The Truth About 3/11

Jose Maria Aznar, the outgoing Spanish prime minister, has a piece in today’s WSJ [james@otb] defending his honor:

As on any other day when we have been struck by a terrorist outrage, Spaniards had a right to the truth on March 11. Under the impact of that massacre, and in the consternation that comes from pain and fury, my compatriots deserved the honest evidence that emerged from the investigations. And that is what my government gave them.

In the hours that followed the attacks, our investigation focused on one obvious suspect, the Basque terrorist group ETA. It was a reasonable inference to make, and those who say otherwise are being either naive or dishonest. History has left us with clear evidence of ETA’s sinister habit of killing during election campaigns. The terrorists always attempt to soak our democracy in blood on the days when we Spaniards go to the polls to reaffirm our liberties.

ETA has committed more than 800 murders, among other crimes, over three decades, and has sought always to weaken and divide our democracy, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. A few days earlier, the group had tried to carry out an attack with 500 kilograms of explosives, one that failed only due to the intervention of the Guardia Civil, the national police. Those detained in this failed attack had a map that highlighted the zone of the Henares Pathway, through which run the trains that were targeted on March 11. And it was ETA that, on Christmas Eve, attempted another slaughter at Madrid’s Chamartin station, also thwarted by our National Police. And to continue the ghoulish catalog, the same terrorist group brought two vans loaded with more than 1 1/2 tons of explosives to Madrid in December 1999. Once again, our security forces foiled what would have been mass murder.

My government was not alone in attributing the March 11 attacks to ETA. In the first few hours, the president of the Basque Autonomous Region, the secretary general of the Socialist Party, the general coordinator of the United Left and the secretary general of Catalonia’s Esquerra Republicana, among others, did likewise.


On the afternoon of March 11, however, the Ministry of the Interior, having been informed that an Arabic-language tape and several detonators had been found in a vehicle, ordered the opening of a new line of investigation. The ministry immediately informed the public of this.
Although ETA continued to be our prime suspect, we did not dismiss any evidence pointing elsewhere. This is what I explained in my public appearance on March 12, the day after. Apart from the tape, which was of a commercial nature and had no immediate terrorist connotation, there were only very dubious messages from groups taking responsibility. All these fragments of evidence needed to be examined with the utmost attention and precaution.

As soon as there were signs of other possibilities besides ETA, the government placed them before our citizens. On the very night of the attack, all of Spain knew what course the investigation was taking. On Saturday, Spaniards were informed of all arrests made by the police. The government revealed all that it reasonably could reveal without jeopardizing the investigations.

I agree that it was reasonable to presume ETA was the culprit. Still, Aznar kept the focus on them even after it was rather clear that al Qaeda was the much more likely perpetrator of the atrocities. Indeed, he still seems to be doing so:

The debates that followed the Madrid attacks have been about whether they were carried out by ETA or al Qaeda. It is obviously essential to find out who was behind the attacks. But all terrorism carries the same threat; all terrorist attacks are infused with hatred for liberty, democracy and human dignity. They feed on each other.

Up until the attacks of September 11, Spain took great pains to demonstrate to the outside world that terrorism was not an isolated phenomenon, that it shouldn’t be fought by its immediate victims alone. Following the collapse of the Twin Towers, a new consciousness about the world-wide reach of terrorism finally emerged.

ETA or al Qaeda–the difference is important, to be sure, but the response to what has happened should be the same: firmness, political unity and international cooperation. Each and every democrat in the world was on those trains in Madrid. It has been an attack against all of us, against everything we believe in, and against everything we have built.

It is precisely for this reason that we must not send out confusing messages, messages that induce people to believe that we have to make concessions to those demanding that we kneel before bombs. This is not the moment to think about withdrawals of troops. And much less when the terrorists, with their message of death and destruction, have demanded that we surrender. To yield now would set a dangerous precedent that would allow our attackers to believe that they have imposed their conditions on us. It would allow our attackers to believe that they have won.

A fair point.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Policing, Terrorism, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. It is a good piece. Unfortunately, as I said over at the Butcher’s Shop, it looks an aweful lot like that crushing reply you think of a week too late. Aznar should have been saying these things over and over immediately after the attacks. If he did, he didn’t say it loud enough.