They had the names. They knew when and where the men met and how they raised money. They even had the cell -phone numbers of the group's leaders. But with all that information, police were still unable to prevent the bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004.
Spaniards have known for months that, long before the bombings occurred, police and intelligence forces here were monitoring the individuals who would carry out the attacks. But last week, El Mundo newspaper published 12 notes written by Abdelkader el-Farssaoui, imam of a mosque outside Madrid and informer to the intelligence unit of the national police, that describe with chilling specificity the members and activities of the suspected cell. Since the report, the debate over whether the police could have prevented the bombings has intensified, with the opposition Popular Party voicing demands for more hearings on the attacks.
El Farssaoui, who went by the code name "Cartagena," began providing Spanish police with information in October 2002. He identified Serhane Abdelmajid, who would later kill himself and six associates by setting off explosives when police converged on their apartment, as the leader. In February 2003, he observed that Jamal Zougam, currently awaiting trial as a presumed author of the attacks, had joined the cell. And he recounted how Mohammed Larbi Ben Sellam, suspected of a role in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, had told him that "he didn't understand why most were so obsessed with going to ... Afghanistan to make jihad when the same kind of operation was possible in other countries, like Morocco and Spain."
The national police will not comment on the report. But Isidoro Zamorano, spokesman for the Spanish Confederation of Police, a union group, said he was confident that street-level officers had not withheld information. "My colleagues fulfilled their responsibilities," said Mr. Zamorano. "What happened when that information was passed up [the police hierarchy], I don't know. That's for a judge to decide."
Some suggest that the new evidence proves the police could have stopped the Madrid bombings. In an unsigned editorial, El Mundo stated, "In light of these revelations it is clear that the attacks in Madrid could have been avoided through diligent police action or judicial intervention ... neither of which happened."
Angel Zuriñaga, who was injured in the bombings, agrees. "With this information the police and the Civil Guard should have been able to prevent the disaster. At the very least, they should have put better surveillance on the suspects," he says.
Many terrorism experts, however, are hesitant to blame the police. Rogelio Alonso, political science professor at King Juan Carlos University, says, "You can't just say that the police could have prevented the attacks - it's more complicated than that. There are a lot of reasons why they didn't: a lack of resources, inertia, the fact that they were accustomed to thinking about terrorism in terms of [Basque terrorist group] ETA."
Rafael Bardají, director of International Policy at the FAES Foundation, a Spanish think tank, asserts that the police did not knowingly suppress evidence. "Police and intelligence were working under the mental framework that Islamists would never attack Spain," he says. "So we can't say that they knew what was going to happen."
Indeed, Bardají, a former Defense Ministry official, explains that Spanish security forces believed that Islamist extremists operating in Spain focused on logistical support for terrorists elsewhere. "It was thought that they would never attack Spain because the support apparatus was so important," he says.
The 9/11 commission in the US identified a similar "failure of imagination" when it sought to understand why security forces could not prevent the Sept. 11th attacks, despite having information about the plotters.
Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, testified in the US hearings. He notes that counterterrorism forces have since worked to hire more agents with the same linguistic and ethnic backgrounds as presumed terrorists, and to think more unconventionally about threats. But he notes, "As security measures tighten," he says, "the adversaries get more innovative."
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands gathered at a public rally in Madrid called by terrorist victims groups. The protest was primarily directed against the government's recent offer to negotiate with ETA if the separatist group abandons violence. But protesters also voiced another complaint, repeatedly chanting: "We want to know what happened on March 11."