“I am Asking that the Connection be Investigated”: Extracts from the Testimony of José María Aznar before the Spanish M-11 Commission

Introduction

Remarkably, the abiding impact made by the 11 March 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid may have less to do with the extreme brutality of the attacks themselves than with the political drama that unfolded in their immediate aftermath. As a series of disparate clues came quickly to light suggesting a possible Islamist background to the attacks, the initial attribution of responsibility to the Basque terrorist organization ETA on the part of the outgoing government of José María Aznar was stylized into an intentional campaign of disinformation – a lie, in short – by both certain Spanish media and large parts of the American media and European media outside of Spain. For the anti-Iraq War “Left”, the surprising defeat of Aznar’s heavily favored Popular Party by the Socialist Party of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the general elections on 14 March would be nothing other than comeuppance for this supposed “lie of state” (and not, for instance, a sign of weakness on the part of a portion of the Spanish electorate in the face of the threat of Islamist terror).

But whereas Aznar’s and Interior Minister Angel Acebes’ attribution of responsibility to ETA may have been false, anyone who was aware of an event that occurred on a highway near the Spanish town of Cuenca on 29 February – but that went largely unnoticed outside of Spain – would have had trouble in good faith to regard it as a “lie”, rather than, say, an understandable mistake. For on that day, just a week and a half before the M-11 attacks, two ETA militants were intercepted by the Spanish Guardia Civil transporting over 500 pounds of explosives, apparently destined for Madrid.

In the meanwhile, many of the famous “clues” that emerged in such uncannily rapid succession and from which the greater part of the media deduced a seemingly incontestable Islamist responsibility have either turned out be hoaxes or to be far less reliable and unambiguous than they appeared at first glance. English speakers could be forgiven for not knowing this, since the story of what Fernando Múgica of the major Spanish daily El Mundo has dubbed the “Black Holes of M-11” has gone almost entirely ignored by the “legacy” English-language media. Only the tireless efforts of the bilingual Spanish blogger Franco Alemán, the Barcepundit, has permitted some of the revelations coming out in the Spanish press to reach the English-speaking public. At last count, Múgica’s “Black Holes” series in El Mundo had reached 23 entries. In a similar vein, Luis del Pino has undertaken an extensive analysis of the evidence on M-11 in the form of a continuing series on the “Enigmas of M-11” for the popular Spanish website Libertad Digital. If one is to follow the findings of Múgica and del Pino, both of whom make extensive reference in turn to the findings of Spanish investigative judge Juan Del Olmo, the hitherto, so to say, consensus account of the M-11 bombings is no longer sustainable.

What we know today is that a so-called “Moroccan group” – consisting, however, more conspicuously of petty criminals than fanatical Islamists – was heavily involved in the operational conduct of the M-11 attacks. We know nothing, however, about who bears ultimate responsibility for the planning of the attacks. Nonetheless, given the paucity of follow-up reporting in the English-language media, the image of Aznar and his “lie of state” remains perhaps the most enduring impression left by the attacks for the American public and the European public outside of Spain. Aznar’s reasons for making the quick attribution of responsibility to ETA and his general view of the dizzying events of those days, both the attacks themselves and their aftermath, has received virtually no hearing.

To correct this imbalance, Transatlantic Intelligencer here presents in English translation substantial excerpts from José María Aznar’s November 2004 testimony before the Spanish M-11 Commission. The testimony begins with Mr. Aznar’s statement to the Commission.

John Rosenthal

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Congress of Deputies

Commission of Investigation concerning the 11th of March 2004

Session no. 34, held on the 29th of November 2004

Mr. Aznar López, the Former President of the Government:…Ladies and gentlemen of the Commission, when the Congress agreed to constitute this Commission, I contacted the president of the parliamentary group of the Popular Party to let him know that I was entirely at your disposition to appear before it…. As you know, I have no political office, nor any other public responsibility. I am not a deputy, nor a senator. I have no privileges, no parliamentary immunity, nor any other sort of immunity. Nor have I sought any, neither before, nor now.

