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Conflicting clues in bloody madrid bombings { March 12 2004 }

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Conflicting clues in bloody Madrid bombings
WHICH TERRORISTS? Theories point to Basque or Muslim extremists -- or both
Sebastian Rotella, Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
Friday, March 12, 2004
2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

Madrid -- The size and savagery of Thursday's synchronized train station bombings suggests a significant shift in tactics by Basque separatists -- or the work of an entirely new player in Spain.

Spanish authorities are wrestling with competing theories over who was responsible for the attacks that killed nearly 200 people and wounded approximately 1,400 others. Swift to blame ETA militants fighting to secede from Spain, top officials by the end of the day were forced to acknowledge that they were pursuing a more complex investigation.

"Could it have been Islamic fundamentalists?" one senior Spanish anti- terrorism official asked Thursday night. "It could have been. Spain is clearly a target of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden has said so himself."

Even so, forensic evidence, including the type of explosives used, and the arrests in recent weeks of purported Basque terrorists armed with powerful bombs point to ETA as the prime suspect in Thursday's massacres, investigators said in interviews, echoing Interior Minister Angel Acebes.

ETA purportedly planned a Christmas Eve bombing at another Madrid train station, which was foiled by police. Recent intelligence reveals that a young, ruthless generation of Basque militants has been pushing since the summer to pull off a spectacular blow, according to a senior Spanish law enforcement official.

But the well-coordinated multiple strikes aimed at mass civilian casualties are elements out of character with ETA's 3-decade-old armed campaign. ETA traditionally has targeted the symbols of Madrid's power, such as police and politicians, or its economic base, with hits on tourist resorts.

The methods Thursday recalled the brutal choreography refined by al Qaeda in its Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and more recently around the world. And the discovery of audiotapes of Koranic verses along with detonators in a stolen van thought to have been used by the attackers forced investigators to consider a grim alternative scenario: Islamic terrorists might have chosen Spain for the attack, their first successful strike in Western Europe.

"We are pursuing both the possibilities of Basque terrorism and Islamic terrorism," a Spanish police commander said. "ETA remains the stronger possibility. But these attacks were rather strange. There are elements that resemble al Qaeda, elements resembling ETA, and some things that are neither one nor the other."

The method of attack fed a third theory: that the coordinated strikes resulted from an alliance of Basque and Islamic networks.

In past decades, ETA's worldwide contacts have brought it into contact with Arab militants in locales including Libya and Lebanon. Last year, attacks by suicide bombers in Casablanca, Morocco, and Istanbul, Turkey, showed the ability of al Qaeda operatives to join forces with local Islamic groups. Most investigators regarded a partnership between the secular nationalists of ETA and today's violent Islamic fundamentalists as unlikely.

Nonetheless, the calculated plan to inflict large-scale casualties suggests that al Qaeda has become an influence for post-Sept. 11 terrorism and might have been copied by ETA, authorities said.

"Maybe what we are seeing is an 'Islamicization' of the style of ETA terrorism," said an investigator of Spain's paramilitary Guardia Civil. "That is, they see that spectacular, coordinated attacks like those carried out by al Qaeda are the ones that cause the most impact. So instead of killing a city councilman somewhere, they do this."

ETA's attacks, which have killed about 800 people in a period of more than 30 years, have exhibited a certain method. Normally -- although not always -- an ETA member telephones a warning shortly before an explosion. The most people ETA ever killed with a bombing was 22 at a Barcelona supermarket in 1987. The group later apologized for killing so many civilians.

During recent years, similar divisions surfaced as aggressive police work chopped away at ETA's old guard leadership, among them veterans old enough to remember the years of the Francisco Franco dictatorship when ETA's fight against the regime elicited some sympathy in Spain, according to the official.

The old guard has been pressured by young toughs intent on reinvigorating a weakened and widely despised group, the official said.

More recently, police arrested ETA suspects near the city of Cuenca with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives destined for an industrial neighborhood near the railway station where the targeted trains apparently were boarded by bombers Thursday, according to investigators.

The timing of the attacks fit ETA's history, coming as they did just three days before national elections. ETA often waits to claim responsibility after an attack, evaluating the political fallout. Because Thursday's attacks caused such carnage, they seemed politically self-destructive, which could explain why members of ETA's outlawed political wing declared that the attacks were the work of Arab terrorists.

Although investigators were dubious about the legitimacy of that denial, they acknowledged that the style of the attacks raised the alternative that al Qaeda or its affiliates had been involved.

A group calling itself the Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Masri e-mailed a claim of responsibility for Thursday's bombings to an Arabic newspaper in London, saying it was "settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam." Authorities were unsure whether to take the claim seriously.

As yet, the only hard clue suggestive of al Qaeda-style groups is the Islamic material found in the stolen van that also contained seven detonators. The Islamic material consisted of audio cassettes with recorded verses of the Koran, easy to find in an Islamic butcher shop or Islamic bookstore, the police commander said.

"It's possible, of course, that ETA could be responsible, and the cassettes were left there to throw us off the track," the commander said.

New York Times contributed to this report.

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