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Madrid Attacks May Have Targeted Election

Wiretaps Bolster Theory That Blasts Were Timed to Hurt Chances of Leader Who Backed Iraq War

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page A16

MADRID -- Seven months after bombs exploded aboard morning commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people, the precise motives of the attackers remain unclear. But new evidence, including wiretap transcripts, has lent support to a theory that the strike was carefully timed to take place three days before a national election in hopes of influencing Spanish voters to reject a government that sent troops to Iraq.

Some analysts argue that the placement of important clues -- particularly a videotaped claim of responsibility by a masked Islamic militant discovered two days after the March 11 attacks -- was aimed at quickly establishing that the attacks were a reaction to the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq and generating a backlash against the ruling Popular Party.

A closed-circuit television image shows people fleeing moments after a bomb exploded at a Madrid train station in March. (Handout)

The party had a comfortable advantage in opinion polls but lost the election on March 14. The new Socialist party government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero quickly kept a campaign pledge to withdraw Spain's 1,300-troop contingent from Iraq. It also set about improving relations with neighboring Morocco, after two years of tension under the government of the previous prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Newly disclosed wiretaps of an alleged organizer of the bombings expressing glee that "the dog Aznar" had been put out of office have prompted some analysts here to conclude that the perpetrators sought to try to bring about specific reactions through the attacks.

The general consensus among U.S. counterterrorism officials is that the Madrid attacks were timed to influence the Spanish elections, according to several intelligence officials. At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledge that the evidence is circumstantial at best.

"It's really an analysis more than a proven fact," said one law enforcement official, who declined to be identified because the information is classified. "We certainly don't have any statement that that's why they did it or anything. But it's the timing of it, the outcome and the continued threats to countries involved in Iraq that leads to that being the leading hypothesis."

Some U.S. and Spanish officials have pointed to the Madrid bombings in arguing that an attack may be planned in the United States in an effort to sway American voters on Nov. 2. "It's a lesson for everybody because an attack like this changed the government," said Casimiro Garcia-Abadillo, a deputy editor of El Mundo newspaper and author of a new book, "11-M, La Venganza" ("March 11, The Revenge"). "It was a coup d'etat undercover."

The FBI is leading a massive campaign of interviews, arrests and other measures aimed at disrupting any potential terrorist plots before the Nov. 2 U.S. elections.

In July, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said that "based on the attack in Madrid" and the interdiction of other intelligence "we know that they have the capability to succeed, and they hold the mistaken belief that their attacks will have an impact on America's resolve."

Experts also said they believed it was irrelevant whether the Madrid attacks were intended to sway the elections; they did, and that has apparently been noted by Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader. In an audiotape released on April 15, a voice believed to be that of bin Laden praised the Madrid bombings and proposed a "reconciliation" with any country "that commits itself to not attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs, including the U.S. conspiracy on the greater Muslim world." Otherwise, he warned, "the situation will expand and increase."

Immediately after the Madrid attacks, a claim of responsibility by an al Qaeda-linked group was e-mailed to the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. On the evening of March 11, a stolen van was discovered abandoned east of the Spanish capital in which police found a cassette tape of Koranic verses and blasting caps.

Two days after the blast, police were led to a garbage can outside a mosque that contained a videotape showing a masked man, now believed to be Rachid Oulad Akcha, a Moroccan immigrant, calling the attacks "a response to your collaboration with the criminal Bush and his allies."

People familiar with this fast-moving sequence of events say it suggests the attackers wanted to make certain that Spanish voters knew that Islamic radicals -- and not the Basque separatist group ETA -- were responsible when they went to the polls so they would punish the ruling party. The dispatch of troops to Iraq by Aznar was intensely unpopular in Spain, and any link between the attack and the Iraq mission was likely to rebound at the polls, many analysts said in the days after the bombings.

One purported planner of the plot, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as "Mohamed the Egyptian," was arrested in Milan and remains in Italian custody, facing terrorism charges and possible extradition to Spain. Twenty other suspects are in custody.

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