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Media Disinformation regarding the Madrid bombings
'Madrid attacks worked exactly as planned.' So said a headline on Intelwire, a website devoted to terrorism-related news, following CNN's shock revelation on 16 March 2004 that it was in possession of an alleged al-Qaeda document outlining the reasoning behind the bombings in Madrid. CNN reported that the document, written before the killing of 190 people by rucksack bombs in Madrid on 11 March, described Spain as the 'weakest link' in the coalition in Iraq, and set out an explicit ploy to 'topple [Aznar's] pro-US government' through force.
The 42-page document, written in Arabic, presents itself as advice and guidance for jihadists and recommends 'painful strikes' against the Spanish. It was first published on radical Islamist websites, some of which are allegedly used by al-Qaeda sympathisers and supporters, at the end of 2003. With post-Madrid hindsight, some of its paragraphs certainly make for ominous reading. One says: 'We think the Spanish government will not stand more than two blows, or three at the most, before it will be forced to withdraw [from Iraq] because of public pressure on it. If its forces remain after these blows, the victory of the Socialist Party will be almost guaranteed - and the withdrawal of Spanish forces will be on its campaign manifesto.' (1)
Unveiling the document to the world on 16 March CNN declared, 'That prediction came to fruition in [Spain's] elections', when Jose Maria Aznar's pro-war Popular Party was ousted three days after the attacks and the sceptical-about-war Socialists took office (2). CNN says the document proves that al-Qaeda 'planned to separate Spain from its allies by carrying out terror attacks' (3). Intelwire put it more plainly: 'The al-Qaeda document reveals that the terror group specifically targeted regime change in Spain, with an eye towards a Socialist Party victory and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.' (4)
Many in media and political circles have latched on to the document as hard evidence that it was al-Qaeda operatives who bombed Madrid, and that they did so with the express intention of unseating the Bush-friendly government. 'In hindsight, the document looks like a blueprint', said New Zealand's National Business Review (5). 'The document shows how al-Qaeda planned months ago to get rid of Spain's pro-US government, and force them to withdraw troops from Iraq', declared another report (6). Referring to the document's claim that Spain could not 'stand more than two blows, or three at the most', British journalist in Washington Andrew Sullivan wrote: 'How modest in retrospect their ambitions were! They didn't need more than one blow; and they didn't just get the troop withdrawal in the Socialist manifesto - they got the Socialists elected.' (7)
Reportedly, the US State Department has shown an interest in the document, perhaps keen to make it part of America's evidence that al-Qaeda orchestrated the events in Madrid. Bush officials claim they are now 'fairly certain' that the bombings were the work of al-Qaeda. Others appear absolutely certain; one journalist claims that 'reports of the document's existence remove what little doubt may have existed that the Madrid bombings were an al-Qaeda-linked effort, as well as making it clear that the political ramifications of the attack were carefully thought out' (8).
Did al-Qaeda really write a 'blueprint' for the attacks on Madrid? Did it predict, and even plot, the political ramifications of planting bombs on rush-hour trains three days before Spain's general elections? Who wrote the document - and how did CNN get hold of it? The more one looks into the document, the less convincing it becomes that it is an 'al-Qaeda document' or that it was related to the bombings in Madrid. Rather, it seems to be our fevered obsession with al-Qaeda in the West, backed up by some seriously misleading news reports about the document's contents, that allowed many to draw a link between this mysterious document and the Madrid attacks.
Nowhere does the document suggest launching terror attacks in Spain
The document was discovered, not by CNN, but by Thomas Hegghammer and his colleagues at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment north of Oslo, during a routine trawling of radical Islamist websites for interesting documents or statements. 'We found it on a website called Global Islamic Media, a discussion board for radical Islamists, on 10 December last year', Hegghammer tells me. The Norwegian researchers did not think much of the document at first, filing it under 'Islamist resistance within Iraq'. It was not released to the media or discussed publicly at all upon its discovery in December. After the bombings in Madrid, however, Hegghammer and his team recalled the document and decided to analyse it in more detail - wherein they discovered its recommendation of 'painful strikes' as a means of rattling the Aznar government, and its prediction that 'the Spanish government will not stand more than two blows, or three at the most, before it will be forced to withdraw [from Iraq]'. 'I sent it to CNN, after Madrid', says Hegghammer.
Despite having sent the document to one of the world's largest media organisations, in the belief that 'there must be some kind of connection between the document and Madrid', Hegghammer thinks that some of the subsequent media coverage of the document has been misleading. 'The idea that this document is an instruction from bin Laden or someone to attack Madrid, that is certainly misleading, that is complete conjecture', he says. 'This document is not a blueprint for action; I would say it is more like a contribution to a debate. If there is a connection between the document and Madrid, it is probably not organisational. In my view it is more likely that the document has been circulating on websites and the Madrid attackers may have read it, rather than going from top to bottom like an instruction.'
