MADRID (AFP) ― A decade after al-Qaida-inspired bombers blew apart four Madrid commuter trains, killing 191 people, Spain’s government warned the country remains a target.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Spain’s worst terrorist attack, Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said Islamist extremists were still a threat.
Al-Qaida’s leaders and its affiliates, including north African group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and armed fighters battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, referred frequently in their statements to “Al Andalus,” or Spain, the minister told Onda Cero radio.
“Clearly Spain forms part of the strategic objectives of global jihad. We are not the only ones but we are in their sights obviously,” Fernandez Diaz said.
The Spanish counterterrorist service’s alert level is at its second-highest category, signifying “a likely risk of attack,” a level that has not changed in recent years and is identical to that of most countries in the region, the Spanish minister said.
Since the March 11, 2004, attack, 472 suspected Islamic extremists have been arrested, he said.
In addition to the intelligence service, some 1,800 Spanish police and counter-terrorist security forces were devoted to confronting the threat, he said.
Fernandez Diaz later presided over a ceremony in Madrid to present civilian awards to 365 of those affected by the attacks.
“With this tribute we want to send a message to the people of Spain and the entire world: the victims of the cruelty and horror of terrorism should remain forever in our memory,” he said at the event.
Spanish courts sentenced 18 people for the shrapnel-filled bomb attacks that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800 on four commuter trains heading for Madrid’s Atocha station.
“We were born again that day,” Andrei Stefan, a 46-year-old immigrant from Romania said after the ceremony, which he attended with his wife and children.
“This is very important for us. We came here, to Spain, to find another life and we could have found death,” added Stefan, who was injured in the bombings.
Emiliano Igual Alvarez, 67, another of the recipients of an award who was caught up in the bombings, said he “felt for those who did not survive to tell what happened.”
“What is needed is that nothing like this happens again, because I don’t know how there are people who can do this type of thing.”
Immediately after the attacks, then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative government said the prime suspect was the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
The facts and the judicial process had since shown that ETA was not involved, however, Fernandez Diaz said.
“Honestly, we have to say that it has not been possible to show any relation or link between ETA and those who were the material authors of the attack,” the minister said.
Aznar had been among the most fervent supporters of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, despite popular opposition in Spain.
Just three days after the train bombings, voters punished Aznar in general elections which were won by Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, an opponent of the Iraq war.
A study by the Royal Elcano Institute, a Spanish research body, said 84 Islamists, all young men, were convicted for attack plots in Spain between 1996 and 2012, or died in relation to such attacks.
Most of these Islamists were first-generation immigrants from Algeria, Morocco or Pakistan.
Analysts say a growing threat now comes from lone extremists who are radicalized on the fringes of the Islamic world, not in the closely watched mosques but online or in small, marginal places of worship and in private homes.