The Spanish People Show the Way

[Note: This is one of the March 14 entries of Empire Notes, a daily updated blog by Rahul Mahajan, a frequent ZNet writer.]


March 14, 6:10 pm EST. I was waiting until the returns were in from Spain. Well, with 79% of the vote counted, the Socialist Party declared a surprise victory and Mariano Rajoy, Aznar’s handpicked successor as head of the Popular Party, conceded defeat. Projections were that the Socialists would have 164 out of 350 seats in the Parliament and that the Popular Party would fall from 183 to 147.

What an amazing political dynamic emerged in Spain. First, in what is pretty close to an unprecedented event, an estimated 11 million people came out to protest terrorism. There were also 5,000 people who protested Aznar, calling for him to come clean and blaming him for his support of the Iraq war. They were dispersed by the police with nightsticks and tear gas on that day of solidarity for all Spaniards.

This just prompted further protests yesterday. Both Aznar and Rajoy were jeered by protesters as they went to vote. And 62% of the electorate voted, as opposed to 55% last time in 2000.

The big question politically was who was responsible for the attacks. Here’s a summary of the evidence for the claim that it was al-Qaeda (am I missing anything? Let me know):

  • There were 10 simultaneous attacks on commuter trains, timed to go off at rush hour to maximize the loss of life, killing at least 200. This is precisely the MO of al-Qaeda. ETA, on the other hand, generally phones in a warning and in recent years has almost exclusively concentrated on killing government officials. Also, the largest number ETA had ever killed in one attack was 21 in a supermarket parking lot in 1987 — an attack it later characterized as an “error.”
  • An email was sent to the London newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. In part, it said, “The death squad (of the Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades) succeeded in penetrating the crusader European depths to strike one of the pillars of the crusader alliance – Spain – with a painful blow. These bomb attacks were part of settling old scores with the crusader Spain for its war against Islam.” (full text here).
  • The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment claimed that documents it found last year on an Arabic website suggested Spain as a target and said, in part, “We must make maximum use of the proximity to the elections in Spain in March next year. Spain can stand a maximum of two or three attacks before they will withdraw from Iraq.”
  • The Basque newspaper Gara claimed on Friday that a caller from the ETA had denied responsibility.
  • Arnaldo Otegi, the spokesman for Batasuna, the illegal Basque separatist party most closely associated with ETA, condemned the attacks.
  • Julien de Madariga, estranged founder of ETA, claimed that this attack did not bear the hallmarks of ETA.

  • And, of course, a van was found with a tape in Arabic. This is a weird piece of evidence, since why would an Arab Islamist need such a tape (described in some reports as a beginning instructional tape on the Koran)? Of course, even if evidence was planted to implicate al-Qaeda, this doesn’t mean it wasn’t al-Qaeda.
On the other side is the claim that the explosive used (titadine, a concentrated form of dynamite) is commonly used by ETA, and the arrest in December of an ETA volunteer who was planning to bomb a train.

Despite this, to my mind, fairly overwhelming evidence that it was al-Qaeda, Aznar continued to insist that it was ETA. The most interesting thing about it is this. If it was ETA, this would likely help the Popular Party in the polls, since it has taken a tough anti-ETA stand. On the other hand, if it was al-Qaeda, then many Spaniards would blame Aznar, saying it was because of Spain’s illegitimate involvement in the illegitimate occupation of Iraq and its support for the war.

Obviously, there was a sharp swing in the turnout and the results because many people decided to punish Aznar for making them more of an al-Qaeda target. This is fascinating. As the blogger Atrios pointed out a few days ago, conventional wisdom is that a terrorist attack in the United States a few days before the election would have the opposite effect, of giving Bush a boost.

Watch for the right wing to start  bloviating about Spanish “appeasement.”  Instead of casting it as a question of whether or not you want to get tough on terrorists, we need to start recasting this very serious question as whether we want to take steps that will actually weaken al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations or do we want to continue in this mode of strengthening them that we’ve had since 9/11? The Spanish people are showing the way — and doing it just days after their horrific tragedy. Perhaps, two and a half years after ours, we can start to learn too.

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