MADRID – Twenty-nine suspects went on trial Thursday for the March 11, 2004, bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid. But Spain’s political parties and news media have turned the investigation of the attack into a partisan battle, fraying the country’s traditional solidarity against terrorism and leaving Spaniards bitterly divided over who launched the attack and why.
The strongest evidence collected by investigators suggests that the bombings – which killed 191 people and injured 1,824 in the worst terrorist attack ever carried out in continental Europe – was the work of Islamic radicals inspired by al-Qaida, principally in retaliation for the stationing of Spanish troops in Iraq.
But leaders of the conservative Popular Party continue to claim that the Basque separatist movement known as ETA had a central role in the bombings.
“The main success of the bombing was to introduce a deeply-rooted division in the country, socially and politically, which is amazing in a country that had a history of being united against terror before March 11,” said Fernando Reinares, an international terrorism expert at Madrid’s Elcano Royal Institute. “After March 11, Spain started a blame game that is unending.”
Some of the confusion over who committed the attack and why should be resolved during the trial that began Thursday in a special high-security courthouse outside Madrid. The proceedings are expected to last until July.
But rather than leading to national healing and catharsis, Reinares said, he fears the trial will deepen political rifts and further fray the long-standing Spanish consensus on fighting terrorism, forged during the nearly four-decade battle against ETA.
The bombings became politically charged almost immediately. On the day of the blasts, the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar identified ETA as the prime suspect, an accusation it kept repeating even as evidence mounted that Islamic extremists had carried out the bombings.
When Spaniards went to the polls three days later, political analysts said, they voted against the Popular Party government not so much for pursuing policies that might have led to the attack – such as sending Spanish troops to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq – as for seemingly trying to cover up the role of Islamic extremists.