds of injured people.

At 7:41am local time, two more bombs exploded in the fourth and fifth carriages of a train at El Pozo station in Madrid, Spain. This attack was the deadliest of the four train attacks, killing at least 70 people and wounding many more.

Finally at 7:42am local time, a bomb exploded on the fourth carriage of a train passing through the Santa Eugenia station in Madrid, Spain. At least 17 people were killed and many more were injured. By 9:27am all incoming trains were stopped due to fears of further explosions.

Security forces subsequently carried out a controlled explosion of a suspicious package found near the Atocha station and also deactivated two undetonated devices on the Téllez train. A third unexploded device was later brought from the station at El Pozo to a police station in Vallecas, apparently having failed to detonate because a cell-phone alarm used to trigger the bomb was set 12 hours late.

Police later discovered a stolen van containing seven detonators and an Arabic language tape near the Atocha station.

In total there were 191 victims from 17 countries: 142 Spanish, 16 Romanians, 6 Ecuadorians, 4 Poles, 4 Bulgarians, 3 Peruvians, 2 Dominicans, 2 Colombians, 2 Moroccans, 2 Ukrainians, 2 Hondurans, 1 Senegalese, 1 Cuban, 1 Chilean, 1 Brazilian, 1 French, and 1 Filipino.

On the day of the 11-M attacks the London-based newspaper ‘Al-Quds al-Arabi’ received an email claiming responsibility for the attack by the ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’. A statement from ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ was faxed to the Reuters press agency. Two days later a videotape found at a mosque in Madrid also claimed that the ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ were responsible.

Despite this at several press conferences the government of José María Aznar attributed the attacks to ‘Euskadi ta Askatasuna’ (ETA), or Basque Fatherland and Freedom, a nationalist organization dedicated to a separate nation-state for the Basque people. The Spanish government maintained this theory for two days. On March 13, 2004 three Moroccans and two Pakistani Muslims were arrested for the attacks, and it was confirmed that the attacks came from an Islamic group.

On April 3, 2004 Spanish Police prepared to storm an apartment in the town of Leganes near Madrid. Four terrorists committed suicide by detonating explosives and blowing themselves up as the police approached the apartment. Amongst the terrorist dead was Jamal Ahmidan, a Moroccan believed to have been the central figure in the financing, planning and execution of the attacks.

The blast also killed one Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO) police officer and wounded eleven other policemen. On April 11, 2006, Judge Juan del Olmo charged 28 suspects for their involvement in the 11-M train bombings. The trial of 28 accused began on February 15, 2007.

On May 10, 2006 thirteen of the suspects began a hunger strike in protest at what they consider to be unfounded accusations against them. In court they held up notes stating “As of today, we’re on hunger strike because we’ve been charged on the basis of pure guesswork.” The men were expelled from court proceedings and the trial was continued in their absence until the strikers ended their fast on May 21, 2006.

Finally on October 31, 2007, the Audiencia Nacional of Spain delivered its verdicts. Of the 28 defendants in the trial, 21 were found guilty on a charges ranging from forgery to murder.


No definitive evidence has been found of Al-Qaeda involvement, although an Al-Qaeda claim was made on the day of the attacks by the ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’. This group is named after Mohammed Atef, aka Abu Hafs, a former Egyptian policeman and member of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ‘Al-Jihad al-Islami’ (Islamic Jihad) who was killed by US airstrikes in Afghanistan in late 2001.

According to START (Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism),

“The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades is most likely either a subset of Al-Qaeda or a copy-cat group that has joined its jihad against the west. Its size and membership are unclear, as is its access to the Al-Qaeda leadership, resources, and network.”

Through the ‘Al Quds al Arabi’ newspaper in London the group has claimed responsibility for several large terrorist strikes, including the massive blackouts that occurred in North America in the summer of 2003, the Madrid train bombings of March 2004 and the London underground and bus bombings of July 2005.

The fact that the North American blackouts of 2003 have since been shown to be caused by a large-scale technical failure rather than terrorist actions has led some to question the group’s credibility with regards its other claims.
Later evidence suggested the involvement of the Groupe Islamique Combattant Morrocain (GICM), or Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. According to The Independent –

“Those who invented the new kind of rucksack bomb used in the attacks are said to have been taught in training camps in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, under instruction from members of Morocco’s radical Islamist Combat Group.”

According to START (Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism),
“The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, or GICM, is dedicated to the creation of an Islamist state in Morocco. It has issued communiqués criticizing the current Moroccan government. In addition, the group actively supports al-Qaeda’s terrorist objectives against U.S. and Western European countries.”

However in the the official investigation Judge Juan del Olmo found that it was “local cells of Islamic extremists inspired through the Internet” that were guilty of the 11-M attacks.

Of the 28 suspects who were charged with the 11-M bombings 27 were men and one a woman. In terms of ethnicity 19 were Moroccan Arabs and nine were Spaniards. According to the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, this is the only Islamist terrorist act in the history of Europe where international Islamists have collaborated with non-Muslims.

