The Fight Against Islamist Terrorism After the March 11 Attacks: Lessons Learnt

The Fight Against Islamist Terrorism After the March 11 Attacks: Lessons Learnt


This paper examines certain aspects of the recent terrorist outrage in Madrid, revealing a need to reorientate various international security procedures.


If there is one thing we should learn from recent terrorist actions, it is the terrorists’ ability to surprise us. This first large-scale Islamist attack in Europe has shown that what some dismissed as alarmist scaremongering has now become a reality. To combat this threat we need greater international coordination and cooperation than there has been so far, enhanced preventative capacity and a root-and-branch rethink of existing terrorist policies.


The apparently confirmed Islamist responsibility for the terrorist attacks of March 11 in Madrid will have major consequences for Spain, for Europe and for the world, in terms of future terrorist countermeasures. Although the combination of capability (possession of explosives) and intention (the number of terrorists arrested between December and February trying to commit mass bombings in Madrid) made ETA the most likely culprit, time and detective work have steadily shown that blame is likely to lie with the Islamists –Moroccan cells operating within what is a thick network of terrorist groups characterised by their firm determination– and that only time will tell whether it was a startling coincidence between ETA’s and al-Qaeda’s aim to bomb the capital or the first stage of a joint effort between the two groups. Theoretical prejudice or simple lack of imagination prevent many from accepting such a possibility, even as a hypothesis, but we should not ignore terrorism’s ability to surprise nor the fact that, tactically, both groups are fighting what they see as an anti-imperialist war.

Islamist Terrorism Strikes on Spanish and European Soil
Although the attacks of the Armed Islamic Group in France in 1995 and 1996, together with the hijacking of an Air France Airbus at Algiers airport in 1994 in an effort to fly it into a target in Paris, were the first indications of terrorist targets in Europe, the Madrid bombings, in terms of both sophistication and casualties, constituted the first overt proof that countries which had formerly remained untouched by Islamist terrorism were now targets. They confirmed to Spain and its fellow members of the European Union what had been spelled out in the European Security Strategy report approved in December 2003: terrorism is one of the main threats –note the use of ‘threat’ as opposed to ‘risk’– shared by member States, all of which are vulnerable to attack by al-Qaeda.

From the perspective of the investigation into the Madrid attack and with an eye on the prevention of future attacks in any part of Europe, it is alarming to note that some of those arrested on 13 March were already known to the security services. The Moroccan Jamal Zugam, suspected of being directly responsible, had been arrested on 17 September 2001 on the orders of judge Baltasar Garzón. As occurred in many such cases, lack of evidence prevented him from being charged. Two years later his links with Islamist terrorism could not have been made plain more dramatically. In Garzón’s report on al-Qaeda published on 17 September 2003, he recalls how on his own instructions Zugam’s house had been searched as early as August 2001, weeks before the fateful 9/11. Such a situation is largely due to the shadowy line separating political support, financial contribution or recruitment campaigns for certain more or less justifiable causes on the one hand and militant membership of a terrorist group on the other. This is especially true of Islamist terrorism, although Spain also has ample experience of this through its fight against the Basque terrorist group ETA and its political, financial and propaganda rackets. These circumstances should be re-examined, particularly in light of the scorn shown in some quarters for ‘Operation Laguna’, the police round-up of Islamist radicals in Catalonia on 24 January 2003 when, again, lack of hard evidence meant that many had to be released only to be summoned again some time later given the slow pace of this type of investigations. Fortunately, the fight against such a subtle and sophisticated form of terrorism such as the Islamist variety has slowly produced results in terms of prevention, although overshadowed and undervalued by the recent tragic events. Nevertheless, some of these cases are worth looking into in order to determine how international cooperation can be strengthened to prevent them from occurring again.

• One such is the arrest in Alicante on 22 June 2001 of an Algerian, Mohammed Bensakria, on a warrant issued by a French magistrate. Bensakria is an important member of the al-Qaeda European ring which ran the Meliani group that succeeded in slipping through the fingers of the German police in Frankfurt in December 2000. That cell, part of Osama Bin Laden’s network, was preparing major bomb attacks in Strasbourg.

