Sunday, March 14, 2004

Why NOT the rush to judgement on Alqueda's role in Madrid bombings?

I.
TRAGEDY IN MADRID 3/11

In the aftermath of 911 the French Newspaper Lemonde ("The World") put out a front page saying: "We are all Americans." It was and is a touching statement that reflected a world that grieved with America. Now with the tragedy in Madrid (BBC) the sentiment the oldman would like to espouse is the same as that which was written on a Spanish marcher's banner: "We were all on that train.".

Initial evidence is coming out, that while preliminary is painting a fairly clear picture of what was going on. On one hand, despite ETA's formal denials, there is significant evidence indicating ETA involvement. ETA is the political and military arm of the Basque homeland seccessionist movement that seeks to liberate the minority Basques from general Spanish society. They have been terrorists of local note, seeking through a nationalist-aspiration movement to gain greater voice for their people.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Alqueda operatives were involved (MSNBC). As Daniel Drezner blogs about, there is a likley Alqueda franchise connection. Alqueda also has formally claimed responsibility, and there are many additional signs that point to Alqueda (MSNBC) as well. In addition, the attacks on 3/11 are reported to have occurred exactly 911 days after the New York City September 11th attacks, and a Spanish minister announced that a van filled with detonators and an tape in the Arabic language was found near one of the train origination centers. Juan Cole has some comments about how Alqueda is emerging as a major suspect in the bombings.

Unfortunately, as the NYT reports this investigation is already being politicized:
"The center-right government continued to assert that the armed Basque separatist group ETA and not Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization, was probably responsible for the attack, although the evidence is confusing and nothing has been ruled out.

The political stakes in uncovering the identity of the terrorists are high. Spain's voters will elect a new government on Sunday. Mariano Rajoy, the handpicked successor of Prime Minister José María Aznar and the candidate of the governing Popular Party, is in the lead. He has pledged to continue the policies of Mr. Aznar, including Spain's full participation in the Bush administration's antiterror and Iraq policies...


"Certain opposition parties are trying to use Al Qaeda because of the Iraq war simply to win an election," Gustavo de Arístegui, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Popular Party, said in a telephone interview. "I think it's repulsive."

This is apparently happening on both sides, with a great deal of internal pressure to blame the ETA solely despite formal and unusual disavowals from the ETA leadership. As the CSM reports this has triggered a political fight over who to blame for the bombing:

"Spanish papers were quick to pin the blame on Spain's homegrown terrorist group, ETA. ETA which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque words for "Basque country and Freedom," is a Marxist-Leninist group that was founded in 1959. The group turned to terrorism in 1968 and over the years has killed a total of 850 people in Spain...

But key Basque politicians almost immediately denied ETA was involved. The Independent reports that Thursday Arnaldo Otegi, leader of ETA's now banned political wing, insisted that ETA had nothing to do with the attack. This is significant, because Basque leaders have not issued such statements with previous ETA attacks...

The Toronto Star reports Friday that despite the lack of hard evidence, intelligence experts in the United States have quickly moved toward the consensus that the attack was sponsored or carried out by Al Qaeda.
"

II.
SO WHO IS TO BLAME?

The first thing to note that to frame the question of it being solely Alqueda or ETA is a false dichotomy. Indeed, the evidence is perfectly consistent with the notion that Alqueda may be operating a "franchise" and "venture capitalist" for terrorism operations. Alqueda lends expertise, operatives, and money to local groups that provide local knowledge, local grudges, and distribution networks to smuggle people and weapons into place. That the ETA leadership may have issued denials and be appalled at this attack is not contradictory to their involvement.

TIME magazine has a good article summarizing the political whodunnit aspect:

" That Basque terrorists would top the list of the Spanish authorities' suspects in Thursday's devastating is hardly surprising: The terror group ETA has grown desperate as it finds itself increasingly marginalized even in Basque politics, and hounded by a sustained police crackdown both in Spain and France that has reduced its active ranks to an estimated 250. Two alleged ETA operatives were arrested in a failed attempt to bomb Spanish trains just last Christmas; it had promised an "action" to coincide with Spain's general election this coming Sunday; and its four decades in the profession, during which time it has killed more than 800 people, have quite simply made ETA the default suspect in Spanish terror attacks. Some of the forensics amplify the case for making the Basque group the prime suspect: The explosive used in Thursday's multiple train bombings was of a type previously used in ETA operations, and the fact that they were remotely triggered using cell phones — rather than by suicide bombers — reinforces the suspicion...

