2004 Madrid Bombings

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The 2004 Madrid train bombings (also known as 11/3 after the pattern of 9/11, but in European style) was a collection of coordinated terrorist bombings against the commuter train system of Madrid, Spain which killed 191 people and wounded 1,460 on the morning of March 11, 2004. The Islamic group al Qaeda was responsible.[1]

The Attacks


The attacks consisted of a series of ten explosions that occurred at the peak of the Madrid rush hour aboard four commuter trains. Thirteen improvised explosive devices were reported to have been used, all but three of which detonated.

The attacks were the deadliest assault by a terrorist organization against civilians in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 and the worst terrorist assault in modern Spanish history. The number of victims in this attack far surpassed Spain's previous worst bombing incident in Barcelona in 1987, which killed 21, carried out by the Basque armed terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna ("Basque Fatherland and Liberty"). Official statements issued shortly after the Madrid attacks identified ETA as the prime suspect, but the group, which usually claims responsibility for its actions, denied any wrongdoing.[2]

The explosions occurred during the morning rush hour, targeting a busy commuter rail line that runs just south of downtown Madrid. Four bombs (planted at the front, middle, and rear of a single train) exploded at 7:39 at Atocha station, and three bombs planted on a single train went off simultaneously just outside of Téllez street, near Atocha station. Two more bombs on one train detonated at 7:41 at El Pozo del Tío Raimundo station. One further bomb exploded on a train at Santa Eugenia station at 7:42. Most of the casualties occurred at Atocha/Téllez (89 confirmed dead) and El Pozo (70) with another 17 at Santa Eugenia.

Eventually, 191 people were confirmed dead (177 at the scene, 13 while under medical care), and 1,460 were wounded. Initial reports of 202 deaths were later revised down due to the misidentification of body parts.[3]

Initially it was feared that families of illegal immigrants would be afraid to contact the authorities for fear of being deported for immigration violations, but Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar announced an immigration amnesty for victims of the attack.

The explosion at Téllez street appears to have been timed to coincide with the explosion at Atocha. However, the train carrying the bombs was held up by a red signal and so exploded just outside of the station.

Two unexploded bombs were found at the centre and rear of the train. The nine bombs aboard the Atocha and Téllez trains were, according to experts, designed to bring down the roof of the entire station at Atocha.

Security forces carried out a controlled explosion of a suspicious package found near the Atocha station and subsequently deactivated the 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, and became a central piece of evidence for the investigation. It appears that at least the El Pozo bomb failed to detonate because a cell-phone alarm used to trigger the bomb was set 12 hours late.

All of the devices are thought to have been hidden inside backpacks. Despite Spanish Government's claims that the explosive used was titadine, a type of compressed dynamite used by ETA in recent years, forensic analysis of one of the remaining unexploded devices found at El Pozo revealed the explosive used there to be Goma-2, manufactured in Spain and not used by ETA since the 1980s. The police investigated reports of three people in ski masks getting on and off the trains several times at Alcalá de Henares between 7:00 and 7:10. A van was found parked outside the station at Alcalá de Henares containing detonators, audio tapes with Qur'anic verses, and cell phones.[4][5]


Although ETA has a history of mounting bomb attacks in Madrid, planting delayed-action bombs to kill rescue workers and using booby traps (such as explosives in wallets), as well as also having attempted to attack trains, the March 11 attacks were on a scale far exceeding anything previously attempted by a European terrorist organisation. Observers have also noted that ETA customarily issues warnings before its mass bombings and that there was no warning for this attack. Europol director Jürgen Storbeck has commented that the bombings "don't correspond to the modus operandi which ETA has adopted up to now". These observations led to early suspicion of Islamic terrorists, who prefer larger body counts.

The attacks came exactly 30 months, or exactly 911 days, after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. This followed the noted pattern of Islamofacist terrorist groups choosing to strike on days of significance to them. It is also worth noting the similarities between the Madrid attack and the September 11 attacks: both were highly calculated, using public transportation to inflict civilian casualties and mass devastation in a spectacular fashion.

Osama bin Laden issued a public threat in October 2003 to carry out suicide bombings against any countries joining the US-led invasion of Iraq: "We reserve the right to retaliate at the appropriate time and place against all countries involved, especially Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy." At the time, Spain had some 1,300 soldiers stationed on Iraqi soil. In addition, bin Laden had spoken earlier of wishing to return the southern Spanish region of Andalucia to Muslim control, reversing the Reconquista of 1492.[6]

Information made public on March 12 by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) revealed that intelligence agencies had known for two months that a terrorist attack was being planned against a country entering into an election period. However, they mistakenly believed that country to be Iraq. The supporting documents, written in Arabic, belonged to a senior al-Qaeda leader, Yusuf al-Airi, and had been obtained by the FFI over the Internet, after his death in May [2003].

According to the FFI Muslim fundamentalism expert Thomas Hegghammer, the documents described in detail the tactics and strategies that were to be employed. The tactic was to break the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq by performing successive strikes on the co-operating member states, starting with the one which would most easily lose its resolve to keep its troops stationed in Iraq, and then following on with the rest. The Iraq war was very unpopular in Spain (around 90% refused to participate in this conflict), and so this would make a likely first target.

See also