The media coverage of the document was even more misleading than Hegghammer allows. For all the news reports about this 'al-Qaeda document' that proposed and designed 'attacks against Spain', in fact there is no clear evidence that this is an al-Qaeda document and nowhere does the document suggest launching terror attacks in Spain. The claim that the document is a writ from al-Qaeda is pure guesswork and speculation on the part of the media; and the claim that the document threatened 'blows' inside Spain, which then came to fruition in Madrid on 11 March, is the result of severely selective reporting, of taking certain paragraphs out of context and reproducing them in isolation. The document proposes no such terrorist attacks.
Of the document's 42 pages Hegghammer and his team have thus far translated 15 from the original Arabic; and of these 15, only certain sections, relating to Spain, have been released to the media. Hegghammer sent me some of the translated paragraphs (seven, in total), and what is instantly striking is what many of the media and political pundits who rushed to claim that this document was written by al-Qaeda as a plan for detonating bombs in Madrid left out of their reports.
The document is unsigned; it makes no mention of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It claims to have been written by the 'Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People (Mujihadeen Services Centre)', a previously unheard-of entity. What's more, the title of the document is 'Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers' - it is addressed to 'resistance' forces in Iraq, more than it is to Islamic networks around the world. The main thesis proposed by the document, in the words of Hegghammer, is that 'America cannot be coerced to leave Iraq by military-political means alone, but the Islamist resistance can succeed if it makes the occupation of Iraq as costly as possible, in economic terms, for the USA'. One way in which Iraqi Islamists can do this, says the document, is by limiting the number of American allies in Iraq; so it suggests targeting Spanish, Polish and British troops, in the hope that they will become demoralised, leave Iraq, and leave America with a big economic burden. In short, the document recommends that the resistance should target the weak spots of the coalition.
It is in this context, and this context only, that the translated parts of the document propose 'attacking Spain' - in other words, attacking Spanish forces in Iraq. The document pinpoints Spain as the weakest of America's allies, because of Aznar's isolation over Iraq at home, arguing: 'Therefore we say that in order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq, the resistance should deal painful blows to its forces…. We think the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure…. Lastly we emphasise that a withdrawal of the Spanish or Italian forces from Iraq would put huge pressure on the British presence [in Iraq], a pressure that Toni [sic] Blair might not be able to withstand…. Yet the basic problem of making the first tile fall still remains.' (9) The document also suggests, perhaps a little fancifully, given its alleged authorship, that there should be 'an information campaign clarifying the truth of the matter inside Iraq', during 'the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year'.
The author recommends targeting the weak spots of the coalition in Iraq
Media reports took one of these sentences utterly out of context, and presented it as the document's central point: 'We think the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw [from Iraq].' In isolation - separated from the document's analysis of Iraq and its recommendations to the Iraqi resistance to target coalition forces in Iraq - this sentence was presented as an instruction (from al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda is not mentioned in the document) to launch attacks against the Spanish government itself, against Spain itself, and thus evidence that the document was a 'blueprint' for the 'blows' in Madrid. It was no such thing - it is a document about Iraq, written by persons unknown in the name of a group no one had ever heard of before, which makes recommendations about operations against Spanish forces, and British, Polish and Italian forces, inside Iraq.
Yet CNN, whose 16 March report became the basis for subsequent reports on this alleged al-Qaeda document that apparently plotted Madrid, only quotes the sentences that refer to 'the Spanish government' not being able to tolerate 'two, maximum three blows'. CNN's press office says it has 'no comment' as to why its journalists did not give the title of the document, or explain that the document was about Iraq, or spell out that document's recommended 'blows' were to coalition forces in Iraq rather than to cities in Europe.
What of the widespread claims that this is an 'al-Qaeda document'? That the document is specifically about Islamist resistance in Iraq would seem to cast doubt on suggestions that it comes directly from al-Qaeda. Despite attempts by US officials to label the nihilistic attackers in postwar Iraq as 'al-Qaeda' (in February they made public a letter reportedly written by Jordanian Islamic fundamentalist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in which al-Zarqawi asks bin Laden for assistance in destabilising Iraq), many experts remain unconvinced that al-Qaeda is behind the Iraqi resistance. One report points out that of the dozens of insurgents arrested to date, only a 'handful' have been non-Iraqis; according to a senior US military official in Baghdad, some of the attacks in Iraq have been 'put together by people with knowledge of small-unit tactics…. [These] would not be the same tactics that al-Qaeda would employ - these are military tactics' (10).
Hegghammer, however, and his team at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, argue that this is, possibly, an al-Qaeda document. In an article written to accompany the document, Hegghammer puts forward two arguments for why it could be attributed to al-Qaeda: firstly, while it might not be in al-Qaeda's name, the document does claim to have been written by a 'Mujihadeen Services Centre', and 'the reference to a "services centre" echoes the "services bureau", the organisation from which al-Qaeda grew in the late 1980s', says Hegghammer; secondly, the document contains a dedication to Yusuf al-Ayiri, a key al-Qaeda ideologist who was close to bin Laden until he was killed by Saudi security forces in May 2003.
Do these two facts really demonstrate that this is an al-Qaeda document? One terrorism expert doubts it. Adam Dolnik, of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says the fact that the document mentions a 'services centre' and that al-Qaeda grew out of a 'services bureau' is not particularly telling. 'I think whoever wrote the document could have signed it under any name. If the link were to be super obvious, why not just sign it as "bin Laden"? Either way, I would not pay too much attention to that "link".'
