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Spain bombings seen as europes 911 { March 12 2004 }

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Spain Bombings Seen as Europe's 9/11
By Jeffrey Fleishman
Times Staff Writer

9:50 AM PST, March 12, 2004

BERLIN Europe has found its Ground Zero.

The blood on the Madrid train tracks, the dead lined in zippered bags, the shredded clothes and the bruised, confused faces have all swirled together in a new picture of suffering for the continent.

Europe empathized with the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001, but it did not feel the sting and breadth of terrorism until 10 synchronized bombs blew through Spain's Thursday morning rush hour.

"The mass terror of Madrid was aimed at the heart of Spain, but we're all in the crosshairs of terrorism," proclaimed Bild, Germany's largest newspaper. "Who is safe today? Terror is like a hydra with a thousand heads."

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks that killed nearly 200 people and wounded 1,400 others. Spanish authorities suggest the Basque separatist group ETA is behind the carnage. There are indications Islamic terrorists may have been involved, raising the specter that a band of mercurial assassins with a cache of high explosives may be holding Spain accountable for supporting the Iraq war.

Europe is not immune from militant organizations. Italy's Red Brigade murdered scores in the 1970s. ETA has been killing Spanish politicians for two decades. The Irish Republican Army has left a swath of dead.

But the Madrid bombings come in a new, unnerving era, a time when global terrorism seems insidious and when things like knapsacks and trashcans explode into searing shrapnel.

Intelligence authorities are concerned that the attacks may indicate a resurgence of European groups that were believed to have gone dormant. Another troubling prospect is that these cells are working with or borrowing tactics from Islamic terrorists.

Recent bomb threats against the French railway stations, and the 2002 assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn by an animal rights activist reveal the spectrum of radicals that can cause havoc. A letter discovered on Red Brigade member Nadia Lioce following a 2003 shootout with police on an Italian train urged Europe's leftist militants to unite with Islamic fundamentalists.

"There may now be a realization that what Europe is facing is something wider: international understanding among extremists, who copy each other's methods, supply each other with arms and coordinate attacks on their common enemies," stated an editorial from The Times of London.

"It certainly appears that the (Madrid) bombers had learnt much about tactics, surprise and viciousness from al-Qaeda, underlining the ugly concept of terrorist 'franchising.'"

In many ways, Europe believed it was removed from the reach of such spectacular attacks. America, after all, was target number one.

But the Madrid blasts, arriving just two months before the European Union expands from 15 to 25 nations, is presenting a new security calculus to the continent. They have spurred some nations to tighten borders and have increased tensions around the 2004 Olympics to be held in Greece this summer.

"Whoever thought the American 'devils' were the only ones in the sights of Islamic terrorism was wrong," wrote La Repubblica in Italy. "We are all in the same boat."

Europe prides itself on tolerance and equality. But the continent's Muslim population has doubled in the last decade and many Europeans are calling for stricter immigration and asylum laws. These debates, as they did immediately after Sept. 11, are likely to intensify following Thursday's bombings.

"The real threat of terrorism to democracy is . . .that it will stampede us into curbing the freedoms and legal rights that are inseparable from democracy," wrote Britain's former Foreign Minister Robin Cook in the Independent.

The conservative Daily Telegraph in London said: "The global stakes for terrorist activity have been dramatically raised. . .As George W. Bush and Tony Blair have claimed Sept. 11 truly did change the world. It forced all terrorism to become organized and fiercely professional. We are now only as safe as we are vigilant."

If the Madrid attacks prove to be the work of Islamic cells retaliating against countries that support the U.S. in the Middle East, what does that mean for the already strained relations between Washington and Europe?

U.S. and European capitals have been bickering over how to fight terrorism and rogue states the Bush administration prefers pre-emptive strikes while Europe stresses instigating social and economic change in countries that spawn militants.

The Spanish and Polish governments sent troops to Iraq against the overwhelming wishes of their people. Warsaw announced today that it was tightening security around the nation's airports and trains stations to counter any possible Al-Qaeda terrorist attack.

Some newspapers in Europe have satirically asked whether Spainards will accept Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Iraq policy if they must live with the threats of more explosions.

"If international terrorists took revenge for Madrid's support of the U.S., then the (Aznar) government would be to blame for the deaths of hundreds of people," opined the Moscow daily Kommersant.

Rather than divide, the bombings appear to have brought Europe together. France's bitter opposition to the Iraq war often marred relations between Madrid and Paris over the last year.

But President Jacques Chirac who survived an assassination attempt in 2002 by a man with neo-Nazi links and other French leaders said the threat of terrorism must be countered with a united approach.

"France is at Spain's disposal. Terrorism shall not pass," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Many Europeans spent today watching TV and thumbing through newspapers, fixated on images of blood and battered train cars that were much closer to home than an ocean away.

"It's like if a brutal shock has woken us from a long, blissful, stupid dream of extraneousness and immunity," states a front-page editorial in Italy's Correire Della Sera. "Suddenly we can't any longer. . . act as if the devastation of the world doesn't regard us."

Times Staff Writers Janet Stobart in London; Livia Borghese in Rome and Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this report.

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