Possible consequences of the terrorist attacks in Madrid

Possible consequences of the terrorist attacks in Madrid


These are a series of considerations on the consequences of the attacks of 11 March, with some suggestions that may help stem the most negative effects.


The Madrid attacks, responsibility for which is at present attributed to the terrorist ring al-Qaeda, might turn into a strategic success for the global Jihad. They will strengthen the morale and propaganda of the jihadists, might weaken the international anti-terrorist coalition and possibly also cause social unrest in countries having large Arab and/or Moslem communities. It is important to see what measures can be taken to counter these effects.


11 March 2004 will go down in history as the day that al-Qaeda terrorism irrupted violently in Spain and Western Europe. Previously, terrorists had struck successfully in the US and against Western interests in countries inhabited mainly by Moslems. But despite various failed attempts and with the exception of a brief wave of bombing attacks in France in the mid-1990s, the Old World seemed safe from the warriors of the Jihad (1). The Madrid attacks marked a dramatic end to that widely held feeling of security.

After the emotional shock of the tragedy and appreciating the value of the innumerable examples of national and international solidarity shown over the last few days, the first rational question we should ask ourselves is what will be the likely consequences of these acts in the short and the long term. Although it is still too early to conduct a sound and dispassionate analysis of what happened and what could happen in the immediate future (the investigations are still at an initial stage), in this paper we advance some ideas about the threats that may arise or deepen from here onwards.

(a) The Madrid terrorist attacks could prove to be a strategic success for the jihadists. Al-Qaeda believes that there is a conspiracy against Islam led by the US, Israel and their allies. Therefore, one of its main goals is to transfer to Western soil the destruction and terror it says Islam suffers because of its enemies. 9/11 became the paradigmatic example of the blow to the heart of the enemy. Now, exactly two and a half years later, the jihadists have succeeded in delivering a second blow, obtaining therefrom compound interest on the coverage they received in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington.

By its attacks in Madrid al-Qaeda has shown its sympathisers once again that the enemy is vulnerable. Since September 2001 the attacks of the terrorist ring against Western targets were located in countries with mostly Moslem populations. In the long term, such a strategy could backfire on al-Qaeda and reduce its popularity, as in many cases the attacks affected Moslems caught in the cross-fire. In addition, they encouraged anti-terrorist efforts by the targeted governments, essential allies in any international fight against terrorism. Carrying the war to the territory of the ‘unbeliever’, however, satisfies the thirst for revenge of al-Qaeda’s supporters.

The attacks of 3/11 might also boost terrorist morale by the implications they have for the foreign policy of a country that has stood out in recent years for its support of the US. The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) had included in its election manifesto the promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless the UN took over responsibility for the country before the end of June 2004. The election victory of the PSOE three days after the bombings and confirmation of its election pledge to withdraw the troops will be interpreted by al-Qaeda as another success to be notched up to its asymmetric warfare. The mujadine are noted for their very straightforward cause-and-effect deductions: downfall of the Soviet Union due to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan; US military weakness after the Blackhawk Down débâcle in Somalia; end of alliances with the US if its allies suffer attacks such as those of Madrid…

This psychological effect should not be underestimated if we recall the decentralised structure of al-Qaeda. The ring is, in fact, a long-term project, the success of which depends on the number of people prepared to join it whatever the sacrifice. It is not so much an organisation as an ideology. A fresh blow struck in the heart of the West will substantially increase the prestige of the global Jihad, making it that much more attractive in the eyes of the numerous adolescents now entering extremist groups, the main source of the network’s recruits.

(b) They could be the first of a series of attacks against Western Europe; the political consequences could undermine the unity of the international anti-terrorist coalition. The Madrid attacks might also be interpreted as further proof of the remarkable political acumen of the al-Qaeda planners. In a 50-page analysis drawn up by members of the ring and printed in December 2003, al-Qaeda looked at the state of the Jihad in Iraq and at the possibility of forcing a Spanish troop withdrawal. After a close study of the Spanish political situation, the al-Qaeda analysts concluded that a string of attacks against Spanish forces in Iraq would weaken the government of José María Aznar and lead, eventually, to the withdrawal of the troops.