The government's rush to blame ETA slowed late on Thursday with the discovery of a stolen van containing seven detonators and tapes of Koranic verse in the town from which two of the trains departed and through which a third had passed. And a London-based Arab newspaper reported Friday that it had received an emailed statement from the "Abu Hafs al-Masri" brigade, an al-Qaeda offshoot, claiming responsibility (although this group has previously claimed responsibility for attacks subsequently attributed to others). Spanish authorities announced that they had opened a "second line of inquiry" and were not precluding the possibility that al-Qaeda was to blame...

But to the extent that it blames al-Qaeda, the political equation is more difficult to read — the overwhelming majority of Spanish voters opposed Aznar's support for the Iraq invasion, and if these attacks are perceived as a consequence of that support, it could cost the ruling party.
"

In 2002 the ETA party was banned and there was a security crackdown on the Basque separatist movement. The result of this was a breaking up of the centralized control of the terrorism network. It's entirely possible and very probable that parts of that network, embittered about the harsh security tactics, would have reached out to Alqueda operatives to offer cooperation, comfort, and sanctuary in return for delivering a spectacular blow against Aznar's Popular Party in the run up to the elections. Alqueda would regain its reputation as a heavy hitter to be taken seriously despite some Western commentator's foolish recent comments about the weakening of the network. This could have happened without upper level ETA party involvement, with so-called "rogue operatives" choosing a course of action without the knowledge of their superiors.

The sad thing is that respect for the honored dead seems to be disappating in the run-up to the election. In the aftermath of 911, the oldman was fairly sure that Alqeuda had been responsible. However, he was fairly disturbed at the lack of questioning over the fairly thin evidence that the Administration publicly presented. This time around the evidence compared to the same period after 911 is overwhelming that Alqeuda was involved, and if we'd had this much public evidence available back then Alqeuda would have been burning in effigy and a military invasion already underway.

On one hand, the Popular Party would like it seems to solely blame the ETA and cherry pick evidence to support their notion. There must be tremendous internal pressure to cook this investigation. This is because for Alqueda to be involved would be construed as a major criticism of Aznar's support for Bush in his WoT and specifically the Iraq invasion. To vanish any doubt about that, the Alqueda tape directly refers to Spanish involvement in the invasion of the middle-east as a motivation of the bombing. On the other hand, the anti-war and leftist elements in the Spanish political spectrum apparently seems to be playing up this angle as a direct criticism of Aznar's policies regarding Iraq. So from both sides, this issue is being politicized as an electorally divisive issue.

The proper trans-Atlantic tone is struck by this Weekly Standard article by Christopher Caldwell, for the Editors:

" At this writing, it is unclear whether the bombing was perpetrated by al Qaeda ... or by the Basque terrorist group ETA... or by some combination of the two. But the meaning of the attack does not depend on the identity--that is, the particular psychopathology--of the killers behind it. It is the civilized world that will provide the meanings here.

Having been attacked in al Qaeda communiqués as both a "crusader" country and an "apostate" former Islamic land, Spain will not delude itself that making nice--by, for instance, distancing itself from the U.S.-led war on terror--will ransom it from al Qaeda's wrath. Nor will the United States abandon Spain to its domestic terrorists on the equally false grounds that they are no concern of ours. If, for instance, terrorists with previously local grievances are learning logistical lessons from al Qaeda's large-scale simultaneous bombings, that is our problem, too.
"

III.
THE OLDMAN'S OPINION:

Now I am highly disturbed that given the relatively large amount of evidence pointing toward Alqueda that for political reasons this is being pushed toward ETA. Note too that while most Western intelligence analysts think that this is Alqueda's work, the Bush Administration isn't saying anything about it. This is because it would be politically more convenient if it was blamed on ETA instead. If it was felt that siding with the United States made one the target of terrorism, then this would be a boost for Alqueda's divide and conquer tactics and another black-eye for an Administration otherwise eager to alienate foreign countries.

Frankly, I think it is Alqueda's fault with some local collusion -including parts of the ETA network- and that it strengthen's Aznar's choice to support Bush in my eyes at least. However, this is not the way it's being spun over there ... and by the deafening official silence over here. It's clear that Alqueda's participation has been completely politicized, hyped when convenient and downplayed when expedient. If we were to apply the same standards now as after 911, Alqueda would have already been burning in effigy soon to be followed by military invasion. However, that would be inconvenient for the political powers that be.

This is partly why I sneer at the sentiment that somehow that the present alignment of political interests is "tough on terror". They're all too willing to invoke the boogie man when it suits them, but they won't do what it takes to go after them and they're all too willing to cloak their own interests in the WoT and finally they're all too eager to overlook real threats / risks of terrorism when it no longer suits them.

This whole thing is being gamed. It's despicable, utterly despicable. Three thousand Americans died in the burning and collapsing World Trade Towers. The voices of the dead in Turkey and the slain in Madrid cry out for justice. They and their memory deserve better than this, and all the rest of us do too.

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