…Appearing before you to talk of the attacks of 11 March, I want at the very start of my intervention to remember the victims of the attacks and their families, all those who lost their lives or were crippled, those who suffered the psychological and emotional consequences of that brutality, the families that have had to confront the unjust loss of loved ones. In them, I want to remember the victims of all the forms of terrorism that we have suffered. All these victims are all equal in the brutality and injustice of their sacrifice and their pain….

The 11th of March [2004], three days before general elections, Spain suffered a horrible Islamic terrorist attack that resulted in the murder of 192 persons, hundreds of wounded, and a brutal disruption of normal social life. What did the government over which I presided do?…

Without prejudice to the questions to which I am to respond later, I want to reconstruct certain points that I consider relevant to those [first] hours [after the attacks]. Thursday, the 11th of March, eight minutes after the explosions, the Minister of the Interior informed me of what had occurred. Though it was at that moment still difficult to evaluate their consequences, their brutal and criminal effects would soon be revealed.

I have been accused of being anxious to attribute responsibility for the massacre to the terrorist band ETA. If this is true, it must be admitted that others got there first. Before 9:00 in the morning, the Secretary General of the Socialist Party declared on a popular channel that ETA had tried to intervene in the campaign. Not much later, at 9:35 in the morning, the President of the Basque Government, Mr. Ibarretxte, without any prior communication neither with the Minister of the Interior nor with the President of the Government, made an official declaration – and underlined the solemnity of his words – holding the terrorist band ETA responsible for the attacks in the bluntest possible terms, among which I recall the choice of the term “vermin” to describe the terrorists of this organization….

The Minister of the Interior held a press conference at 1:30 in the afternoon. This was the first time that the person with supreme authority in the anti-terrorist struggle commented on the attack. In short, by way of the Minister of the Interior, the government formally attributed responsibility to the terrorist band ETA six hours after the attack occurred and it did so in accord with the unanimous opinion of the authorities responsible for the anti-terrorist struggle and already relying on the analysis of our intelligence services, which would later take written form in their note of 15:51.[1]

I want to add on this point that throughout the morning, in the conversations that I had with the then Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party [Rodríguez Zapatero], in the information and analysis I received from the authorities in charge of the anti-terrorist struggle, as well as in the estimate of foreign intelligence services, the terrorist band ETA and not Islamist groups was the line to pursue. In the same sense, in the afternoon of Thursday, the 11th, the Socialist Party, citing information that it had received from the Basque government suggesting that the terrorist band ETA was responsible for the attack, made known to the government its own conviction in the matter.

On the afternoon of Thursday, the 11th, as you well know, an investigation was conducted of the contents of a van discovered in Alcalá, in which were found a commercial cassette containing verses of the Quran and several detonators. At 16:45, the Minister of the Interior informed me of the visual inspection of the van and it will not be until the last hours of the afternoon that all the information will be available, at which point this information is immediately communicated to the public by the Minister of the Interior at 20:20. Prior to this press conference, I spoke personally with the Secretary General of the Socialist Party and with the directors of the communication media with whom I had spoken some hours before. I forwarded to all of them the same information that the Minster of the Interior would later provide. I also made known to them my instructions that a second line of investigation be opened starting from the elements found in the van.

