Who’s to blame?
There have been a lot of stories about whether the ETA (in Basque, Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna or “Basque Fatherland and Liberty”) was behind yesterday’s horrible attacks in Madrid or instead al Qaeda or some other Islamic group. But the people pointing fingers have their own agendas, and are placing blame so that it benefits them.
Victims of yesterday’s bombings are treated at the scene.One-hundred-ninety-eight people died and 1,463 were injured in the bomb attacks which Spanish authorities initially blamed on the ETA. Others say that claims of responsibility allegedly made by an al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, in the London-based newspaper al-Quds, as well as Islamic tapes found in a nearby van along with detonators, indicate that Osama bin Laden’s group was behind the attack.
The ETA has been considered a “spent force” in Spanish politics. It originated from EKIN, a nationalist group that changed its name in 1958. Initial attacks involved bombs in cities like Bilboa, but the ETA started up in earnest after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in
1961 1975. Traditionally, it operated in the Basque autonomous region in northern Spain and southwestern France, targeting police stations, politicians and other symbols of Spanish control of the Basque homeland. In 2002, however, it stepped up its efforts to hit tourist areas, in an effort to hit one of Madrid’s main revenue streams. The group killed 15 people in 2001 and five in 2002, a decrease probably due to Spain and France’s increased anti-terrorism efforts. Some analysts believe that the old guard has been arrested and fresh leaders are moving up to take their place, leading to an intensified ruthlessness.
ETA attacks are usually preceded with a warning. There was none in this case. But al Qaeda usually doesn’t claim credit so quickly after an attack, and Abu Hafs al-Masri has claimed credit for attacks it had no involvement in, such as the massive blackouts last summer in the United States. So who’s to blame?
My opinion, such as it is, is that this may have been a team effort, although I lean toward it being led by Islamists. Terrorism isn’t a clear-cut enterprise and stateless groups like ETA and al Qaeda often interact in overt and covert ways. (In fact, they interact so often and so deeply that the failure to find any substantial links between Saddam Hussein’s former regime and al Qaeda should be seen not as a failure of investigators to look deeply enough but as proof that there were no links at all.)
ETA may have been inspired by Qaeda tactics, or they may have worked with sleeper cells in Spain in an effort to attain similar goals. Conversely, sleeper cells might have contacted ETA members for logistical help. Middle Eastern armed groups have a long history of working with European terror groups. As Loretta Napoleoni shows in her book, Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, one joint venture in the late 1980s involved the Italian Red Brigades, the PLO, the IRA, the ETA and “German underground groups.” Money raised from kidnapping, extortion, armed robbery and other activities went to purchase machine guns, heavy Energa anti-tank mines, grenades, SAM-7 Strela missiles, etc., which were then shared among the various parties.
(Also, ETA members are regular visitors to the lawless city of Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan city that is a hub for smuggling between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Situated in the area where the three countries meet, more than $12 billion passes through the city each year, including money raised through selling of pirated CDs, trade in stolen and forged passports, Colombian narcotics, computers and stolen cars from Brazil. It has a population of about 20,000 Muslims, and a number of radical Islamist groups operate there. Middle Eastern money brokers linked to Islamist groups such as Hezbollah help launder Latin American narcotic money in Ciudad del Este. These examples just show how intertwined many of these groups are.)
ETA members may have set those bombs. But the funding and the coordination may have come from bin Laden’s group. Bin Laden is like a venture capitalist of terror, providing seed money to groups that want into his network, such as what happened on Sept. 1, 2001. That’s when Ansar al-Islam, which operates in Iraqi Kurdistan, officially formed. Three Arab veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan presented the leaders with $300,000 cash from bin Laden.
There’s no reason that al Qaeda wouldn’t work with — or help fund — groups that further its own ends in the short run. (Which is why it never worked with Saddam. Not only did it not share any long-term goals with Iraq, and in fact wanted to destroy Saddam’s government, but it didn’t share any short-term goals either. Saddam didn’t want to destroy the United States. He wanted an end to sanctions so he could go back to trying to dominate the Middle East — something bin Laden wants to do himself.)
So. What conclusions may be drawn? As Juan Cole notes, if the ETA did it, it would be seen as local significance and probably bolster the standing of Jose Aznar’s conservative party prior to the Sunday ballot. If it’s jihadists, this will be seen as on par with Sept. 11, 2001, Bali and Lockerbie — and the War on Terror will have suffered a setback. The U.S., paradoxically, probably would like to have the bombers come from al Qaeda because that would bolster Bush’s charge that the War on Terror is ongoing — so don’t change commanders in the middle of a war.
However, either/or is too limiting. I think this was probably some kind of joint venture between the ETA and jihadists, but, still, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see this as a wholly Islamist enterprise. We just don’t know the full story yet.
PS: Still traveling in Japan. Sorry for the lack of updates. A lot has been going on and I’ve missed a lot of it.