Of the 28 suspects, 21 were convicted and seven acquitted. Three men were convicted of murder: Emilio Suarez Trashorras, a Spaniard accused of supplying the dynamite; Jamal Zougam, a Moroccan; and Abdelmajid Bouchar, also a Moroccan. The three were sentenced to up to 43,000 years in jail each (the jail terms are largely symbolic as under Spanish law the maximum term that can be served is 40 years).

Eighteen others were sentenced on lesser charges. Hamid Ahmidan (23 to 25 years), Rachid Aglif (15 to 18 years), Youssef Belhadj (12 years), Hassan el-Haski (12 years), Mohamed Bouharrat (12 years), Fouad el-Morabit (12 years), Mouhannad Almallah Dabas (12 years), Saed el-Harrak (12 years), Mohamed Larbi Ben Sellam (12 years), Basel Ghalyoun (12 years), Rafa Zouhier (10 years), Abdelilah el-Fadual el-Akil (9 years), Rául González Peláez (5 years), Sergio Alvarez Sánchez (3 years), Antonio Iván Reis Palacio (3 years), Nasreddine Bousbaa (3 years) and Mahmoud Slimane Aoun (3 years).

Targeting and tactics rationale

In the statement faxed to the Reuters press agency the ‘Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades’ took responsibility for the bombings, giving the reason for the attack as the alliance between Spain and the UK with the United States over Iraq,

“We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance.”

The origins of this alliance date back to concern that Iraq was concealing aspects of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program from the United Nations inspection teams and the subsequent passing of Security Council Resolution 1441 on November 9, 2002. Whilst an emergent Franco-German alliance argued against the war, both UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar sided firmly with the US.

Some 1,300 troops Spanish troops were eventually deployed to Iraq, mostly assigned to policing duties in Najaf. Spain commanded, through the Plus Ultra Brigade, the troops of Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and of Nicaragua. However the majority of the Spanish population were against the war, leading to the largest street demonstrations ever seen in the country. On February 15th 2003 approximately one million people marched against the war in the city of Barcelona. On March 15th 2003 further demonstrations saw more than 300,000 people in Barcelona and 120,000 in Madrid form human chains.

After the 11-M attacks the protests increased in tempo, with a week of protests and demonstrations across Spain. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “For all the victims, get the occupation troops out”. On March 20, 2004, a date which marked a year since the US-led invasion of Iraq, the largest of all the demonstrations Spain was the one in Madrid.

In the 2007 Congressional Research Report for Congress entitled “Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology” Christopher M. Blanchard states that,

“Through his public statements over the last ten years, Bin Laden has portrayed himself both as a leader of a consistent ideological movement and a strategic commander willing to tailor his violent messages and acts to respond to specific political circumstances and to influence specific audiences and events.”

The violent message of 11-M clearly responded to the specific circumstances of both the alliance between Spain and the UK with the United States over Iraq and the timings of the national elections in Spain. And as will be seen in the section on ‘Impact Assessment’ it clearly succeeded in influencing specific audiences and events.

Impact assessment

According to the Associated Press, it cost the perpetrators approximately $120,000 to carry out the 11-M attacks, with the expenditure covering everything from the cost of buying explosives to the cost of renting safe-houses.

Despite this modest outlay the total number of victims was higher than in any other terrorist attack in Spain, far surpassing the 21 killed and 40 wounded in the 1987 bombing at a Hipercor chain supermarket in Barcelona, carried out by ‘Euskadi ta Askatasuna’ (ETA). In fact the 11-M bombing was the worst incident of this kind in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

Many Spaniards blamed Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s staunch support of the US-led war in Iraq for making Spain an Al-Qaeda target. Others were angered by what they saw as the government’s politically motivated insistence that ETA was to blame for the attacks at the same time that links to Al-Qaeda were emerging.

Legislative elections were held in Spain three days after the 11-M bombings, on March 14, 2004. At stake were all 350 seats in the lower house of the Cortes Generales (Congress of Deputies), and 208 seats in the upper house, the Senate. The governing People’s Party (PP) was led into the campaign by Mariano Rajoy, successor to outgoing Prime Minister José María Aznar.
In a result which defied most predictions, the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, won a plurality of seats in Congress of Deputies, and was able to form a government with the support of minor parties. The People’s Party (PP) support for the war in Iraq, and its handling of the Madrid bombings, undoubtably combined to cause its election downfall.

Immediately after his election, Mr Zapatero vowed to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless they came under UN command by June 30, 2004 when their mandate expired. On April 19, 2004 Zapatero announced the withdrawal of all 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq. The withdrawal began on April 20th 2004 and was completed within just six weeks.


On July 7, 2005 four bombs exploded in London, three on London Underground trains and one on board a double-decker bus. The explosions killed 52 people and resulted in over 700 injuries.

In his book ‘Understanding Terrorism’ the author Gus Martin (2011) states that,
“Politically and in terms of policy, the London case is a counterpoint to the March 2004 attacks in Madrid. Unlike the case of the Madrid attacks, which led to significant political turmoil, Britons rallied around the slogan of “we are not afraid” and supported the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair’s popularity rose, and the three main British political parties (the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic Parties) agreed to collaborate on passing stricter anti-terrorism laws.”

No matter how good the terrorist rationale behind an attack, in the words of Edward R Murrow “No one can terrorise a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.”


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