On Thursday night, two further elements emerged that seem to me significant in this connection: on the one hand, the supposed claim of responsibility for the attack that was received by the London-based paper Al Quds al Arabi and sent by the Abhu Hafs al Masri brigades. I believe that you already know the assessment made of this claim by our intelligence services. The National Intelligencer Center, in accord with foreign intelligence services, not only put in doubt the authenticity of the communiqué, but even of the group that sent it and that, of course, had also claimed responsibility for the summer 2003 blackout in New York. That very night, the same media outlet that at 20:00 claimed to have in its possession photographs of the nine presumed members of ETA that – and I cite verbatim – “were able to intervene in this macabre affair”, this same media outlet claimed to have information from several sources, according to which there was a suicide bomber in the first train that exploded at Atocha.[2] Such a false report was not simply a matter of mistaken information. The fabrication of a supposed government cover-up had begun. The report of the inexistent suicide was not innocent. As you know, the absence of suicide bombers was one of the extraordinarily significant facts that led to the exclusion of the hypothesis of Islamist authorship of the attack. In spite of the unequivocal denials, in spite of the fact that by early morning on Friday, the 12th, the 192 autopsies of the immediate victims of the attack were completed, the false report on the inexistent suicide bomber was insisted upon. And not only that: new details were provided – sordid details, but equally false – according to which one of the victims was “wearing three layers of underwear and his body was shaved, a practice that is very common among Islamic suicide commandos preparing to blow themselves up”. I am again citing verbatim the information provided by the same media outlet.

…Ladies and gentlemen members of the Commission, when one has the responsibility of taking decisions in moments like those we lived through on 11 March, neither information, nor time is unlimited. One decides when one has to decide, and one does so with the information at one’s disposal. I have never claimed to have the gift of perfection or infallibility. One can disagree with the decisions we took. But the government over which I had the honor of presiding and I personally as President of that government acted in each moment with the aim of providing the most efficient possible response to an extraordinarily grave situation, of giving the greatest possible attention to the victims and the firmest possible impulse to the actions undertaken by the security forces of the state to apprehend those guilty of the crime and clarify their responsibility….

Permit me to turn now to Friday, the 12th, in order to highlight how the investigation was progressing. In the early hours of the morning, the autopsies were completed without any indication of suicides. Also in the early hours of the morning, at 2:40 AM, the discovery of a knapsack that had not exploded and the subsequent deactivation and analysis of its contents provide new information on how the attacks were carried out.[3] …Around this time, it became clear that the Government did not only have to confront the tragic situation created by the attacks only a few hours before general elections. It also had to confront a monumental effort at manipulation undertaken by those who saw in those moments not the disruption of social life by a tragedy but rather the great opportunity that for some time they had regarded as lost. It must have been a coincidence, but the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party who in the afternoon of the previous day, during our second conversation, said it did not matter to him whether it had been ETA or Al Qaeda, that same morning on a radio station (do not ask me which[4]) said that the political response would be different depending on whether it had been ETA or Al Qaeda. Those who want to repeat their same insults as always, will believe that they have an easy time of it: to them I want to say that I have not put in question, nor am I putting in question the results of the elections, nor the democratic legitimacy of the Government, nor any of what I am usually accused of putting in question. I simply said and I continue to maintain that parts of the opposition and certain media known for their frenzied obsession with the Government of the Popular Party lied: that they fabricated a big lie regarding the management of the crisis by the Government, that they played at destabilization and had a role in exploiting a day of reflection in order to encourage the organized harassment of a democratic party, which was still responsible for the government of the nation, in one of the most difficult moments in memory and just a few hours before general elections.[5]