• Another was the dismantling on 4 April 2001 by the Italian security forces of the al-Qaeda ring known as Varese which, headed by the Tunisian Sami Ben Khemais Essid but composed mostly of Moroccans and nationals of other countries in north-west Africa, were also preparing major attacks. Early detection had led to the temporary closure of the US embassy in Rome for four days in January of that year. Just over twelve months later, in February 2002, eight Moroccan members of the ring were imprisoned on charges of preparing an attack against the US embassy, proof of the terrorists’ determination to destroy preordained targets, as in the case of the attempt on the World Trade Center in 1993 and its final destruction in September of 2001.

Both these examples, from before the attacks of September 11 2001, provide important lessons regarding international coordination in the fight against al-Qaeda, and from a period in which the world had no inkling of the existence of al-Qaeda or had started to take coordinated measures to combat it. Those measures have proved insufficient for two main reasons: they are adopted at many different levels without sufficient coordination –at the security, political and economic levels and at the level of public awareness in the broadest sense of the term, on both domestic and international planes. Secondly, no one seems able to foresee the ability of these groups to adapt to the ever more hostile environments in which they have to act. Let’s have a closer look at this by studying those responsible for 3/11.

The Terrorists of 3/11: Lessons Learnt
The arrests on 13 March of Jamal Zugam, Mohamed Chaui and Mohamed Bekkali had the initial effect of strengthening cooperation between the security and intelligence forces of Spain and Morocco, to prove not only the participation of these individuals in the events of 11/3 but also their ties with the suicide attacks that caused 45 deaths in Casablanca on 16 May 2003. Once again, the constellation of Islamist terrorist rings in Morocco and their connections with al-Qaeda, previously regarded by many analysts as a ridiculous exaggeration, demonstrated their presence in a way for which all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, should accept the responsibility. Although total inaction can be attributed to neither country, it is clear that the pace at which the investigations progressed and the ability to thwart the terrorists fell a long way short of what is required to fight ambitious and extremely intelligent terrorists. At the end of January 2004, the Moroccan Minister of Justice, the Socialist Mohammed Buzuaa, admitted that his government had underestimated the terrorist danger. This was at a time when ten members of the Moroccan terrorist group Salafiya Jihadiya were condemned to eight years’ imprisonment for their part in the crimes of Casablanca.

The arrested suspects of the Madrid attacks were found to have done the same round of battlefields as their older terrorist brethren; Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Dagestan, etc. Jamal Zugam had been linked to the hardened terrorists of the Chechnyan front of the international Jihad, people such as Omar Dhagayes, the Salaheddin brothers, or Abdelaziz Benyaich. The latter was arrested by the Spanish security forces in Algeciras on 14 June 2003 on a warrant from Morocco where an investigation was under way into the Casablanca bombings. The Moroccan police knew quite a lot about him, following the arrest on 3 June that same year of Pierre Robert (alias Abu Abderraman) one of the emirs of the Salafiya Jihadiya network. Although the police in both Spain and Morocco have worked hard in the last twelve months (in June 2003 Spain’s High Court authorised the extradition to Morocco of Abdelaziz Benyaich and on 25 August the trial against Pierre Robert and his collaborators began), insufficient information was forthcoming to prevent the Madrid bombings.

Anti-terrorism is not a linear affair, there are advances and setbacks, the latter often gaining more prominence than the former. This is understandable and unfair in about equal measure, particularly when we appreciate what good work is being done, discreetly and with very scant resources. Few recall now how on 11 May 2002 the fruits of the coordinated effort of various national and international security services, including the results of the interrogations of 17 Moroccan prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, allowed various Moroccan Salafiya Jihadiya activists, plus three Saudi citizens suspected of being liaison officers for al-Qaeda, to be arrested in Morocco. Since 2001 these people had been trying to coordinate terrorist activity in Morocco and its connections with the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), of Algeria. Thanks to this, attacks against Western warships deployed in the Straits of Gibraltar –taking part in Operation ‘Active Endeavour’, set in motion after September 11 in the Eastern Mediterranean and extended to the Straits of Gibraltar in February 2002– were aborted, as were other operations in various Moroccan cities. Unfortunately, these operations against Moroccan terrorists did not prevent the biggest attack on this side of the Atlantic prior to 3/11, or the bombings in Casablanca on 16 May 2003, which surprised analysts of the Islamist movement in Morocco.

