Since last Thursday's tragic events in Madrid and their impact on Sunday on the course of the Spanish elections, a great deal of commentary in blogosphere has been focused on what happened and why, as well as their potential for impact on the American elections that will occur this November. This analysis will endeavor to address some of those concerns, but I will be quite frank: this was a definitive victory for al-Qaeda.
The Genesis of the Madrid Massacre Al-Qaeda attacking Spanish public transportation is certainly nothing new. Joe noted that attacks on public transportation are a logical outgrowth of the bus bombing tactics employed by Palestinian terrorists, particularly in Europe where they are used with a far greater frequency than here in the US. While I think he's correct to a certain extent, my own inclination would be to view the genesis of this particular terrorist brain bug as being in Chechnya rather than in the Palestinian territories in terms of the scale of the Madrid attacks. This all started on September 3, 2003 when a bomb planted on the train tracks between the Russian resort towns of Kislovodsk and Mineralnye Vody killed 4. The inspiration for this particular attack actually comes from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has employed similar attacks in India in the past. Then on December 5, 2003 Chechen suicide bombers killed 40 Russians in an attack on a commuter train just outside of Yessenturki. Finally, on February 6, 2004, Abu Walid al-Ghamdi masterminded an attack on the Moscow subway that killed 39 and likely prompted Russian intelligence to assassinate former Chechen president Yandarbiyev in Qatar. It is perhaps worth noting that in his most recent communique Abu Walid also threatened the Russian population if they re-elected Putin (an outcome that was, in my view, pre-determined before the voting ever began). Most of these attacks did not register the attention of Western and especially European observers, nor did incidents like this one in India on March 14, 2003. My own suspicion is that for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Russians have committed terrible atrocities in Chechnya, a number of governments are extremely uncomfortable about accepting Putin's claim that the Chechen rebels are directly tied to al-Qaeda on an operational level because they view it as justifying what the Russians are doing in Chechnya. It is not my intention to justify Russian policies in Chechnya, but these kind of "blind spots" where al-Qaeda involvement is not acknowledged for reasons of politics, whether it be in Chechnya or with regard to their cooperation with the governments (or at the various least elements within them) of Saudi Arabia and Iran are exceedingly dangerous because they deliberately encourage a kind of lax attitude that allows nascent threats to take root with lethal results - just as we saw in Madrid this last week. Perhaps we should just round up the usual suspects? The more immediate origins of the Madrid attacks, however, date back to the May 16, 2003 Casablanca bombings in Morocco. As this primer explains, Salafi Jihad, the Moroccan al-Qaeda affiliate, is decentralized under the command of local emirs, each operating out of a major Moroccan city. In Casablanca, it was Abdelhaq Moulsabbat served as the emir of Assirat al-Moustaquim, the subgroup within Salafi Jihad that perpetrated the Casablanca bombings. The Moroccan reaction to what happened in Casablanca actually serves as a fairly good example to other Arab countries of how to deal with al-Qaeda in a non-Western society. Moulsabbat was captured and likely tortured to death and 699 Salafi Jihad members arrested, including Moulsabbat's associate Pierre Richard Robert, the emir of Tangiers. In addition, King Mohammed denounced the attackers on national television, banned political parties set up along religious, ethnic, linguistic, or regional lines, having women deliver religious lectures during Ramadan, and pushing ahead with social reforms. All of these actions have been extremely beneficial for Morocco, but their unfortunate side effect is that the Salafi Jihad members who once planned revolution at home have been forced to flee abroard to avoid being detained by the authorities. They can't go to Algeria for fear of being detained by the military government there, so it appears that at least some of them have chosen to head north - to Spain. At least one of Pierre Richard Robert's minions, Abdulaziz Benayich, took that route and was planning an attack when he was arrested by Spanish authorities in likely preparation for an attack. According to the Washington Post, Morocco was able to trace the involvement of Abu Musab Zarqawi through $50,000-70,000 relayed from al-Qaeda to an unidentified Moroccan individual was described as being based outside of the country. Given that we now know that Jamal Zougam, one of the Moroccans arrested in the aftermath of the Madrid attacks, was both a follower of Imad Yarka (aka Abu Dahdah, the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leader in continental Europe pre-9/11) as well as that he left Morocco shortly before the bombings (echoes of Said Bahaji, anyone?), I think we can pretty well assume that Zougam was the controller for the Casablanca bombings. At the very least, the modus operandi appears consistent with previous attacks by Zarqawi and his followers. The fact that a key member of Zarqawi's own organization was also a follower of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leader in continental Europe should also clarify any lingering doubts as to Zarqawi's affiliations. In addition, Zougam is also linked to the Courtailler brothers as well as to Mohammed Fizazi, a member of al-Qaeda's "brain trust" who is in all likelihood a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks. That Zougam also had a document from what is likely the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (whose fighters were led by the late al-Qaeda leader Amir ibn al-Khattab in the early 1990s before he moved on to Chechnya) as well as a recruiting video from Dagestan in his possession further reinforces my theory that the genesis behind his attacks came from the Caucasus. A victory for al-Qaeda Claims that the results of the Spanish election amount to a victory for al-Qaeda are not simply idle rhetoric or speculation. Researchers at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment have discovered an al-Qaeda document posted online that clearly details a plan to influence the Spanish elections using a terrorist attack. Bjorn Stark and the New York Times have more of the same, but in light of this document, its size, and the detailed analysis of the Spanish politics going all the way back to 1982, my own view is that it is a genuine article, in which case there is no conclusion to be drawn except that the Socialist victory in Sunday's elections was in line with whatever design al-Qaeda has in store for Europe. Thus, as incoming Spanish prime minister Zapatero takes charge of his country he should do so with the knowledge that he is the man that