The Strategic Surprise of the 2004 Madrid Bombings

The terrorist bombings on four commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004 presented a shock not only for Spain but the whole world as well. The following article seeks to analyze the strategic surprise of 3/11 attacks by exploring the background situation before the bombings, causes behind the failure of Spanish security apparatus and effects of the attacks.

Author: Pavel Doško, master student of Security and Strategic Studies at Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.

1 Introduction

The terrorist bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004[1] left a massive carnage of 191 dead and almost 2,000 wounded and they shocked the entire world. The attacks happened exactly 2.5 years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States of America and only three days before general elections in Spain (Garcia, 2011). They presented a strategic surprise and eventually led to withdrawal of Spanish military personnel from Iraq. They also had impact on the elections, policies of Spain and they even had repercussions on level of the European Union and its member states too (Dannenbaum, 2011; Thieux, 2004).

This paper seeks to analyze the strategic surprise of the 3/11 attacks. The timing just before Spanish general elections leaves little doubt of the terrorist’s intents. Most importantly, we look at the effects of the strategic surprise – that is the effects caused by surprising strategy which succeeded in achieving the state of surprise through unexpected attack (Morris, 2009). Therefore, the paper seeks to answer a question: “What were the effects of the strategic surprise of the 2004 Madrid Bombings?”

The paper is a case study, which derives mostly from appropriate secondary academic literature. In order to find an answer to the research question the paper first looks at the background situation before the 3/11 bombings. Then it focuses on the attacks themselves, which are analyzed for effects of strategy surprise. The results are summarized in the conclusion where we also answer the research question.

2 Background

Spain is a country with a 1.4 million large Muslim community and even has two autonomous cities, Ceuta and Melilla, under its jurisdiction in North Africa. Spain is very close to North Africa with its local terrorist and radical groups and it participated in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with strong contingents at the same time (Dannenbaum, 2011; Reinares 2009). Especially war in Iraq was not popular with the general public and it became politicized as a topic of election campaign in upcoming general parliamentary elections to be held on March 14, 2004 (Ibid.; Lia & Hegghamer, 2004). According to polls, the front-runner of the election was the incumbent Prime Minister José María Aznar. His party Partido Popular (PP, Popular Party) had support of ca. 43 %, while the second party – Partida Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) – led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had about 37.7 % according to the polls. It is important that the incumbent PP was supporting the continuation of military presence in Iraq, while the PSOE favoured withdrawal of forces (Dannenbaum, 2011).

Before the attack Spain had been used to terrorist attacks for a long time. However, these were attacks of limited scale by Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), an ethnic separatist terrorist organization. The Spanish security apparatus was well-developed and experienced in fighting ETA terrorism. However, it lagged behind in regards to radical Islamists (Reinares, 2009) despite the fact that the country had experience with them as they used the Iberian Peninsula due to its proximity to North Africa, historical links with Islam as well as openness to immigration. Spain had even become a transit country and logistical hub for radical Islamist and terrorist groups in the late 1990s (Garcia, 2011).

Spain was therefore ill prepared to deal with Islamist terrorism, with too few officers and resources allocated to this task (Ibid.; Jordan & Mañas & Horsburg, 2008), even though Spanish authorities arrested dozens of Islamist radicals suspected of involvement in planning of terrorist activities (Reinares, 2010). This unpreparedness is surprising especially due to a fact that Spain had already discovered Al Qaeda presence on its soil, which led to arrest of several of its members in 2001. However, Al Qaeda had cells in Spain since the 1990s (Celso, 2009). The same applies to growing affiliation of nearby North African terrorist groups towards Al Qaeda and the 2003 Casablanca Bombing (Reinares, 2010). Spain also had seen a presence of terrorists from the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, and also from the MICG, the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group. The MICG was in fact a part of the network that was behind the 3/11 bombings (Ibid.).

The attacks themselves were preceded by several warnings and terrorist threats that ultimately did not lead to any government action prior to the attacks. Besides general threats towards the West by Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations, Osama bin Laden warned Spain and five other countries in October 2003 for their involvement in Iraq (Reinares, 2010). This threat was reinforced in December, when multiple jihadi websites published a 42-page long document called “Iraqi Jihad, Hopes and Risks” that provided strategy guidelines for terrorist operations just before important political events that would influence European politics (Atran, 2006, p. 130). At the same time, it identified Spain as the weakest link of the coalition troops in Iraq (Lia & Hegghamer, 2004). This document was followed by another one, providing guidelines specifically for strategic use of Spanish elections (Atran, 2006). The Spanish security authorities also knew about part of the network that was behind the 3/11 bombings. From 2002 on they were receiving intelligence from a clergyman in one of Madrid’s mosques about a radicalized group called Al Haraka Salafiya, which very soon decided to conduct jihad in Marocco and Spain and started preparing for it (Atran, 2006).