I would like to support this claim by way of some facts: In the first place, the canard concerning the suicide bombers designed to discredit the government’s management of the crisis and to introduce an element that, if it had been certain, would have been decisive in establishing a material responsibility of Islamist groups in the attacks. The government has been accused of having known of and covered up the contents of the van found in Alcalá since the morning of 11 March: a false accusation, false then and certified to be false by the testimony given to this Commission. Then the rumor spread that the police authorities would be resigning en masse as a protest against the government. Again, a false report, which I can only understand as an attempt to destabilize the management of the anti-terrorist struggle in that very moment. The story was concocted of a supposed audience of the Minister of the Interior with his Majesty the King, during which the Minister is supposed to have submitted a decree suspending the elections for the King’s signature: once again a canard spread in bad faith and designed to create a climate of abnormality and to delegitimate the Government by way of calumny and intoxication. One went so far as to say that the White House was going to make public the responsibility of Al Qaeda in the attack: the White House never though of making any such announcement. Things reached such a level of deformation that when the existence and the contents of the video claiming responsibility for the attacks was made public, a radio station was impudent enough to announce to its public that they already knew about the existence of the video since the morning, but they had kept quiet about it out of a sense of responsibility.[6] This is to say that for the whole day [of Saturday, 13 March] the government is supposed to have hidden another element that could be decisive in establishing the material responsibility of Islamists. Well, then: the scientific section of the police established the time of the recording of the video as 17:02 of that very same afternoon of Saturday, 13 March, a fact which is noted in the investigative report. As paradoxical as it may seem, this contrived strategy of false imputations to the government of a cover-up and lies culminated on the very day that that the first arrests were made as ordered by the investigating magistrate of the High Court [Audiencia Nacional]. This initial result, the most tangible result of a great effort of investigation in all directions at once (I want to be clear on this point), did not resolve the question of the material responsibility for the attacks, nor did it in itself permit the hypothesis of a responsibility or implication of the terrorist band ETA to be abandoned. In those hours, there was not much reason to be satisfied, but it was indeed a source of satisfaction to be able to note that Spaniards were able to do what all the terrorists had wanted to prevent. Spaniards voted with the memory of the tragedy still vivid, with the pain that they had contemplated in the victims and their families, but they voted.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Commission, it seems that we have now moved from the theme of the government’s lie to that of its lack of preparedness, and I would like to make some observations in this connection. It has been usual to criticize my insistence that all forms of terrorism are the same. I sincerely believe this and as consequence during the period of the government of the Popular Party we always took the initiative to strengthen international cooperation and solidarity in a joint struggle against terrorism. We insisted – and I myself insisted in a still greater measure in my capacity as President – on the existence of a grave threat, the threat of Islamic terrorism, and that we could not under any circumstances consider ourselves safe from this threat….

What is indeed clear when one speak of lack of preparedness is that in crucial moments the struggle against Islamic terrorism conducted by the Government, the judiciary, and the forces of order of the state could not count on the solidarity of the principal parties of the opposition and, especially, of the Socialist Party. The threat of Islamic terrorism was trivialized, ridiculed and simply rejected out of hand because it did not fit in the script that had to be followed in opposition to the Government. As far as the opposition was concerned, when the Government spoke of Islamic terrorism, it exaggerated or, worst still, it lied in order to justify its foreign policy choices. And then when terrorism struck, killing Spaniards, the only thing that was of interest was to accuse the Government of being politically responsible for the attacks. At one time, the Government was supposed to have lied about the seriousness of Islamic terrorism in order to justify its foreign policy. Now, these same people say that the Government was obsessed with its struggle against the terrorist band ETA and did not accord to Islamic terrorism the seriousness it merited. On this point I want to be very clear: I will never accept that I have to apologize for having committed all the energy of the governments over which I presided to the defeat of a form of terrorism that put in danger our democracy, that resulted in 900 deaths, thousands of wounded, and pain and destruction for four decades….

Mr. President [of the Commission], Ladies and Gentlemen of the Commission, following the worst terrorist attack suffered by our country, it was demanded of a democratic Government that it demonstrate its innocence in the face of an aggressive, sectarian, anti-democratic and false accusation: an accusation false not only as concerns the Government’s management of the crisis, but also as concerns its respect for democratic principles, the Constitution, the electoral process, and the institutions of the state. I believe that the precedent that has been set by this agitation could not be worse, all the more so in a country that remembers the hundreds of victims that have been killed during many years of terrorist brutality. But this precedent has been set and it has been set by those who preferred to look for partisan advantage, by those who looked to encourage sectarianism and by all those who did not want to miss the opportunity to manipulate the sentiments of Spanish society in those terrible moments.