The attack here in Spain had an effect very much in line with the expectations of the people who drew up that document. As the network is known for systemising lessons learned, the chances are that the same formula will be applied to other allies of the US. It would come as no surprise if countries such as the UK, Italy or Poland were to find themselves among the targets of the global Jihad.

If, indeed, this calculation was part of their plans and they are capable of implementing it bloodily in other cities of the Old World, we are looking at a strategic departure from al-Qaeda’s policy heretofore. The end goal of the jihadists is to restore the Caliphate, ie, the political union of all Moslems beneath a system that enforces social compliance with religious tenets. To achieve this, they consider it necessary to destroy the enemies of Islam (‘crusaders’ and ‘Jews’) and to eliminate apostate governments in power in Moslem countries (which they regard as the formers’ agents). According to al-Qaeda, this intermediate goal is attainable if they focus their attacks on the ‘head of the serpent’ (the US). In recent years the ring has made substantial progress in this direction. The attacks of 9/11 will mark the collective memory of Americans for more than a generation; since that time US troops have been deployed along such complex fronts as those of Central Asia and, particularly, Iraq. As we know, al-Qaeda originated among the Arab volunteers who fought the Soviet troops in Afghanistan; its members aspire to defeating the US in very much the same way.

However, the Madrid attacks could mark the beginning of a new tactic in their global strategy. By striking at the US’s allies and, especially, by generating mass panic among the population, al-Qaeda might breach the US-led anti-terrorist coalition. The war in Iraq put trans-Atlantic relations under great pressure; European public opinion was decidedly critical of Washington’s line on the international struggle against terrorism. Massacres such as that in Madrid, if repeated, instead of uniting the population in the struggle against al-Qaeda, could turn Europeans against the US leadership. If that were to occur, it would seriously jeopardise international cooperation in this area. 9/11 rallied most Americans in support of their government, but the Madrid attacks show that in a matter as complex as the fight against al-Qaeda, collective behaviour may well move in a different direction.

This reading of the events of the last few days paints a depressing picture with respect to fresh attacks. This is conjecture, naturally, but it is no more than reasonable to expect al-Qaeda to commit another massacre on European soil. Terrorism is, at bottom, psychological violence and its potential is multiplied if attacks come in waves. It is therefore highly likely that the terrorists strike again, not in Spain necessarily but in another country of the Old World. In this way the consternation caused by the attacks in Madrid could gradually turn into outright panic in the EU as a whole. It would be a terror broadly similar to that which gripped Americans after 9/11, with an added element of confusion as to why the attacks are taking place.

There is another possible, though less probable, scenario which is that the terrorists make no distinction and strike a country such as France, a strong opponent of present US foreign policy. If so, European society as a whole would revert to tougher views on how to manage the antiterrorist campaign. However, the political subtlety which al-Qaeda has shown to date makes such an outcome unlikely.

The possibility of fresh terrorist attacks also depends on the operational capacity of al-Qaeda in Europe. The arrests in Madrid two days after the bombings may lead to the dismantling of the cell responsible and oblige others to take cover by changing their residence and reducing their internal contacts. It is still too early to speculate with any degree of certainty about this.

(c) Social conflict in societies having significant Arab or Moslem minorities. Al-Qaeda terrorism aims at the destruction of its adversaries by acts which generate political, social and economic instability. One of the effects of the attacks in Madrid might consist of a massive increase in popular hostility towards Moslem and Arab communities living in the same country.