al-Qaeda prefers to have in charge there. The polemical question of "Who would bin Laden vote for?" has been rather aptly answered with regard to Spain. This also explains why the network went to such lengths to claim responsibility for the attack. The initial communique from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades was viewed with a great deal of skepticism for a number of reasons best explained by MEMRI president Yigal Carmon. I myself differ with Carmon in that while I do not see the Brigades as an actual organization, I tend to think that they are a "generic" name used by one or more of the organization's numerous London-based front organizations (hence the difference vocabulary from that of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri) to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks and with the exception of the US blackout last summer, all of the attacks they've claimed have more or less panned out as legitimate al-Qaeda or affiliated attacks - the UN bombing in Baghdad, the four bombings in Istanbul, ect. However, because the Brigades' communique was viewed with skepticism, it appears that a decision was made to get the message out by any means necessary. Certainly the interesting circumstances under which the tape from Abu Dujan al-Afghani made their way into the hands of the Spanish media can be made to suggest an element of desperation on their part as far as desiring to get the tape out in the open before polling began for the election. Not being an expert with regard to Spanish politics, I am not in a position to say whether the Socialists or the Popular Party are more qualified to govern Spain. However, the fact of the matter is that the Popular Party would have almost certainly won re-election last Sunday if not for the events of the Madrid bombings and the ultimate results of the Spanish elections have been more or less akin to dumping blood in a shark tank with regard to international terrorism, al-Qaeda or otherwise - it's shown that terrorism works. Indeed, the dictionary definition of terrorism is: "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." The results of the Spanish elections, at least for al-Qaeda, will be a definite sign that democratic governments, at least in Europe, can be be both coerced and intimidated through mass casualty terrorist attacks. Also, it should be noted that Zapatero, the new Spanish prime minister, intends to pull Spain's 1,300 troops out of Iraq, thereby achieving the goal laid out in the al-Qaeda document. Honduras plans to follow suit, along with possibly El Salvador depending on the results of their own upcoming elections. Now statistically this is only ~1,600 troops total, a small fraction of the total number of deployed forces in Iraq, but the more nations decide to pull out the greater al-Qaeda believes its victory will be - both in dividing the US from the rest of the coalition as well as in terms of forcing far more soldiers than they could ever hope to kill to withdraw from Iraq. As Amir Taheri amongst other have noted, Iraq is now the central front of al-Qaeda's war against the West and by withdrawing their troops from there, the Spanish electorate should have no illusions that they will be anymore safer. As I noted at the beginning of this analysis, the idea for the Madrid bombings was likely based on the success of similar attacks that were launched in Russia - which resoundingly opposed the war in Iraq. Al-Qaeda hates Spain for, amongst other things, the loss Andalusia to the Reconquista and the fall of Grenada. In short, at the cost of several hundred to several thousand dollars and a handful of operatives, al-Qaeda has succeeded in ensuring the removal of ~1,600 troops from Iraq and successfully isolated the United States from what was previously one of its key allies. From a logistical standpoint, this an extremely low cost for such a resounding victory, which is one of the reasons why I expect that both members of the organization and their supporters are so giddy over what took place: it justifies their strategic outlook that Fourth Generation Warfare is optimum means through which defeat the West, just as bin Laden's military advisor Abu Ubeid al-Qurashi first wrote back on February 10, 2002. It can't happen here? One of the questions that is frequently being asked within blogosphere right now would be whether or not al-Qaeda might seek to engage in a similar "October Surprise" attack just prior to the US election with the interest of tilting the balance one way or another. I myself would be rather skeptical of this because at least one of the factors that contributed to the Socialist victory in Spain was that both sides immediately politicized the attack, with the Popular Party very much insinuating that the ETA had masterminded it (thereby justifying Aznar's hard line against the organization) and the Socialists blaming Aznar for bringing bin Laden's wrath down on Madrid. Ultimately, when evidence surfaced that it was al-Qaeda and not the ETA, the Popular Party was literally backed into a corner from a rhetorical standpoint and it was quite easy for the Socialists to convince voters that not only had Aznar provoked al-Qaeda but also that he had deliberately covered up evidence to that effect in order to shore up his party's electoral position. These dynamics, simply speaking, do not exist in the United States. Al-Qaeda was going to target us in any event, whether or not we took action against Iraq, and my own assessment is that most Americans are quite aware of this. More to the point, I am not entirely certain that the al-Qaeda leadership would seek to influence the US election were it to have an opportunity to do so - various communiques by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have singled out various administration officials by name, indications that the two men have personalized their war against America to a degree not before seen in the arena of international terrorism. Because of this, they may actually desire the current administration to remain in power in order to have the "honor" of defeating them (just as they planned to assassinate President Clinton during Oplan Bojinka), though rest assured that they will be quite content to continue killing Americans regardless of whoever occupies the White House. The more immediate danger, rather, lies in various European nations where a sizeable percentage of the population opposes the war in Iraq. Britain is probably safe for the time being - the opposition Tories are certainly just as if not more supportive of the war in Iraq as Blair's own Labour party, but this is not the case in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, ect. The same is also true of Eastern Europe, where opposition to the war in Iraq, though not nearly as massive as their western counterparts, could easily provoke as parliamentary crisis in the event of a major al-Qaeda attack. More to the point, as a result of the election results in Spain, al-Qaeda has sent a clear message: those European leaders who support America do so at their own national and political peril.