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World: Investigators Analyzing Credibility Of Madrid Bombing Claims

While Spanish police investigate last week's train bombings in Madrid, experts are analyzing the credibility of two claims of responsibility for the attacks, which killed more than 200 people. RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina reports.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first claim of responsibility for the Madrid explosions came the day after the attacks.

A group called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades -- which claims links to Al-Qaeda -- sent an e-mail to the London-based Arabic daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi." The group is known for taking responsibility for practically every terrorist attack that has occurred during the past year and a half. They also claimed to be behind the August 2003 blackout in the United States and Canada, an event later proved to have been caused by a technical failure.

Rita Katz is director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL: "From my experience in checking Al-Qaeda responsibilities for attacks, usually Al-Qaeda does not claim responsibility so fast. Really, not after the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, not after the 'U.S.S. Cole,' not even after 9/11. Usually, it takes them awhile until they issue responsibility for an attack. [That's] for various reasons, but one of them is that they want to make sure about the safety of their activists in that area."

James Kirkhope is director of research at the Terrorism Research Center in Virginia. He agrees with Katz and notes that the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades either publishes its claims on the Internet or sends an e-mail to the Arabic press in Britain. "The fact that they communicate in London rather than [through the Arabic satellite television network] Al-Jazeera suggests that [the group is] separated from the Al-Qaeda leadership and probably is just sympathetic to the main group but is not comprised directly of people in Al-Qaeda who are making particular decisions," he said.

The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades takes its name from a pseudonym for Muhammad Atef. Atef was involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and later was head of military training for Al-Qaeda. He is believed to have been killed in Afghanistan in November 2001 during U.S. air raids.

The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) conducted an analysis of the e-mail reportedly sent by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades. Yigal Carmon, president of the institute, said: "Analyzing the language and the concepts that were in that e-mail was absolutely indicating to one thing -- that this is not the language of Al-Qaeda. Let me give you two examples. One is that they were talking of the 'events' relating to the 11 September attacks. In the Al-Qaeda vocabulary, it's not 'events.' In the Al-Qaeda and Islamists' vocabulary, these are the raids -- in Arabic, ghazwah -- which has an Islamic connotation. That's what [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden perceives himself as doing."

Another example that MEMRI experts give is the use of the word "collaborators" or "agents" of the United States, whereas bin Laden would use the term "infidels" when talking about Western countries. But what were the conceptual mistakes made by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades? Carmon said one of its oversights was ascribing to the concept “of saying, 'If you stop hitting us, we will stop hitting you.' This is not bin Laden. This is something else. Bin Laden does not see himself as reacting to anything. He is on the offensive. He wants to destroy the Western world."

Experts are also analyzing the contents of a videotape found in a garbage bin on a highway near Madrid shortly after the attacks. On the videotape, a person presents himself as Abu Dujan al-Afgani, the military spokesman of Al-Qaeda in Europe, and says, "You love life and we love death, which gives you an example of what the Prophet Muhammad said."

Carmon said: "This specific sentence renders this document more credibility than [that of] Abu Hafs al-Masri. This is what I call the religious writing and the concept. This message [‘You love life, we love death’] is of the early Islamic era, of formative Islam to which bin Laden adheres. This message was all over Afghanistan. It was also in the theater [during the siege] in Moscow [in October 2002]. One of the Chechens came out with this message, ‘We are going to win this standoff because’ -- and there he goes -- as much as they, the Russians, love life, we love death. Now, this sounds Al-Qaeda, this sounds Islamist, this sounds for real."

Why is it so important for extremist groups to claim responsibility? James Kirkhope of the Terrorism Research Center said: "Well, that's the other half of terrorism. It's not just the act of blowing things up, but it's the act of instilling fear. As soon as they take responsibility for that, there is enough questions for the next couple of days that the terror which is part of the attack continues on, even after the carnage is cleaned up."

Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, says that in most cases, it does not really matter who claims responsibility for what. "My problem today is when people ask me, 'Is it Al-Qaeda or not Al-Qaeda?' -- the main problem is really to define what Al-Qaeda is today," she said. "I see Al-Qaeda as more of a movement, as an idea that was adopted by many organizations. And really part of the problem in assigning blame to a specific group for a terrorist attack is that it has become very increasingly more difficult to distinguish terrorist groups. The lines between various terrorist groups today are not very clear."

Rita Katz gives the example of the resemblance between Al-Qaeda and Morocco's Salafi Jihad. The latter group was formed in the early 1990s by some 40 fighters who had returned from Afghanistan. By 2003, the group had about 400 activists organized into cells of three to four members each, headed by emirs. Emirs act separately from one another. The goal of Salafi Jihad is to restore the caliphate.