Spain and Al Qaeda…

The American Prospect has a good interview with Jessica Stern, terrorism expert at Harvard University and author of The Ultimate Terrorists and Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. In the interview, she speculates on possible linkages between ETA and al Qaeda. While all signs seem to point to al Qaeda, she brings up an interesting point that al Qaeda might be recruiting from within ETA.

Do you think that there is a relationship between the two groups?
I have to wonder whether there’s cooperation between ETA and Al Qaeda, and what this relationship might consist of. Al Qaeda is pragmatic and likes to avail itself of local operatives, expertise, and languages. They especially like to recruit locals. Al Qaeda has a large presence in Spain, so looking for partners like ETA would be at the top of their list.
We know that the majority of people in Spain oppose the war in Iraq, so it makes me wonder whether some members of ETA have been infiltrated by the Al Qaeda network. There’s also the chance that Al Qaeda might be recruiting within ETA.
I think the pragmatism of terrorist groups is emerging as they mature, as is a willingness to cooperate with organizations that would seem to be promoting completely different agendas. Also, sometimes we see that as possible terrorist organizations get closer to achieving their ostensible objective, zealots remain and carry out unprecedented attacks (as happened with the IRA). It’s not impossible to imagine that ETA could have done this even though it would be unprecedented for them.
Reports have said that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for this bombing. Are these reports credible?
No. The group claiming to speak for Al Qaeda is notoriously unreliable — they even claimed responsibility for last summer’s blackout. Intelligence officials really don’t know anything about the group.

At any rate, I think it’s far more likely al Qaeda or at least an Islamist group is responsible. My initial suspicions — that ETA and al Qaeda may have been in league — are feeling less sure now with more and more evidence pointing to bin Laden’s network emerging daily. Also, a Qaeda attack fits in with my hypothesis that a spring offensive from both sides in the terror war is in the works. I wrote that al Qaeda would attempt to destabilize or overthrow the Saudi regime, destabilize Pakistan and/or weaken U.S. resolve with massive attacks within the country, possibly with WMD. Well, now add a fourth option: crack away at the U.S. alliance by forcing its European allies — Spain, Poland, Britain and Italy, for the most part — to withdraw from Iraq. Why is this important?
Two words: logistics and manpower.
The war on terror and Iraq are linked, although not in the way that President George W. Bush would like. They’re linked because much of the U.S. military is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Spain’s 1,300 troops certainly weren’t adding much to the firepower there, but they were of significant symbolic value. If Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes good on his promise to pull Spanish troops out by June 30, that will adversely affect the ability of the U.S. to get other countries to help out after the sovereignty hand-over on June 30 — even with U.N. support. That means the bulk of the security responsibility in Iraq will continue to fall on the U.S. far into the foreseeable future with a hampering of its operational capacity elsewhere. The U.S. military, as powerful as it is, simply can’t keep up with Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and now North Africa. Al Qaeda is counting on this.
But back to Spain. I’m of two minds on this. One the one hand, I thoroughly support the democratic process and there is no doubt that despite a horrific bombing, the people of Spain had their voices heard loud and clear. The war in Iraq was immensely unpopular in Spain and it strikes me as stunningly arrogant for a purportedly democratic government to go against the wishes of so many of its citizens. On the other hand, I’m a full-blown supporter of the war against al Qaeda. I was at my desk working at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane snarled low over my neighborhood and slammed into the north Tower. I watched those buildings fall to the ground from my rooftop and saw my neighborhood turned into an armed camp for a week afterward. I know mass terror. I’m against anything that gives al Qaeda breathing room — which is why I opposed the Iraq war.
It was a horrible, needless distraction. There were no significant ties between Saddam’s government and al Qaeda. It was unlikely there were any Qaeda forces in Iraq prior to the fall of Baghdad — except for Ansar al-Islam in the area controlled by the Kurds outside of Saddam’s control. As far as being a threat to the United States, he was prevented from moving into two-thirds of his country, he was weakened by international sanctions and he had enemies on all sides: Turkey, Kurdistan, U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Iran. He had no weapons of mass destruction to give to al Qaeda even were he inclined to do so. Hell, even the rationale that he was a very bad man — a fact not in dispute — is taking a shellacking because all the mass graves seem to date from when he was either a U.S. puppet thug or immediately after the 1991 Gulf War in which the U.S. encouraged the Shi’as and the Kurds to rise up, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. They ended up in mass graves, in no small part due to the United States’ reluctance to act on their behalf.
Iraq was a colossal blunder that has costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars. There is, as yet, no end in sight.
But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. is now in Iraq and in need of allies if it hopes to prosecute the war on terror successfully. Billmon has a typically insightful take on this:.

I understand, and emotionally sympathize with, the desire of many readers to see Sunday’s election as a victory for the Spanish people — or for the progressive left, or for both. I, too, am glad the neo-Francoists of the Popular Party got the boot.
But as much as I might like to, I can’t apply that particular coat of sugar to the results, because I still think that something significant (and ominous, from an American point of view) has happened here: A well-timed terrorist attack has directly and dramatically influenced the results of a national election in a major country allied with the United States. What’s more, it has caused, or at least contributed to, a decisive defeat for a ruling party that had aligned itself closely with the current U.S. strategy for fighting terrorism — which, like it or not (and of course I don’t like it at all) includes the occupation and pacification of Iraq.

One the one hand, the Spaniards can argue that they have unyoked Iraq from the greater war on terror, which is how it should have been all along. On the other, now that the world’s go-to guy on fighting Islamic fanaticism is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, is this really the time to pull up stakes and say you’re on your own? I wish I had a decent answer. But I feel the Spanish, while remaining true to themselves as a democracy, may have just emboldened the real enemy.
PS: Back from Japan finally, but will, unfortunately, miss SXSW. My apologies.

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