After 3/11 the extreme reaction of some minority groups was to demonstrate and commit acts of violence against the offices of the Popular Party, on the grounds that the government was indirectly responsible for the bombings. These acts were quickly condemned by the democratic parties. But the chances of some radical action against Moslem people or premises in the next few days should not be ruled out, especially if the investigation reveals more names of North Africans living in Spain or, worse still, if there is another attack on Spanish or European soil. However, regardless of very localised acts of vandalism rapidly condemned by society at large, the real risk is of a wall of hostility being raised between the host society and Arab and Moslem immigrants. This is something that could spread to other European countries; in Spain it could be aggravated by a number of additional circumstances.

Spain has experienced in the last few years the highest relative and absolute growth in immigrant flows of the entire European Union. Society’s perception of a phenomenon previously almost unknown varies according to the opinions that circulate in public debate and depending on the extent to which immigration impinges on people’s daily life. Opinion polls have recorded this changing attitude over recent times. Although in general the view is favourable to the influx of new inhabitants, provided they have ready access to a job and are prepared to integrate themselves within Spanish society, there is a growing concern at the risk that an increasing foreign population could lead to rises in the crime rate and concern for public safety.

To this we should add the poor opinion held in some sections of Spanish society of immigrants from North Africa, particularly Morocco (Moroccans, in fact, constitute the largest section of immigrants, possibly as many as over half a million if we count those here illegally). There are various reasons for this, ranging from the language barrier, cultural differences, an imaginary association of Moroccans with the problem of illegal immigration and petty crime; spendthrift economies, etc. If we add to this a possible connection with the global Jihad, mutual tolerance could be seriously undermined.

This analysis should be seen in the context of a steady future increase in the number of Moroccans living on Spanish soil. At present almost a third of the population of Morocco is aged under fifteen years and it is most unlikely that the Moroccan economy will be able to absorb such a large number of young people for at least the next ten years. Many of them will stake their chances of a better life on emigrating to Europe, starting with Spain, which is the nearest to home. If al-Qaeda continues to carry out attacks on European soil, social harmony could be seriously undermined, something that from every point of view would favour the global Jihad.


The events of 3/11 are still very close and this analysis is of necessity very speculative. However, it is probable that some of the ideas expressed here are going through the minds of the jihadists, and from there to their actions. Given that possibility, there are two main avenues that should be explored over the coming months:

(a) Spain should not offer an image of weakness before al-Qaeda terrorism. By this we do not mean to enter into the debate on whether the troops should or should not be pulled out of Iraq. The Socialist Party undertook to bring them home if it won the elections a long time before the bomb attacks and their return should not necessarily be interpreted as the result of blackmail, although there can be no doubt that the jihadists will understand it as such.

It is equally certain that the new government will maintain its commitment to the international fight against terrorism and that the methods of international cooperation in this area, be it from legal, detection or intelligence standpoints, will continue at full throttle. Spain has suffered a massacre on its own soil and will do everything in its power to avoid a repeat performance. What it would be as well to do at this time is to publicly emphasise that cooperation to make it clear that Spain is actively participating in the struggle against al-Qaeda.

(b) At the same time, efforts should be made to avoid such outrages from undermining the harmonious co-existence of immigrants and nationals of the host country. On the one hand, it would be very useful if various measures were to be undertaken (eg, institutional campaigns, forums for discussion, public gestures and declarations by political and social leaders) to encourage Spaniards to preserve the presumption of innocence of all comers, regardless of race or creed. On the other, North African and Moslem communities should ensure that al-Qaeda does not become a parasite that exploits them by making use of their presence in this country to hide, spread propaganda, obtain funds and recruit new members. The active contribution of these communities to this end is essential to guaranteeing social harmony.

Javier Jordán
Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Granada, and author of ‘Profetas del miedo. Aproximación al terrorismo islamista’, EUNSA, 2004.

(1) For further information consult the Elcano Royal Institute working papers Is Al-Qaeda a Threat to Europe? by Juan Avilés, DT 3/2002, and Islamic Terrorist Rings in Spain. Current Situation and Future Outlook ARI 119/2003, by Javier Jordán,