March 11, 2004 | Train Bombings in Madrid

On this day in 2004, ten bombs placed on four trains detonated during the morning commute in Madrid, killing 191 and leaving and more than 1,600 wounded.

Many find commuting to work by train an unpleasant experience: imagine throwing terrorist bombs into the mix.

MADRID, SPAIN — If there is one phrase that has entered not just the English canon but all languages in recent decades it has to be ‘9/11’. Everyone knows what it means. To state the blindingly obvious, it refers to the Islamist extremist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington in September 2001. And everyone knows where they were when it happened (NB as a side note, for my older brothers their ‘where were you when?’ moment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 – I was two at the time and have no memory of that tragic event).

We now speak of the post 9/11 ‘era’. I know this trope is often overused but everything really did change that day. For one thing, we found ourselves, thanks to then US President George W. Bush in an unwinnable ‘war on terror’. Personally and professionally my life changed significantly as well. I morphed from an intelligence analyst focusing on Iran to one that looked at Islamist terrorism, a passion I have maintained to the present day (hence all these blogs!).

On this day in 2004, ten bombs placed on four trains detonated during the morning commute in Madrid, killing 191 and leaving and more than 1,600 wounded.

As it turns out, the Americans are not the only nation to have suffered a catastrophic terrorist strike on the 11th day of a given month. On this day in 2004 Spain had its unfortunate moment in the terrorist sun. Ten bombs placed on four commuter trains detonated during the morning commute and when the smoke had cleared 191 people were dead and more than 1,600 wounded. This had become one of the largest single terrorist attacks in history.

2004 Madrid train bombings

The suspects were located a few weeks later in an apartment block in Madrid and killed by police. The terrorists were probably best described as ‘Al Qaeda-inspired’ as there was no conclusive evidence the group knew who they were. The attacks took place three days before a general Spanish election and were aimed at punishing Spain for taking part in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

The government of the day immediately blamed ETA – the Basque terrorist group – for the carnage. Most of us in the intelligence community saw this as deflection as ETA was not known for an attack of this scale. In any event, the ruling party lost the election: it is hard not to see this defeat as tied, at least in part, to the government’s effort to draw attention from the very unpopular Iraq mission. In late 2003 polls showed that 91% of Spaniards were against Spain’s participation in the conflict.

In the end the 11th of March 2004 has become known as 3-11, a clear take-off of 9/11. Another country, another massive attack. And there will be more to come.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply