One year on, Spain remembers the atrocity that exposed a complacent government

Click to follow

Spain is reliving the trauma of Europe's biggest terror attack a year ago today, but with an anti-terrorism strategy transformed by the impact of the Islamist train bombings that devastated Madrid.

Spain is reliving the trauma of Europe's biggest terror attack a year ago today, but with an anti-terrorism strategy transformed by the impact of the Islamist train bombings that devastated Madrid.

Having prided itself on its anti-terror measures honed through decades of combating Eta Basque separatists, Spain proved totally unprepared for al-Qa'ida radicals who left rucksacks packed with explosives on commuter trains to be detonated simultaneously by mobile phone. Pragmatic reforms, revealed fully this week, demonstrate how catastrophically Spain's politicians and security services were looking the wrong way, and not communicating, in their vaunted "war against terror".

The unprecedented savagery of the Madrid massacre, in which 192 died and 1,900 were wounded, and the unexpected direction from which it came, has jolted the Socialist government elected four days later into shaking up the country's anti-terror operations. An interior ministry spokesman said: "The government remains worried by the increase of Islamist terrorism, which affects more than 60 countries, and which is very diffuse, non-hierarchical and operates across frontiers. It's a complex network, totally different from traditional military organisations like Eta or the IRA."

The paramilitary Civil Guard, police and National Intelligence Centre - whose rivalries meant warnings were missed and blunders made before and after the attack - are now grouped in a unified command and meet once a week. Instead of competing, they pool a database of suspects' identity documents, arms, explosives, journeys, vehicle hire, voices, DNA and fingerprints.

The security services are also to recruit 1,000 more officers and 130 Arab translators to fight Islamist terrorism: clues were missed by untranslated telephone taps. An additional 10,000 officers regulate the transport and use of explosives: Madrid's bombers acquired their dynamite from an Asturian mine. Islamist terrorists are isolated from other prisoners and their communications restricted: Islamist cells recruited within Spanish jails.

Police say they have foiled at least four bomb plots since last year's attack. But the government remains short of good, representative interlocutors in Spain's Islamic community, the spokesman admitted.

Those implicated in the bombings are mostly in jail, or dead, after seven, including the suspected ringleader Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Farkhet "The Tunisian", blew themselves up on 3 April in a Madrid flat to avoid capture. But six to eight suspects linked to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group remain on the run, probably outside Spain, the spokesman said. Spain is considered still at risk, but no more than Italy, Britain, France or Germany.

The investigation is helped by improved co-operation throughout Europe and with Morocco, the chief prosecutor, Olga Sanchez, said yesterday. Of 75 arrested over the bombings, 22 - mostly Moroccans - are in detention charged with mass murder and terrorism, 17 are on bail, and 33 at liberty but under suspicion. Spanish lawyers were awaiting the results of investigations in Europe and north Africa before proceeding to trial, possibly next spring, Ms Sanchez said. A Belgian court has approved the extradition of Youssef Belhadj, considered spokesman in Europe for al-Qa'ida, in whose name the bombings were claimed. Investigators also want to question the ideological leader Rabei Osman, jailed in Milan.

An international anti-terrorism conference that closed in Madrid yesterday analysed today's elusive terror threat. "Al-Qa'ida is no longer a pyramid organisation, it's compartmentalised. The 11 September attack was planned, funded and implemented by the leadership in one country, carried out in another. But 11 March was self-funded and much cheaper. It didn't involve bank transfers, but suitcases of cash," Loretta Napoleoni, a US specialist on terrorist finance, told the conference. "We're always a step behind, we must be a step ahead," she warned.