…My clearness of conscience does not have its sources in a talent for hiding proofs, nor in the ability to resist of silent complicities, but rather in the fact that we said the truth of what we knew at the time. It was others that lied and persisted obstinately in their lies, and incited and gave cover to an extremely grave departure from the rules of the electoral game on the afternoon of the 13th. I would challenge anyone anywhere to cite a single police investigation in which the Government provided so much information, so quickly and in such detail, even against the advice and sometimes against the express wishes of the authorities conducting the investigation – an attitude that, after all, holds up well in comparison to the opacity and silence that has fallen over the investigation into the attacks and their implications in the meanwhile….

…Citizens have to inform themselves of matters by way of the newspapers that they should know from the Governmental authorities. And, nonetheless, the truth will have to come out. All the truth. The truth about the relations between Islamic and non-Islamic terrorists, a relationship that was until recently dismissed as improbable, but that has now been shown to be an incontestable fact; the truth about all the connections of the group that facilitated the delivery of the explosives to the 11 March terrorists; the truth about when and why these attacks began to be prepared…; the truth about when, why and by whom the 11th of March was chosen in order that terror would erupt in the midst of the electoral process; the truth, finally, about the threat, about the whole threat, by which we are confronted….

[The President of the Commission invites Mr. Aznar’s party colleague Zaplana Hernández-Soro to initiate the questioning of the witness.]

Mr. Zaplana Hernández-Soro: …Mr. Aznar, Mr. President: What were the reasons that led one to think that the attack had been committed by the terrorist band ETA?

Mr. Aznar López, the Former President of the Government: This was the analysis that the police authorities put at the disposition of the Government. It was the analysis that the intelligence services put at the disposition of the Government and also the analyses that the Government received from foreign intelligence agencies. The assessment was based on a number of distinct circumstances, as is to be expected. In the first place, it seems sufficiently coherent that when a country has suffered a certain form of terrorism for over three decades and an attack of this scope occurs, one might think, in effect, that it is the same terrorism as always [el terrorismo de siempre], as I have put it. But there were also particular facts that in the judgment of the police supported this hypothesis. In the first place, I want to remind you that the prior Christmas, Christmas 2003, there was an attempt to blow up trains in the Chamartín station in Madrid using the very same method of knapsack-bombs, and if the systems of alert had not worked, there would have occurred a huge massacre on Christmas eve, if the security services had not succeeded in preventing the attack. In the second place, I want to remind you that the terrorist band ETA had also contemplated placing knapsack- bombs at the winter resort of Baqueira Beret during the period of Christmas vacation, that is to say at a time at which the resort is full of visitors, full of people, and, moreover, often visitors of a certain relevance or importance for Spain’s state institutions. Thirdly, it has to be remembered that ten days before the 11 March attacks occurred, a terrorist commando was intercepted with a van transporting some 536 kilos of explosives, and that a map of the eastern zone of Madrid was seized from this commando: a map coinciding exactly with the zone where the 11 March attacks occurred. Fourthly, I want to remind you also of the precedent of Christmas 2002, when, thanks to the arrest of a commando in Villalba, 40 kilometers from Madrid, the terrorist band ETA was prevented from placing knapsack-bombs in various Madrid commercial centers. I repeat precisely on Christmas 2002. I also want to remind you that in the year 2000, the famous “caravan of death” was intercepted in Zaragoza carrying more than 1000 kilos of explosives. This is to say, that in the judgment of the police there were more than sufficient precedents (including immediate precedents) to think that it was the terrorist band that had committed the attacks.

I do not want to fail to mention…that on the morning of Thursday, 11 March there was an extreme agitation in the milieus of the so-called political arm of the terrorist band ETA, which feared that ETA had been the author of the attacks…. In any case, the Minister of the Interior only made the ascription of responsibility for the attacks when he had the information from the police at his disposal, not before.

Mr. Zaplana Hernández-Soro: Do you think today that ETA could have had something to do with 11 March attacks?