As for the document's dedication to Yusuf al-Ayiri - that, also, does not prove this is an al-Qaeda-approved text. Al-Ayiri is referenced by many radical Islamists, both terrorists and non-terrorists. 'The al-Ayiri connection is perhaps not that strong', Hegghammer tells me now. 'The guy says in the introduction, "My sheikh, my brother al-Ayiri".... but they may be expressions of admiration rather than signalling personal contact. The only thing we can say is that this guy is an admirer of al-Ayiri and his scholarship, and he is trying to build on al-Ayiri's scholarship. We can't say that he knew him. I was probably a bit too bombastic in my article; it is not clear that the author was anything like a personal friend of al-Ayiri.'
Anyone can sign up to the Global Islamic Media website
The document was discovered on the Global Islamic Media website, which, as many reports have pointed out, is used by al-Qaeda sympathisers - but that doesn't mean that everything posted on the site comes from al-Qaeda or is an influential or important document. 'It is quite difficult to know who uses the site', says Hegghammer. 'It has sort of established itself as a hub for a lot of the most radical Islamist literature.' When I visited the site, which is a Yahoo! discussion board, on 30 March 2004 it had a total of 5,971 members, the vast majority of whom use pseudonyms or remain anonymous; it also has 'Open Membership', meaning that anyone can join the site, instantly, and post to it through the site's nameless moderator. Is it feasible that the document 'Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers' was written by some loner who fancies himself as a military adviser to the resistance in Iraq, and posted on to the Global Islamic Media site to stir things up? 'That is feasible', says Hegghammer, '…but personally I doubt it. I think the document demonstrates too good a grasp of political realities and uses quite common phraseology.'
Adam Dolnik believes it is 'entirely possible that the perpetrators [of the Madrid bombings] have read this document'. But he points out the need to differentiate between two types of 'al-Qaeda documents', arguing that al-Qaeda has become such a fluid concept that almost anyone can claim to speak on its behalf.
'This returns us to the discussion about what al-Qaeda is', he says. 'In my view, if you subscribe to the ideology and decide to take action on its behalf, you can call yourself al-Qaeda. It seems to me that al-Qaeda is currently best understood as a type of leaderless resistance of members as well as new sympathisers who want to become involved. So when we talk about al-Qaeda documents, we need to look at two dimensions: in the first are the writings of high-up al-Qaeda leaders such as Zawahiri, and these are the documents of al-Qaeda the group. In the second dimension you have grey area documents written by unknown authors, inspired by al-Qaeda as an ideology, whether they are actual sworn members of the group or not. So I think we cannot use such documents as clear-cut evidence of involvement of al-Qaeda the group, but they do provide an insight into the dynamically evolving strategic thinking of al-Qaeda the ideology.'
How did an unsigned document about Iraq posted on to an open website by an unknown individual, which makes no mention of terror attacks in Europe, come to be seen as a 'blueprint' for Madrid, as an 'instruction' from on high that Spain should be bombed, as evidence that al-Qaeda, no less, plotted the train attacks in Madrid as a means of deposing Aznar, and that it was, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, 'stunningly successful'? How did a document that is not aimed at Islamist militants in Spain, and which contains no instruction to plant bombs in Spain, and which we cannot be certain was ever read by anyone in Spain, come to be viewed as the instruction manual for the terror in Spain on 11 March?
This is a result of our obsession with al-Qaeda, and our desire to see al-Qaeda's hand behind every terror attack. The way in which this anonymous document has been held up as an explanation for what happened in Madrid shows that it is we who read meaning into contemporary terror attacks, rather than those attacks necessarily having any meaning. The attribution of almost every attack to al-Qaeda, and to a clear political aim on al-Qaeda's behalf, is not only inaccurate - it also has a potentially destabilising effect. It can encourage other groups (or, indeed, loners) to post documents on to websites, to send scary-sounding emails, to post letters to the French government threatening to launch an attack unless it repeals the ban on French schoolgirls wearing the Muslim veil, all of which are guaranteed to grab the headlines and convulse entire nations in our al-Qaeda-obsessed world.
The truth is, we still don't know who bombed Madrid or why - and creating stories to make sense of the bombings is likely to create more problems.
(1) Bombs 'to split Spain from allies' , CNN, 16 March 2004
(2) Bombs 'to split Spain from allies' , CNN, 16 March 2004
(3) Bombs 'to split Spain from allies' , CNN, 16 March 2004
(4) Madrid worked exactly as planned , Intel, 16 March 2004
(5) Terrorists online: a twenty-first century battlefront , Francis Till, National Business Review, 26 March 2004
(6) The next wave: political terrorism , David Brody, Christian Broadcasting Network, 17 March 2004
(7) 3/11: Europe's second Munich? , Andrew Sullivan, Sunday Times, 21 March 2004
(8) Madrid worked exactly as planned , Intel, 16 March 2004
(9) FFI explains al-Qaeda document , Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 19 March 2004
(10) See Rent-a-resistance , by Brendan O'Neill
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