Spanish legionaries in Iraq (Source:

3 The 3/11 Bombings

In early morning of March 11, 2004, four commuter trains en route to Madrid were boarded[2] by 13 terrorists from an Al Qaeda affiliated grass-root Jihadi network. They placed 13 bags of explosive devices with 10 kilograms of dynamite and shrapnel into different carriages between the trains (Carresi, 2008). Between 7.37 and 7.41 AM local time during a morning rush, the explosive devices were remotely detonated by cell phones (Reinares, 2010).

Even though only 10 of the 13 bombs exploded, they brought about massive destruction. The explosions were situated to moments when the trains were in stations to maximize the damage (Reinares, 2010).[3] The attacks claimed lives of 175 people on the spot and further 16 during medical treatment, with further almost 2,000 wounded (Carresi, 2008). The bombings also claimed massive direct financial costs of above 200 million Euros, making them the most devastating terrorist attack in the European Union so far (Reinares, 2010). The attacks were supplemented by statements of the responsible terrorist network that claimed responsibility and threatened with more attacks should Spain continue military presence on Muslim lands (Ibid.).

The bombings were conducted by radical Islamists, more precisely by an Al Qaeda affiliated network of mostly home-grown Jihadists that came together in the late 2002 and early 2003 (Reinares, 2010). This network was created from several different clusters. One of them was remnants of the Moroccan Islamist Combatant Group cell, another was remnants of Al Qaeda that was present in Spain till the 1990s, and some members came from the criminal scene, particularly from drug and stolen cars trafficking (Ibid.; Jordan & Mañas & Horsburgh, 2008).

There were at least 27 terrorists involved in the bombings, all of them Muslims, mostly young and single immigrants from North Africa. As is apparent from the network’s birth, most of them already had terrorist history and some of them were known terrorists that were affiliated with different groups in the past. The group operated independently, as a node in a larger network of Al Qaeda, to which it was affiliated and with which it also loosely communicated, and certainly shared its goals (Ibid.). It derived the strategic goal to influence the elections from Al Qaeda, however the tactical aspects were entirely upon the network (Atran, 2006). It is also notable that the network planned further attacks on soft targets such as a Jewish school, more trains, schools, etc., but it was disbanded early, on April 3, 2004 (Reinares, 2010).[4]

4 Strategic Surprise of the 3/11 Bombings and Its Effects

The attacks shocked not only Spain, but the European Union and the whole world too. It is very clear that the attacks constituted a successful tactical surprise. This surprise was achieved in spite of poor tactical tradecraft of the terrorist network.[5] While tactical surprise is a precondition for most successful terrorist attacks, it enables the strategic surprise to take place as well and its effects then allow the terrorists to achieve their strategy (Morris, 2009). Firstly, we look at how the surprise itself came about, and then we focus on the effects the surprise brought.

4.1 Strategic Surprise of the 3/11 Bombings

The causes that enabled the strategic surprise of the 3/11 bombings are multiple. It is obvious that there was an intelligence failure, which was caused by a lot of different factors. This intelligence failure effectively allowed the terrorist tactical surprise to succeed, even in spite of the already mentioned signals and known facts (Bracken & Bremmer & Gordon, 2008). While there was an obvious intelligence failure, it should be mentioned that the bombings in fact constitute a so-called “black swan” incident as it is both an extreme event and it has a very low probability of happening at the same time, with major consequences, that however appear more probable in the hindsight (Aven, 2013).

As was already mentioned, there were widely known clear Jihadi guidelines that called for attacks against Western targets, as well as calls for such attacks and promises of them. Most stringently as the strongest signal, there was a guideline for strategic use of general elections in Spain as the weakest link (Atran, 2006; Lia & Hegghamer, 2004). These represented clear signals of the impending attack. Other signal was timely intelligence from the Madrid mosque clergyman who had been providing information about the radicalizing group since 2002. However, he lost access to the group in the final months (Jordan & Mañas & Horsburgh, 2008). On the other hand, these could have well been noises. Al Qaeda had been issuing warnings of attacks for a long time (Byman, 2005), even though the 9/11 attacks on the U. S. confirmed their resolve; and so did radical Islamists seeking to include the “Andalus” into the Muslim world again (Kenney, 2010).

