The attacks of March 11th in Madrid on four commuter trains, according to almost all accounts, were a complete surprise which caught the Popular Party government of José Maria Aznar, poised for victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections, completely by surprise, and his panicked reaction, blaming the Basque separatist movement ETA for them, converted the anticipated win into a crushing defeat for his successors. It was, it seems, another example of how the best laid plans can go awry because of some unexpected surprise - what apparently led to Emperor's Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.
Actually, Aznar's government was in a most precarious position in the election campaign because it had gone to war with American and Britain against Saddam Hussien's Iraq despite the overwhelming opposition of its electorate. Of course, once the bombardment of Baghdad began, and Coalition troops started streaming across Iraq's border with Kuwait, there was little that the Spanish people could do to register effectively its opposition to what was going on, but when it did have a chance,
it showed in no uncertain terms that it was against Madrid's involvement. In the 2003 elections in Catalonia, the Socialist Party under the new national leader José Luis Zapatero regained control of the provincial government from the PP.
Despite the wildly optimistic polls by the right-wing dominated press - none of them coming anywhere near the actual final result despite the favorable impact of the last-minute bombings on Madrid's vote - Aznar knew that without a sudden surprise, like Reagan's "October Surprise" in the 1980 presidential election against Jimmy Carter, he would be leaving his successor in the minority after the polls closed on March 14th.
Moreover, the election of Zapatero, solidly committed to withdrawing Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq after a decent interval if elected, would be followed by the likely re-opening on March 16th of Oxfordshire's coroner Nicholas Gardiner's suspended inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly - what threatened to spiral immediately out of control because of all the loose ends in the Hutton Inquiry's verdict into the biological weapons inspector's death on July 17th. Moreover, in the United States, Richard's Clarke's new book, Against All Enemies, had just been published, claiming that the Bush administration had completely dropped the ball in failing to prevent Al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11.
In sum, the Coalition of the willing knew that it was in desperate straits, despite public perceptions and media spin, as March 11th approached - what would trigger a series of events which could well lead to its whole collapse unless dire countermeasures were taken - what Bush's necons had similarly planned so carefully and successfully back in Florida during the presidential race against Al Gore. What was needed now was a surprise attack in Madrid - like what ETA had successfully carried out in the Spanish capital on May 28, 2001, a parcel exploding outside a bank, killing retired General Justo Areja, and injuriing nine others - and what ETA had recently attempted with the capitals railways but without success. Even Zapatero had indicated the crucial importance of Madrid's state of mind in determing the overall outcome.
Setting the scene for the great counterterrorist coup - sometimes helping start explosions can be more effective than stopping them - was provided by America's National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). According to James Bamford's Body of Secrets: How America's NSA and Britain's GCHQ Eavesdrop on the World, Anglo-American signal intelligence program Echelon is capable of monitoring virtually any conversation transmitted on the surface of the globe, provided it is not just a face to face one. Even whispers exchanged by dangerous characters behind a barn can be seen as significant by cryptographers if they are in lieu of their regular surface transmissions The only limitations on its capability are that it must have some idea of what to look for, and a willingness to succeed.
Britain gained this insight and capability the hard way by tailoring its transmissions from GCHQ during the Suez Crisis to suit the needs of its allies France and Israel, and at the expense of NSA. When Eisenhower learned of London's deceptions, his rage knew no bounds, and the plot became an utter fiasco which took years for the British to repair. By the end of the century, GCHQ was still junior partner in the enterprise, but a trusted enough one to have wide discretion in how it conducted its own eavesdropping, as helping frustrate Iran in 1997 from obtaining Chinese C-802 missiles through negotiations conducted in Southern France demonstrated, thanks to the orbitting of INTELSAT 707, and the listening post that the British had developed at Morwenstow in Cornwall. (Bamford, p.406ff.)
At the same time, NSA was conducting the other side of the monitoring operation in the Far and Middle East. In the process, it started listening to the uncoded calls that Osama Bin Laden was making on his portable INMARSAT phone. "According to intelligence officials," Banford wrote, "Bin Laden is aware that the United States can eavesdrop on his international communications, but he does not seem to care." (p. 410) While NSA officials got a big kick out of playing for visitors Bin Laden's convervations with his mother, Al-Qaeda had the last laughs, and keeps on laughing.
As the just released Presidential Daily Brief for August 6, 2001 shows, NSA, like its predecessors dealing back in 1941 with Japanese threats, knew that Al-Qaeda wanted to attack Western targets, especially in the United States, but it did not know where or how. As with the well-planned attacks on the American Embassies in East Africa, Bin Laden had kept his communications with the leader of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Al-Midhar, secret from the spying agency, and he, in turn, galvanized the sleeper cells necessary for the suicide attacks without NSA learning anything more. NSA did nothing to help American intelligence connect the dots before the hijackings.
