By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 14, 2004
MADRID, March 14 -- The Spanish government announced Saturday that three Moroccans and two Indians, possibly with links to Muslim extremist groups, had been arrested in connection with Thursday's multiple bombings on rush-hour trains in Madrid, which killed 200 people and injured nearly 1,500.
Interior Minister Angel Acebes said that two other people, whom he described as Spaniards of Indian descent, were also being questioned and that several buildings and houses were being searched for more leads. Earlier, government officials had repeatedly said they believed Basque separatists carried out the bombings.
Acebes announced the arrests at a news conference on national television just after 8 p.m. "Sixty hours after the brutal attacks, we now have five detentions," he said.
He said the suspects had been linked to a cellular telephone and a cell-phone card found Friday night in a gym bag that also contained undetonated explosives and wiring. The bag had been mistakenly placed among train luggage lost after the attacks. Police said they believed Thursday's attackers used the same technique -- wiring explosives inside gym bags and backpacks to cell phones -- to bomb the trains.
At another news conference early Sunday, Acebes said authorities had received a videotape in which a man identifying himself as al Qaeda's military spokesman in Europe asserted responsibility for the attacks. "We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly 21/2 years after the attacks on New York and Washington," the man said, according to a government translation of the tape, which was recorded in Arabic. "It is a response to your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies."
Acebes said the videotape was discovered after an Arabic-speaking man called a Madrid television station and described where it could be found. Acebes cautioned, however, that the authenticity of the claim could not be immediately confirmed.
The arrests appeared to throw the country into political turmoil just hours before polls were scheduled to open for national elections scheduled for Sunday, capping a long and emotional day spent burying and cremating dozens of victims of the attacks.
Reports of the suspected Islamic link brought thousands of anti-government protesters onto the streets of Madrid. They converged on offices of the ruling Popular Party and accused the outgoing prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, of withholding information and trying to manipulate public opinion about the terror attacks before the elections. There were similar anti-government protests in Barcelona and Bilbao.
The protesters blamed Aznar and his pro-American policies -- including sending 1,300 Spanish troops to Iraq -- for the bombings, and said the government initially tried to ascribe blame to the Basque separatist group ETA to avert a popular backlash before the Sunday elections.
Aznar's handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, has pledged to continue the prime minister's pro-American policies. His Socialist Party challenger, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has promised to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq immediately. In a speech Saturday night at the besieged party headquarters in Madrid, Rajoy called the protests outside illegal and appealed for people to remain calm and for the demonstrators to disperse, but his plea was ignored.
Acebes continued to insist Saturday night that no group had been ruled out as a suspect in the bombings. "Police are still investigating all avenues," Acebes said. "This is an open investigation, which is only just starting."
Acebes provided little information about the suspects arrested Saturday, but said they "could be connected to Muslim extremist groups." He added, "All of them are implicated in the sale and falsification of the mobile phone and the mobile phone card found in the bag that did not explode."
The discovery of a possible Islamic terrorist link to the attacks marks a major and embarrassing shift for the government and the Popular Party, since officials, including Acebes, asserted within hours of the attacks Thursday that the bombings were the work of ETA, whose initials in the Basque language stand for Basque Homeland and Freedom.
ETA has been waging a violent, 30-year campaign for independence for Spain's Basque region, and authorities said that two weeks ago they had intercepted two ETA members with a van containing 1,100 pounds of explosives and headed for Madrid.
But on Friday, ETA issued an unusual denial of involvement in the attack in a statement to Gara, a Basque-language newspaper, and to Basque regional television.
In addition, many Spaniards with long experience observing ETA's methods said the Thursday attacks would mark a significant departure from the group's established pattern -- the scale was far larger and the choice of victims far more random. Also, government officials in recent months have said that ETA had been significantly weakened, following the mass arrests of many of its leaders here in Spain and across the border in France.
Many other signs pointed to the involvement of Islamic extremists with possible links to the al Qaeda network. Simultaneous explosions and mass casualties have long been considered signatures of al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, specifically threatened Spain, as well as other countries closely aligned with the United States, in an audiotape last October that was verified as genuine.
The news of the possible Islamic link raised the prospect that the type of terrorism that the United States experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, had come to Europe. Even though Spaniards, and all Europeans, expressed solidarity with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, "in reality, there wasn't a real internalization of the danger," said Edurne Uriarte, a political scientist and expert on terrorism.
"Europeans continued thinking the real danger was for Americans, not for Europeans," Uriarte said. "Spaniards tended to see the security obsession of Americans with some feeling of superiority."
She added: "The problem is Europeans did not have September 11. Now we have the equivalent. I don't think Europeans can feel secure now. They see you can have this type of crime in Madrid, in one of the European capitals."
Spain has long been considered an operating center for the al Qaeda network. Mohamed Atta, the suspected leader of the Sept. 11 hijacking team, held high-level meetings in Spain in the summer before the attacks.
Last year, a Spanish high court judge, Baltasar Garzon, who has investigated both ETA and al Qaeda, said there were al Qaeda "sleeper cells" operating in Spain, and he charged 35 people, including bin Laden, in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Spain has rounded up dozens of suspected Islamic extremists, including Algerians and Moroccans believed to have been connected to several suicide bombings that killed 45 people, including the 12 bombers, in Casablanca last May. Four Spaniards were among the dead, and the targets included a Spanish restaurant. One bomb also exploded near the Spanish consulate. An al Qaeda-linked group called Salafist Jihad was named as responsible.
Spanish investigators contacted their counterparts in Morocco on Saturday, seeking information on the arrested men, according to a Moroccan intelligence official. A Moroccan team was expected to travel to Spain on Sunday to assist in the investigation.