Spaniards united in loss but divided on lessons
Friday, Spain marks the first anniversary of the train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people.
MADRID — The changes of the past year are etched on Zahira Obaya's pretty face. She was 21 years old when she boarded a commuter train on her way to work last March 11. When the bombs exploded a few minutes later, her face was almost completely destroyed, and today, a piece of gauze covers her missing eye. "There is no justification for what they did," she says. "But I think I can understand how the war, the killings, would create that kind of hatred."
Ms. Obaya is living proof that the Spanish response to the worst terrorist attack in the country's history is nothing if not complicated. As experts and world leaders gather here this week to hammer out an agreement on how best to fight terror democratically, they do so in a city that has reached little consensus on what last year's attacks meant.
Seventy five people have been implicated in the attacks; 28 of them are in Spanish custody. The investigations will probably continue for several more months, but judicial reports suggest that a loose network of individuals, some with connections to the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, used criminal contacts and drug money to obtain the explosives that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,500 others at a Madrid train station.
Although many of those suspects had been monitored by the Spanish police, opinions differ as to whether the bombings could have been prevented. Manuel Navarrete, a counterterrorism expert in the Civil Guard, says Spanish security forces could not have predicted the attacks. "We didn't see the immense face of Islamist terrorism at the time," he says.
But Jose Maria Irujo, author of a recently published work on Al Qaeda in Spain, notes that although police and intelligence forces recognized that Spain was a staging ground for terrorist groups, they failed to realize that Spain itself was a target. "There was no central body through which information from the police, the National Intelligence Center, and the Civil Guard could be collected - each group worked independently," he says. "If we had had that center, March 11th could have been prevented."
Just such an oversight organization now exists, and the members of the national police dedicated to fighting Islamist terror have increased 300 percent in the past 12 months. Still, there is little agreement here on whether Spain is safer now than it was a year ago.
Laura Fernandez, a student at the Louis Braille high school in Coslada, admits that she is more frightened now than before. "I'm sure they're going to strike again," she says. But others, like Belen Arias, a recreational therapist who takes the train line where the bombs exploded, says she is not. "You have to keep going," she says. "You can't live your life in fear."
One group that has felt fear is Spain's Muslim community. Obaya says that her Moroccan friend Mohammed Bouzidi was afraid to go out in the streets after the attacks. "He thought people were looking at him funny, thinking that he was responsible," she says. But feared reprisals have not materialized.
In fact, Moneir Mahmoud, the imam at Madrid's largest mosque, says that Spaniards have acted fairly. "They haven't closed any mosques, and they're only holding those in prison whom they have evidence on," he says. "I think the government is doing well." Mr. Irujo, however, worries about the government's arrests. "For every person the police detain," he says, "three people are radicalized."
The attacks continue to fracture Spanish political life. After the bombing, many Spaniards reckoned that their country had been attacked because it supported President Bush and the Iraq war. And they grew suspicious that government officials were unfairly blaming Basque terrorist group ETA for the attacks. So in national elections on March 14, they rejected Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party, electing a Socialist administration led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Mr. Zapatero quickly made good on his campaign promise to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq, deepening the transatlantic rift.
"We were a terrorist objective for Islamists because we had troops in Iraq," says Pilar Manjon, who lost a son in the attacks and who heads the Association of those Affected by March 11.
Mr. Aznar insists there was no link between Spain's role in the Iraq war and the attacks.
Even planned commemorations have been marred by political division and controversy. The Spanish government will mark the tragedy with a short ceremony in the Retiro Park. At the request of Ms. Manjon's group, that ceremony will be silent.
But another group, the Association of Victims of Terrorism, which has criticized the government's treatment of the victims, will hold a separate ceremony in the park, one hour after the official one.
For some of the people most deeply affected by the attacks, those ceremonies have little meaning. Jesus Abril's son Oscar died in the bombings, but Mr. Abril plans to spend the day at home. "I'm going to turn off my cellphone, lock the door, close the blinds," he says. "For us, there is no commemoration, only mourning."
• Geoff Pingree contributed to this article from Madrid.