While these could have been regarded as noises, they proved to be signals in the end and the intelligence failure lies in not seeing them as such, nor paying sufficient attention to them. The Spanish security apparatus apparently failed to connect the dots provided by the signals, which were taken more as noises (Bracken & Bremmer & Gordon, 2008). This is mostly due to underestimation of the threat, which we see as the most important cause of the intelligence failure that allowed the strategic surprise to take place.

It was the underestimation of threats, terrorist capabilities, seriousness of situation regarding Islamist radicals in Spain and underestimation of terrorists’ resolve that led to situation. Some underestimations are part of the intelligence failure; some are part of the government’s cognitive failure, as well as general public’s. While the intelligence community and the security apparatus in general had underestimated the local radical Islamists and paid too much attention towards ETA, the government followed suit and did not provide enough resources to do so. Nor had it or general public which ultimately guides the government’s policies paid enough attention to the clear threats (Atran, 2006; Celso, 2009; Reinares, 2010). We also believe that reactions of the general public after the attack led to realization of the strategic surprise and its effects and therefore constitute a cognitive failure ex post.

In addition, underestimation was also result of mirror-imaging as one of the underlying causes of the intelligence failure. This mirror-imaging may be seen in regards to ETA terrorism, which was abating at that time and ETA faced a serious crisis. Besides, ETA conducted usually only smaller scale attacks and the Spanish security apparatus was quite capable in regards to ETA (Reinares, 2010). The same apparatus, however, proved woefully incapable in regards to the Islamist terrorists.

Last but not least, a lack of communication played its part. Not only communication about the threats, which did not lead to raised security measures by the police, but also about the Jihadi network that was eventually behind the bombings and about which the Spanish security apparatus has known since 2002 (Atran, 2006). The authorities did not connect the dots regarding guidelines for attacks before the elections, nor did they provide this information across the whole security apparatus, which could have been on alert. The discussed terrorists’ lack of tradecraft knowledge could then lead to foiling the attacks (Kenney, 2010).

Shortly after the attacks.

4.2 Effects of the 3/11 Bombings’ Strategic Surprise

The attacks shocked the world, and more than so did they shock Spain. These surprising bombings thus started to capitalize into strategic effects. Immediately following the attacks, the atmosphere in Spain changed rapidly. Anger, sadness, disgust and fear were dominant emotions among the Spaniards following the attacks (Conejero & Etxebarria, 2007). Due to smaller size of the country, the observed emotional effect was even stronger than in the United States of America following the 9/11 attacks (Steger & Frazier & Zacchanini, 2008).[6]

When faced with elections just three days after the bombings, majority of Spaniards eventually decided to cast their ballots for Zapatero’s PSOE, which promised to withdraw Spanish forces from Iraq. Just one week before the elections, the incumbent Aznar’s PP had over 5% margin on the PSOE, which was effectively overcome by the terrorist attacks, thus allowing terrorists to accomplish their strategy at full (Dannenbaum, 2011; Reinares, 2010). It is to be noted that PP’s effort to conceal the attack as ETA’s work did not help matters in this regard (Dannenbaum, 2011).

Due to the massive magnitude of the 3/11 bombings, the newly elected Zapatero’s government decided quickly to greatly beef up police and intelligence services dealing with radical Islamists. Shortly, the government also decided to create new authorities and coordination procedures to increase effectiveness of the security apparatus altogether, but especially towards radical Islamists. The approach was two-fold; the heightening security was accompanied by social and economic measures as well as confirming religious freedoms and support for moderate imans. Spain had even legalized undocumented population in 2005 in effort to appease radicals (Celso, 2009; Garcia, 2011).

The newly elected Zapatero’s PSOE government believed that participation in the war in Iraq made Spain a target for the terrorists. It broke off the previous administration’s policies very quickly. The socialists promised a rapid withdrawal of forces from Iraq before the 3/11 bombings as Zapatero believed: “that terrorism flows from a ‘sea of injustice’” (Celso, 2009, p. 15), but the bombings only toughened this position. It is plausible that if the PSOE was elected even without the bombings, they would have withdrawn the forces from Iraq nonetheless. On the other hand, the bombings sped up the process and the government believed that withdrawal would protect Spain from further attacks (Ibid.).

