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Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

On March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded in four commuter trains. Madrid, leaving 192 dead and nearly 2,000 injured.

A huge shock for Spain, accustomed to ETA bombs, but never hit by an Islamist attack of such magnitude.

– Bombs and chaos –

This Thursday, March 11, 2004 in the morning, thousands of passengers passed through the Atocha station, in the heart of Madrid.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

The bodies of victims evacuated after the explosion of a train at Atocha station in Madrid, March 11, 2004 © AFP – Pierre-Philippe MARCOU

Suddenly, a triple explosion shakes the building. It is 7:37 a.m.: a train entering the station from Alcalá de Henares, in the eastern suburbs of the capital, has just exploded.

Under the effect of these three bombs, hundreds of passengers were thrown to the ground or against the walls of the carriages. In a cloud of smoke, panicked travelers rush towards the escalators, stumble on the platform, turn around, dazed, amid the cries of the wounded.

In the four minutes that followed, seven other bombs exploded not far away, on board three trains also leaving from Alcalá.

In the capital, chaos mixes with fear: televisions loop testimonies from panicked passengers, anxious parents come to pick up their children from the middle of class.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

Rescue teams treat injured people after bombs exploded at Atocha train station in Madrid on March 11, 2004. © AFP – Pierre-Philippe MARCOU

In one of the halls of Atocha, identifications are carried out in succession by forensic doctors. In the pockets of the dead, cell phones never stop ringing.

Some victims, who managed to leave the station but were in a state of shock, wandered the streets of the city for several hours before being picked up.< /p>

– ETA wrongly designated –

A few hours after the attacks, the government of conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar accuses the Basque separatist group ETA, responsible for numerous deadly bomb attacks since the 1970s.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

Police officers near a train on which a bomb exploded at Atocha station, in Madrid, March 11, 2004 © AFP – Christophe SIMON

The Minister of the Interior describes the Islamist lead put forward by several specialists as “intoxication”.

Spain is then in the middle of an electoral campaign, with legislative elections scheduled for three days later. The country is above all very divided by the decision of the Aznar government, a year earlier, to participate in the invasion of Iraq by American troops, despite the opposition of the majority of Spaniards.

The ETA hypothesis is quickly weakened: having managed to trace the perpetrators of the attack after having defused three bombs found in backpacks, the investigators discovered on the evening of the tragedy seven detonators and a recording of verses from the Koran in a stolen van in Alcalá.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

Explosions on a train at Atocha station in Madrid, March 11, 2004 © AFP – Christophe SIMON

Two days later, a video cassette discovered near the Madrid mosque confirms the Islamist lead: the attacks, in which 192 people of 17 nationalities were killed, were claimed in the name of ” Al-Qaeda in Europe”, in “response” to Spain's participation in the war in Iraq.

– The right loses the elections –

The shock wave of “11-M” – the name given to the attacks, the deadliest ever committed on Spanish soil – weakened Mr Aznar's Popular Party (PP).

On Friday the 12th, massive demonstrations brought together 11.6 million people across the country.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

Massive demonstration in Madrid, the day after an attack at Atocha station, March 12, 2004 © AFP – –

Each time, slogans are raised to cast doubt on the executive's version.

On Sunday March 14, the PP and its new leader Mariano Rajoy – chosen by Aznar to succeed him – were defeated by the Socialist Party (PSOE) of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. New Prime Minister, Mr. Zapatero will quickly order the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.

According to a number of observers, voters sanctioned the right for its obstinacy – against quite logically – to designate ETA, but also and above all for the intervention in Iraq alongside the United States and the United Kingdom, which public opinion has never accepted.

For years, right-wing officials will continue to dispute the Islamist nature of the attacks, fueling conspiracy theories.

– A trial- river –

Three weeks after the attacks, seven members of the bombing commando killed themselves by blowing themselves up in the apartment in which they were holed up in Leganés, in the southwest suburbs of Madrid, as the police prepared to attack.

Jihadist attacks of March 11: 20 years ago, death struck Spain

Defendants listen to lawyers give a final summary, during the conclusion of the trial of those involved in the 2004 Atocha Madrid station train bombings, July 2, 2007 in Madrid © POOL – Source AFP

After three years of investigation, 29 defendants were finally tried in early 2007 during a six-month trial. Among them, a majority of Moroccan nationals, originating from a working-class neighborhood of Madrid, but also Spaniards and an Egyptian.

At the end of the appeal trial, 18 were sentenced, including three to astronomical sentences ranging from 34,715 to 42,924 years in prison: Jamal Zougan, Othman el Gnaoui and José Emilio Suárez Trashorras. Only these three men are still incarcerated today, normally until 2044.

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Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116