Still, Spain was most happy when Bush made available - shortly after General Areja's killing by ETA - to its expanding intelligence and security forces combatting terrorism the take of the Echelon satellite system. "The information gathered by the CIA and by satellites together with the US capability for intercepting communications and reading e-mails," El Mundo reported, "could keep the terrorist groups under control." Dario 16 said that Echelon would be activated whenever it was thought that ETA was about to attack. Words like elections, Aznar, Popular Party, Bin Laden, etc. would trigger the system into action, making as many connections between the possible variables in order to prevent terrorism.
When this didn't happen on 9/11, GCHQ stepped into the breach caused by NSA's failing, having already built up a considerable file on Al-Qaeda's alleged home base in Britain. Thanks to Echelon, and a two-year surveillance, members of Spain's Higher Defense Intelligence Center (CESID) were able to arrest eight members of Al-Qaeda's network in Madrid, especially its leader Syrian Abu Dahdah aka Edin Barakat Yarkas. Once Mohammad Atta had been identfiied as one of the highjackers, CESID was able to ferret out bits of conversations about it like this: "...in our lessons, we entered the field of aviation and we cut the bird's throat." Similar intelligence GCHQ gleaned about Richard Reid helped prevent him from blowing up a jet over the Atlantic in December.
Little wonder that NSA and GCHQ went to some length to dampen claims about their capability by shooting down the myth that it was omnicompetent, though, of course, not mentioning Banford's work in the process. Alan Simpson, for example, wrote an article, "Echelon: The Myth?," for Eye Spy! magazine which tried to minimize its capability by discussing individuals increasing ability to encrypt messages, the need to target something specific while doing your eavesdropping, the invulnerability of buried fiber-optic cables, the needed cooperation of cable and telephone suppliers, and the like. Of course, this just pointed up the need of coordinating eavesdropping at GCHQ's Morwenstow station with imaginative intelligence analysis.
While the trail for Al-Qaeda's Spanish terrorists grew cold after the cell was finally closed down by April, MI5 increasingly thought that the next targets would be in Northern Europe, especially Britain, thanks to all the alleged recruits and money that Dahdah had sent Abu Omar aka Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim cleric wanted by Jordan, and yet living in northwest London because of a forged passport by which he claimed asylum. Even before 9/11, Security Service agents arrested 10 North Africans, along with Qatada, on charges of conspiring to commit terrorism, but the cleric was released, though he had been publishing a newsletter al-Ansar which aired Armed Islamic Group (GIA) views supported by the six Algerians being prosecuted.
It seems that Qatada had been working with MI5 since December 1996, helping Washington locate Osama Bin Laden for assassination in Afghanistan, and now London and Madrid were hoping that he could help determine what Dahdah was planning, though the radical Spanish cleric was being detained to limit his ability to cause trouble in Spain. After the attack of March 11, "Spanish investigators produced evidence of how a mililtant in custody in Madrid - Abu Dahdah - had vistied the cleric more than 25 times, binging money and recruits." ("Al-Qaeda Double Agent Duped MI5," The Australian, March 26, 2004)
Consequently, CESID did not make too much of a case when Coalition warships were threatened with attacks in the Straits of Gilbraltar by three Saudis, and even played down the significance of the coordinated car bomb attacks in Casablanca on May 16, 2003 against Spanish, Jewish, and Belgium interests - what killed about 30 innocents, most of them Spaniards, and 12 of the suicide bombers. The Gibraltar affair in May 2002 was judged by Morocco's DST and Britain's MI6 to be just a dry run for more attacks like that on the USS Cole in October 2000, concluding that the actual planners and prospective suicide bombers had simply escaped The fact that the car bombs in Casablanca didn't explode precisely at the intended targets led the Spanish police to conclude that the Moroccan bombers were just locally recruited, and that the real ringleaders were to be found elsewhere.
In this context, it was most odd that Spanish police did not seriously investigate an Arabic-language web site, wanting the re-establishment of an Islamic Spain. which published documents recommending just such attacks. It claimed that if the Aznar government was confronted with two or three such attacks in the run-up to the elections, it would be forced to withdraw its troops from Iraq. "The author, who is anonymous," explained Brynjar Lia for the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, "is well-oriented in Spanish politics." It is hard to imagine that Spanish authorities in their regular duties were not aware of the site, especially since this is just the kind of material that Echelon is ideally suited to pick up - web site postings, e-mail correspondence regarding it, feedback from it, and the like.
Given Olso's role in the Coalition, it is hard to imagine that it did not inform Madrid about it. The only question for counterterrorists to determine was whether the attacks would occur against Spanish forces in Iraq, or against targets at home. Moreover, the Mossad was now working with Britain's MI5 to see that similar attacks to that in Casablanca did not happen against Jewish targets in Europe. It's hard to imagine Meir Dagan's people in Britain did not inform British authorities, and urge them to see that Madrid took steps to prevent recurrences in Spain, especially against Jewish citizens.
In December 2003, seven Spanish counterterrorist agents were ambushed, and killed as they returned from Baghdad to their base in Diwaniyah south of the Iraqi capital. The attack was linked to the shooting of another agent in Spain, José Antonio Bernal, and was thought to be the result of a set-up, as the timing and the route of their return had been changed just at the last moment to prevent such a disaster. Defense Minister Federico Trillo seemed to know the intent of the killers when he went out of his way to vow that Spain's troop commitment to the Coalition would not be withdrawn because of such killings - what the Prime Minister reiterated before a special session of the Cortés called to deal with the tragedy. Lt. Col. Luis Gutierrez. head of Spanish operations in Najaf province, still indicated the precariousness of the troops by exclaiming: "Without them, we are left blind."