Mr. Aznar López, the Former President of the Government: I have no particular thesis to this effect. What I want to say is that I believe I am not the only one to think this. That is the impression I have from what I hear and what I read. At that time, we knew that between the terrorism of ETA and Islamic terrorism there could be certain overlaps: the overlapping of their objectives, the overlapping of their methods, and a temporal overlap. Now we know more. Now we know that there was an overlapping of the caravans of death that left the same day for Madrid.[7] We know that there were contacts and friendships in the prisons. We know that there are names and surnames with the locations of terrorists in the possession of the ones like the others. We know that there were common suppliers of explosives. We know enough so that I can say to this commission: I am asking that this connection be investigated…. I have always said that all terrorism is the same and that all terrorists finally end up having connections. Today, we know things that we did not know then. I am asking that one investigate and that one say the truth.

Mr. Zaplana Hernández-Soro: Do you have the impression that the intellectual authors of the attacks had not only carefully organized the 11th of March, but also the 12th, 13th, and 14th?

Mr. Aznar López, the Former President of the Government: Personally, I have no doubt about it. The strategic planning of the attacks is so meticulous that I do not have the slightest doubt. I will tell you that in the months before the formal convocation of elections in March 2004, I was trying to decide between two different dates for holding elections: 14 March or 7 March. You already know my style and you know the decision I took, also in the previous legislative period, to exhaust the entire mandate. Many times I have asked myself what might have been if I had called the elections for the 7th of March and I have arrived at the following conclusion: the attacks would have taken place on the 4th of March, because these attacks were not only designed to have victims, they were designed to disrupt the elections. Honestly, I do not believe that those whom you call the intellectual authors of the attacks – those who planned them, those with respect to whom I asked when, why, and by whom this day, this precise day, was chosen – I do not believe they are wandering in remote deserts or distant mountain ranges. I believe that yes there was such strategic planning and I believe that there are some who took maximum advantage of it. But in time, everything will be known. I am sure of it….

Translated from the Spanish by Transatlantic Intelligencer

© 2005 Transatlantic Intelligencer. All Rights Reserved.

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NOTES

[1] In a since declassified note of 15:51 on 11 March, the National Intelligence Center (CNI) concluded that it was “nearly certain” [casi seguro] that ETA was responsible for the attacks. – Editor’s Note.

[2] The reference is to the radio station Cadena Ser. – Editor’s Note.

[3] The reference is to a knapsack-bomb that on the morning of the 12th turned up in the Vallecas police station among personal effects transported from el Pozo train station, one of the sites of the attacks. The knapsack would play a major role in the elaboration of charges of government obstructionism and “lies”, inasmuch as it was quickly determined to contain the explosive Goma-2 Eco and not Titadyn, the customary explosive of choice of ETA. It has come to light since the Aznar testimony that the bomb contained in the knapsack in fact did not have to be deactivated, since it was not active to begin with, two cables remaining unattached. This has led some to speculate that the knapsack was planted to throw investigators off track. It was, moreover, the SIM card of the cell phone whose alarm was supposed to serve as the triggering device for the inactive bomb that led investigators to the first suspects in the attacks and, notably, to the Moroccan Jamal Zougam, thereafter regarded as the operational chief of the M-11 conspiracy. This too is an oddity, since the cellphone model in question is one of the very few whose alarm would have required a SIM card to function and Zougam, as himself a cellphone retailer, would surely have known this. Finally, it should be noted that to this day there is nothing to connect the explosives discovered in the Vallecas knapsack to the explosives actually used in the attacks, the composition of which has never been established. – Editor’s Note

[4] The ironic reference is again to Cadena Ser. – Editor’s Note

[5] The reference is to Saturday, 13 March, the day before the general elections and thus supposed to have been a “day of reflection” without political activity. On the afternoon of that day, an estimated 3000 demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the PP demanding “the truth before voting”. – Editor’s Note

[6] The reference is to a video claiming responsibility for the attacks on the part of Al Qaeda that came to light on 13 March. The radio station in question is again Cadena Ser. – Editor’s Note

[7] The ETA commando that was intercepted transporting 536 kilos of explosives to Madrid on 29 February departed the same day and from the same region of Spain, Asturias, as a transport carrying explosives for the M-11 attacks. – Editor’s Note