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Three Years After Madrid Terrorist Attacks, Europe Grapples with Lessons

Three years ago Sunday, Islamic terrorists carried out a series of coordinated bombings on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring nearly 1,800 others. For Europeans, it was a wake-up call that al-Qaida-linked operations had reached the midst of Europe and as VOA's Sonja Pace reports from London, it is a lesson Europeans are still grappling with.

It was the peak of Madrid's morning rush hour as the usual crowds converged on train stations for the ride to work. Suddenly, within minutes a series of explosions went off on four commuter trains.

It was a Thursday morning, March 11, 2004. The Spanish government was quick to blame the Basque separatist group ETA, but terrorism experts generally agree, the bombings had the telltale signs of an al-Qaida-like operation.

Spanish terrorism expert, Professor Fernando Reinares of Madrid's el Cano Center for International and Strategic Studies tells VOA there is little doubt who was behind the attack.

"In my opinion, it is very clear that this was an act of international terrorism that individuals inspired by and also linked to al-Qaida are those to blame for the Madrid bombings," he said.

The government's handling of the immediate aftermath of the bombing influenced national elections just three days later. The opposition Socialist Party won power and moved quickly to fulfill its campaign pledge to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq - events seized upon by al-Qaida as a major victory.

Nearly one month after the bombings, Spanish police tracked key suspects to an apartment south of Madrid, where seven of the suspects died in an apparent suicide explosion during the raid. Twenty-nine people, mostly Moroccans, have been accused of various roles in the bombings.

The Madrid bombings had wider implications for Europe as a whole, says Professor Paul Wilkinson of St. Andrews University in Scotland.

"It was a highly significant attack because it showed that the al-Qaida network was capable of launching a mass killing attack in the capital city of a major European Union country," he said.

Wilkinson says the attack served as a catalyst for closer international cooperation, especially in gathering intelligence on al-Qaida and like-minded extremist groups.

But, other bombings would follow, such as on London subway trains and a double-decker bus July 7, 2005. Four young local Muslims blew themselves up in those attacks and there was much talk of a new "homegrown" Islamic extremist threat. But, says Wilkinson, even then there were links to extremists in Pakistan and the broader extremist cause.

"It's quite clear that al-Qaida wanted to claim ownership of the attack [July 7] and the people who were carrying out the bombings wanted to identify themselves with the al-Qaida global jihad, as they call it," he said.

Last November Britain's top domestic intelligence chief said authorities were tracking some 30 active terrorist plots, including some with clear links to al-Qaida. MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller warned that young British Muslims are being recruited to extremist causes at an alarming rate and she predicted the extremist threat would be around for at least a generation.

In Madrid, Professor Fernando Reinares says an opinion survey carried out by the el Cano Institute, shows that even though the Madrid train bombings occurred three years ago, the fear of another terrorist attack remains alive today.

"Since March 11th [2004] well over 80 percent of Spaniards agree that international terrorism is an important threat and nearly half of Spaniards still believe that another attack like the Madrid bombings may well happen in this country," he said.

Twenty-nine men are currently on trial before a Madrid court for various charges linked to the 2004 bombings. Seven suspects face charges of murder and belonging to a terrorist group. The trial is expected to last several months.