Madrid attacks will harden Washington's resolve

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The Independent US

The ghastly terrorist attacks in Madrid may or may not have been the work of al-Qa'ida.

The ghastly terrorist attacks in Madrid may or may not have been the work of al-Qa'ida.

But for the Bush administration they are further unequivocal proof that terrorism is the worldwide scourge of the 21st century ­ hardening Washington's conviction that there can be no negotiation with terrorism, only its total destruction.

Two and a half years ago to the day, the US was victim of the worst single terrorist incident of modern times, when hijacked aircraft smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing 3,000 people.

Since then there has not been a single terrorist act on the US mainland. The less spectacular but more easily executed attacks that have been widely predicted ­ a suicide bomber at a shopping mall or a sports event, or attacks on public transport as yesterday in Spain ­ have not materialised, despite warnings.

Abroad it is another matter, with civilians and institutions linked with the US and its allies Britain, Australia and Israel permanently at risk from terrorism.

In this sense, the Madrid bombings take their place in a lengthening list of post-11 September outrages, alongside Tunis, Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca and Istanbul and the deadly attacks in post-Saddam Iraq.

Each time the Bush administration claims another scalp in its "war on terror" and closes a loophole, another front is opened.

After the 11 September atrocities, airline security around the world was tightened.

But then the terrorists struck the soft underbelly of international tourism, killing 202 people in nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali in October 2002.

Hotel security was tightened. So, in the next major terror attack two months later, in the Kenyan coastal resort of Mombasa, a car bomb rammed into the gates of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel. At the same time, a missile was fired at an airliner taking off from Mombasa airport headed for Israel.

Targets since then have included the British embassy in Istanbul in November 2003, which left 28 people dead including the consul-general, Roger Short. In a simultaneous attack, the Istanbul headquarters of the London-based HSBC bank was bombed.

In Moscow, the metro was the target of a suicide bomber who killed 39 people in a rush hour attack. It seems that whatever measures are taken, the bomber will always get through.

Analysts in Washington pointed out that yesterday's 10 carefully synchronised blasts bear similarities to the technique of multiple, co-ordinated bombings used by al-Qa'ida or presumed affiliates in several recent terrorist operations.

As terrorism specialists point out, three broad ­ if sometimes overlapping ­ varieties of terrorism exist. The first is ideological, waged by the extreme left and extreme right and plagued Germany and Italy in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It was the Italian, far-right variant which was responsible for the Bologna station bombing of August 1980 which killed 85 people ­ until yesterday the worst single terrorist attack in modern European history (if the Lockerbie disaster, conceived in the Arab world, is excluded).

The second is nationalist terrorism, which perpetrators present as wars of independence by non-conventional means.

This category embraces the IRA, the Eta movement in Spain, and the Chechen fighters believed to have carried out a string of deadly bombings in Russia.

The suicide bombings and other Palestinian attacks against Israel largely fall into this category. But the Middle East conflict, like low level guerrilla insurgency in Iraq, increasingly involves a third kind of terrorism. This may most easily, if loosely, be described as "civilisational" terrorism: extremist action motivated by religious or cultural factors, most frequently Islamic.

The picture can be further muddied by co-operation across borders. The IRA was helped by the Libyans; the Red Brigades in Italy had links in the Middle East. Some experts do not rule out an alliance of convenience between Eta and al-Qa'ida or an affiliate. Such deadly brews cast their shadow over the forthcoming Athens Olympics.

Five months before the Games, US and Greek security forces held joint security exercises in and around Athens this week, to cope with various terrorist scenarios. But these have not allayed the fears of officials here, who believe US competitors will be in particular danger.

Geographically, Greece is close to Turkey, where Kurdish nationalists long fought a civil war with Ankara, and to the Balkans with its modern history of ethnic strife. Historically, the country has a poor record in dealing with terrorism. Its proximity to the Middle East makes it easily accessible to extremist groups. For Islamic guerrillas out to make a bloody point against the US and its allies, Athens this August is an especially tempting target.

One thing is certain: Osama bin Laden's al Qa'ida network has prompted an escalation of terror acts. According to Manuel Coma, security expert at Spain's Royal Elcano Institute: "Since 11 September, there has been a qualitative leap. Small attacks are no longer adequate. They have to aim higher to have influence."

If the bombers cannot reach the government leaders, who now meet behind walls of security, they can reach them by targeting their people.

"It looks as if terrorists are becoming more ambitious in their aims. They want to do more damage, inflict more harm and cause more shock ­ to grab the attention of their public and force governments to react," said Canadian military analyst Tim Dunne.