However, even in spite of Spanish withdrawal from Iraq, Jihadi terrorist threats to the country did not disappear – there were several bombing plots that were foiled by the authorities in the coming years (Atran, 2006). On the other hand, the fact these attacks were foiled would seem to confirm the success of post-3/11 policies against Jihadi terrorists. Nevertheless, the attempts still existed, which later led the government to focus more on law enforcement and cease the earlier social and economic measures to supplement it (Celso, 2009).

Furthermore, the newly elected Prime Minister Zapatero came with an initiative of a “Alliance of Civilizations”, which was unveiled at the United Nations in 2005. This initiative, supported mainly by Turkey, was a mean for dialogue between the Western and Islamic worlds that would serve as a tool to resolve conflicts peacefully through cooperation and conferences at many levels such as education, culture, religion, etc. (Celso, 2009). Reversal of the policy after the 3/11 attacks is more than apparent – a country that had more than a thousand soldiers in Iraq became an apostle of inter-civilization peace.

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Source:

Due to interconnectedness and existence of European security bodies dealing with terrorism, the strategic surprise hit not only Spain, but the European Union too. The attacks immediately led to adoption of the EU Action Plan for the Fight Against Terrorism in March 2004 and later in 2005 to the EU Strategy on the Fight Against Terrorism (Reinares, 2010). Other measures to fight terrorism, such as the Hague Programme, beefing up of capabilities, enhanced intelligence sharing and increased focus on Jihadis, were greatly supported due to the 3/11 bombings, as well as due to the 2005 attacks in London (Mulqueen, 2005). Additionally, neighbouring countries of Spain heightened their security measures and enhanced mutual cooperation on the matter, and similarly did other European states through the Prüm Treaty (Ibid.; Reinares, 2010). In many cases, Spain was the engine behind these initiatives, and it itself strengthened also bilateral relations, especially with the United States of America (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, it is notable that while the terrorists achieved their goal of influencing the elections and withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, they did not bring about withdrawal of other countries at that time, nor did they achieve Spanish withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was a goal secondary to withdrawal from Iraq. Moreover, thanks to heightened security measures and enhanced cooperation, they did not succeed in further attacks in Spain (Dannenbaum, 2011).

5 Conclusion

The 10 explosions on passenger trains in Madrid on March 11, 2004, exactly 2.5 years after the 9/11 attacks and 3 days before elections in Spain, not only cause massive loss of life and property, but they constituted a strategic surprise. This strategic surprise was allowed by intelligence failure caused most importantly by underestimation. The signals of the attack were present; however they did not warrant any action on part of the Spanish authorities.

The attack was a strategic surprise, a “black swan” that achieved strong effects. The Al Qaeda affiliated home-grown network of terrorists accomplished their immediate goals and were able to influence Spanish elections and therefore they achieved Spanish withdrawal from Iraq, their most important goal. On the other hand, the 3/11 bombings caused massive strengthening of Spanish security forces and enhancing cooperation, both internally and also internationally. Also the European Union has developed more counter-terrorist measures. In the end, these measures proved to be successful against further attacks in Spain, which were usually stopped in preparation phases. The terrorists also failed to succeed with their overall strategy to force European allies to withdraw from Iraq (at the time) and Afghanistan.

[1] The 2004 Madrid train bombings are referred as the 11-M or the 3/11 attacks (Celso, 2009; Dannenbaum, 2011).

[2] It is interesting to note that the terrorists boarded the trains in one station, the Alcalá de Henares Station, close to Madrid. Apparently, this tactical mistake did not stop the attack (Carresi, 2008).

[3] Only one of the trains was outside a station. It was 800 meters outsider of it (Reinares, 2010).

[4] Several members of the network were arrested as early as March 13, 2013, only two days after the 3/11 bombings. The rest were located later in early April and they blew themselves up, while at least two escaped and later became suicide bombers in Iraq (Reinares, 2010).

[5] As was already mentioned, the terrorists boarded the trains at the same station at the same time together. Furthermore, one of the coordinators was so reckless in preparation and transport of explosives that he was actually stopped by the police. Then, 3 out of 13 bombs did not explode at all and led the investigators to quick discovery of the group, which did not scatter and run, but rather stayed at one place (Carresi, 2008; Kenney, 2010).

[6] It is notable that the attacks had also severe long term medical implications for lot of Spaniards. It was found in studies that reactions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety occurred with larger frequency in years after the 3/11 bombings; but on the hand some residents were able to use this experience in a positive way as the so-called posttraumatic growth (Val & Lindley, 2006).

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