While Madrid seemed most unconcerned about what Al-Qaeda might be up to, Washington and London were certainly not. The United States became so concerned about its operation in North Africa that it started sending special forces to Mauritainia, Mali, Chad, and Niger - countries just below Marocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya where American military cooperation is being boosted - to train their troops in counterterrorist tactics, and better coordinate operations with the US military. To concentrate better on meeting the threat in northwest Africa, the US European Command is in the process of moving its headquarters in Italy to Rota in southern Spain - from where NSA gets its intercepts, and the Pentagon conducts its aerial surveillances. Three days before the Madrid bombing, the European Command announced that Al-Qaeda had interests in North Africa.
While the Americans were setting the stage to deal with the fallout from the bombings, the British were deeply involved in decoy operations to convince Madrid that its counterterrorists had the situation under control. On Christmas Eve, 2003, Spanish counterterrorists foiled an ETA plot to blow up trains simultaneously as they were going towards the Spanish capital, thanks apparently to INTELSAT photos. One of the Basque separatists, who accidentally set off his bomb harmlessly outside Zaragoza, was tracked back to his house where information was found which foiled the attack on the San Sabastian train before it arrived at Madrid's Chamartin Station.
While this was being stopped, MI5 set up associates of Abu Qatada, starting on November 11th, to make it seem that they were the most likely sources of any terrorist attack. After a half-ton of ammonium nitrate fertilzer had been stolen, and placed in a storage locker, apparently by Canadian Momin Khawaja, a Security Service agent called Gould started contacting Pakistani friends of Waheed Mahmoud who had earlier gone there for Al-Qaeda training, and ultimately advised them to leave Britain for fear that they might be implicated in some terrorist plot. What the actual plot was would be determined by subsequent events, hopefully by North African followers of Qatada in Spain providing operative input.
With American and British counterterrorist officials acting as if they expected nothing from Al-Qaeda in the days leading up to the Spanish elections, and its own just focused on a possible ETA attack, it was easy for followers of Dahdah to prepare the four trains for the syncronized attacks on March 11th, leaving Madrid's authorities in complete disarray when they happened. Prime Minister Aznar, and his Interior Minister Angel Acebes immediately blamed the attacks on Basque separatists, though they had the sophistication that only Al-Qaeda could provide.
Officials in London were far too candid with Defence Editor Michael Evans of The Times when they discussed Al-Qaeda's surprise: "The British Joint Terrorsim Centre at MI5's London headquarters, which operates round the clock, had shared the initial view that Eta was responsible." ("Intelligence chiefs had no hint of al-Qaeda bomb plot," March 15, 2004) Of course, the reason why it was so sure was because it had been relying upon its intercepts which Al-Qadea's operatives had kept completely devoid of any tipoffs - no "chatter". It was like how Khalid Al-Midhar had conducted the 9/11 attacks without NSA knowing, and this attack was predictably 2 and 1/2 years to the day since the tragedy in America.
While Aznar's people tried to maintain the myth about ETA's responsibility, dragooning even CESID to go along with their assessment, and having a police officer in Pamplona assassinate a supporter of Batasuna during the polling, the terrorists left a trail of evidence which made liars of them all. One of the explosive canisters was left on one of the trains unexploded to show the intricate use of mobile phones for the staged explosions. Then there was the tape which was found outside a Madrid moque, announcing that the attacks were in retribution for Aznar's support of Bush's war in Iraq. Then there was the van found with other cell phones, and information about the bombers - what led to their suicides rather than the expected capture.
The leading bombers left a final surprise for their captors before they blew themselves up, calling up Qatada to thank him for all his inspiration, and hoping that their efforts had earned his approval - a call that MI5 and Scotland Yard have understandably been most opposed to admitting the existence of. To confuse the public that Britain was still Al-Qaeda's main target, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, indicated that he might have the Prime Minister call out the Army to maintain security, claiming that an attack similar to the one in Madrid was inevitable. Given the growing national emergency, Oxfordshire's coroner Nicholas Gardiner, thanks to advice supplied by Lord Chancellor Falconer - a long-time friend of the Prime Minister - that reopening the inquest into the death of Dr. Kelly was not in the public interest.
To further confuse the British public, MI5 and Scotland Yard then started rounding up the alleged cell in Crawley surrounding Mahmoud, claiming that it had been conspiring for four months to commit some kind of terrorist act. NSA, not to be outdone by Britain's black propaganda, then declared that it had miraculously solved a deadly bomb plot involving osmium, though the public was spared any information about how this unknown terrorist weapon was being put together, by whom, and where. Where this leaves the Bush administration has yet to be determined.
One can only wonder when the war on terror will stop having these most destructive surprises, and really get relevant about the threats and dangers.