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Madrid Bombing Anniversary: One Year Later

The Madrid train bombings of one year ago triggered a series of political and social changes that have reverberated across Spain and the European Union. VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at the broad impact of what has been called "Europe's 9/11."

On March 11, 2004, as commuter trains arrived in Madrid, a series of explosions ripped four of them apart. 191 people died and more than 1,800 others were wounded in Spain's worst act of terrorism in modern times.

"The bombings of March 11 in Spain reminded the Europeans that there was indeed a war on terror," said Simon Serfaty, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

The conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar immediately blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the train bombings. National elections were three days away, and Prime Minister Aznar's government strongly opposed the group. But a day before the elections, a videotape was found near a Madrid Mosque. It announced that al-Qaida had attacked the trains to punish Spain for sending troops to Iraq. The combination of Spanish public opposition ot the war in Iraq and the perception that the government had manipulated public opinion led to Prime Minister Aznar's defeat.

The Socialists, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, came into power. Immediately, the new prime minister announced that Spain's 1,300 troops in Iraq were coming home. Esther Brimmer, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says Spain's withdrawal had major repercussions for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

"When it became clear that Spain was going to pull out of Iraq, it changed the atmosphere. It became more acceptable for other countries also to say 'we're getting ready to go home,’” she said.

Prime Minister Zapatero's decision also had political implications within the European Union. It marked a shift in alliances for Madrid, which broke ranks with Britain, Italy, and Poland and joined France and Germany, the so-called "old Europe," on a wide range of issues beyond Iraq.

But, common to all EU countries was a heightened awareness that it, like the United States, was a terror target of Islamic radicals. Investigators determined that a Moroccan Islamist group in Spain was behind the Madrid bombings. EU states greatly increased intelligence sharing among themselves to bolster their collective security. Simon Serfaty at CSIS says EU countries came to realize they were more vulnerable to terrorism than the United States. He also says Europe's historic uneasiness with Islam had been forced back to the forefront.

"They were more vulnerable on grounds of geographic proximity, on grounds of economic dependence and on grounds of cultural sensitivity. Because, Europe has had a visceral relationship with Islam that goes back 600 to 800 years," he said.

Muslims once controlled Spain and parts of Eastern Europe. Islam's modern presence on the continent began with people moving from North Africa to France, their former colonial power. Then Turks went to Germany seeking jobs. These Muslims lived in the midst of others, but by and large were not integrated into the mainstream of European society. Charles Cupchen at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says the failure to reach out to the now more than 20 million European Muslims there reflects the continent's identity of itself as western and mostly Christian. He says it's a problem that must be addressed.

"The relationship between growing Muslim populations in Europe and the broader European society is perhaps the greatest challenge facing Europe today," he said. "And, that's because Europeans don't think about ethnicity in the same way Americans, for example, do. They're not prepared to have a multi-cultural society. They're not comfortable with that yet."

The Madrid train bombings amplified anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe. The attacks confirmed fears among some that people who didn't share to their values and traditions were not only in their midst, but also hostile to them.

Esther Brimmer at the School of Advanced International Studies says the rising tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe may continue to grow in coming years.

"And, that may appear politically in terms of greater support for parties that are either anti-immigrant or anti-those who are seen as different," she said. "And that I think is going to be one of the most important trends to follow in European society."

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe has also entered the debate over whether Muslim Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union. Turkey's opponents say a Muslim member state would make it easier for Islamist terrorists to attack from within. Others say Europe will have to come to terms with a growing segment of its population - one largely ignored before March 11, 2004.

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.