Once again, as with 9/11, there was a failure in both prevention and imagination. No one could even dream of such appalling crimes being committed. The extreme flexibility of terrorist rings, such as the tiny group Assirat al-Mustaqim or ‘Strait Way’, which acted in Casablanca, or Al Ussuud Al Khalidine, ‘Eternal Lions’, apparently responsible for the Madrid blasts, allows them to team up easily with the Salafiya Jihadiya network, in line with al-Qaeda’s favoured system of ‘franchise terrorism’. They are also highly successful at losing themselves among major immigrant communities, as occurred with the GIA and GSPC in France and with Moroccan terrorists in Spain, Italy and Belgium. These are comparative advantages which the terrorists currently enjoy and which they are likely to continue benefiting from. Another advantage made full use of by terrorists is that a significant number of them have dual nationality. This was the case with the Islamic Fighting Group (GIC) in Morocco, which contained numerous French Moroccans and French Algerians among the killers of Spanish tourists in the Atlas Hasni Hotel in August 1994 in Marrakech. Globalisation as a whole plays into terrorists’ hands, particularly such manifestations of it as the ‘Schengen zone’.

Finally, an important lesson learned, which had, and still has, a significant number of negative operational consequences, is the lack of political understanding between the countries of North Africa in general and between Algeria and Morocco in particular. Indeed, all of us are now paying the penalty for the propaganda and counter-propaganda which Algiers and Rabat dealt each other over the last few decades and which was taken up by the authorities and by many European and Western analysts and experts: the idea put about in the 1990s that all terrorism came from Algeria, either from Algerian terrorists per se or from Algerian intelligence operations (a story that Morocco successfully spread on occasion of the Atlas Hasni Hotel incident in order to conceal the growing presence of domestic Islamist violence), made us all waste time in our planning and research and allowed North African Islamist radicals, who shed their nationalistic prejudices many years ago, to set up home in Spain. This has an undoubted negative effect on preventative measures, while underlining that anticipatory action must be sustained over time and that the national prejudices existing on both the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean must be overcome. Furthermore, a certain detachment is necessary so that successes do not lead to overconfidence or failures to despair, however appalling the latter may seem (eg, the 200 victims who lost their lives on Thursday, 11 March in Madrid).


A review of these points leads to certain conclusions about 3/11. In the first place, they stress the unequivocal intention of Islamist terrorism to fight on European soil. The days of murdering foreigners in Algeria, of limited terrorism on French soil (1995-96), and of attacks on tourist interests in third countries, are over. Many in Europe –and especially Spain– wrongly believed that Europe was immune. Secondly, the progress of the investigations shows that antiterrorist policies and penal codes are not strong enough to deal effectively with the skilful tactics of Islamist terrorism. This was previously the problem with the more traditional ETA terrorism, but, happily, that has been corrected. In the third place, the ease with which terrorists mingle among Europe’s large immigrant populations, who are also potential victims, and the freedom of movement afforded by the ‘Schengen zone’ are two significant issues that oblige us to intensify international cooperation against terrorism, both within countries and among groups of them on a regional European or European-Mediterranean basis. Corporate or political prejudices should be jettisoned immediately. And, finally, to those who over the years have described warnings of the danger of this type of terrorism as false scaremongering, despite the tens of thousands of dead in places such as Algeria or Egypt, we must now find the means to fight effectively against an enemy that has made such a dramatic appearance in Madrid and whose main trait is its determination and capacity to kill.

Dr. Carlos Echeverría Jesús
Lecturer in International Relations at the Open University (UNED) of Spain and deputy director of the Department for Research into International Security and Cooperation (UNISCI).