Spain still healing 10 years after Madrid ‘11-M’ train bombings

Bodies are removed from a train near Madrid's Atocha station on March 11, 2004, after explosions on four trains in Spain's capital that left 191 dead.
(Christophe Simon / AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID — Reminders of her son hang close to Pilar Manjon’s heart.

There’s the necklace she wears with his name, Daniel, and the golden pendant bearing his first initial. A locket holds a tiny snapshot of his handsome face, smiling with the promise of a life that was abruptly cut short, along with scores of others, a decade ago in the deadliest Islamic terrorist attack on European soil.

Daniel, 20, was heading into downtown Madrid the morning of March 11, 2004, when a series of bombs exploded within minutes aboard four packed commuter trains. The coordinated attack killed 191 people and injured nearly 2,000.

Many of the survivors and the relatives of those who died are still wrestling with their trauma — as well as their anger over a sense of justice denied, or at best, only partially fulfilled.


None of the suspected ringleaders is behind bars, though some are now dead. A few of those convicted of playing smaller roles in the plot have been released from prison for various reasons; and another is due to walk free on March 16, having served his sentence.

“It’s cheap to kill,” said Manjon, who heads an association of victims of “11-M” — Spanish shorthand for the incident — and their loved ones. “We saw them go to jail, but not for enough time. Those who have come out of prison and those who will come out have never repented.”

The unhealed wounds are aggravated, some victims say, by the mystery of who ordered the attack. There is wide consensus that the bombings were carried out by Islamic radicals. But though many believe they were inspired by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, some think they were undertaken at Al Qaeda’s behest, as a new book contends.

A few other Spaniards cling to the notion that the Basque separatist group ETA was behind the bombings, as the Spanish government alleged in the immediate aftermath. But authorities quickly dismissed that theory and concluded that Muslim militants were to blame.

Less than a month afterward, seven people suspected of being key players blew themselves up in a suburban apartment as Spanish police surrounded it.

In 2007, a Spanish court convicted 21 people in the bombings. Two Moroccans and a Spaniard who supplied explosives were found guilty of mass murder and sentenced to thousands of years in prison, which under the Spanish legal system means, in effect, a maximum of 40 years behind bars.


But seven defendants were acquitted, including, to the surprise of many observers, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed. Known as “Mohammed the Egyptian,” he was once touted by authorities as the mastermind of the plot. His attorneys succeeded in casting doubt on the reliability of the evidence.

Victims of the bombings were outraged by the acquittals, and then again, when Spain’s high court overturned four of the lesser convictions weeks later.

Experts said the mixed verdicts showed the difficulty of building strong cases against members of militant organizations with no formal structures or hierarchies. Spanish law at the time also made it tough to prosecute defendants for association with terrorist groups, a legal issue since rectified.

“I believe that justice has only been half done. There are still guilty people out there,” said Araceli Cambronero, who was a passenger on one of the bombed trains.

She cited the case of Rafa Zouhier, the man set to emerge from prison next weekend after serving his sentence for acting as a middleman in the procurement of dynamite used in the bombs. Zouhier, who is Moroccan, is expected to be expelled from Spain.

“It’s incredible that after 10 years this guy is going to be out,” Cambronero said, shaking her head. “And it’s scary — scary that he could do something like this again. He has his ideology; he could do this again to other people.”


But one positive result of the 11-M bombings is that attacks are now harder to mount in Spain because law-enforcement and intelligence agencies have greatly improved their counter-terrorism capabilities, said Fernando Reinares, senior terrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank, and a professor at Rey Juan Carlos University.

In 2008, for example, detectives were able to foil what they said were plans for a major suicide attack on Barcelona’s subway system.

Reinares is the author of the book “Kill Them!,” a newly published inquiry on who ordered the Madrid train bombings. Based on documents and interviews in a number of countries, Reinares has concluded that the idea was hatched in December 2001 by an Al Qaeda operative who wanted to strike back at Spanish authorities for dismantling his terrorist cell in Spain soon after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

“The decision to attack Spain was the result of vengeance. Spain had made this huge operation against Al Qaeda individuals … [and] arrested many people,” Reinares said.

Significantly, such a decision by Al Qaeda to retaliate would have predated the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the Spanish government supported. After the Madrid bombings, some of the alleged plotters said the attack was retribution for the war in Iraq, and Spain’s new center-left government quickly announced that it would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, sparking criticism that the terrorists had achieved their goal.

But Reinares says that the Iraq invasion was merely a convenient pretext, not the cause. And he warns his fellow Spaniards not to think that their country is now safe from Islamic terrorism because its troops are out of Iraq.


But living in fear can be crippling, too, as Cambronero and so many other survivors of the massacre in Madrid discovered.

For eight months after the attack she was in a daze, unable to get over her experience aboard one of the trains at Madrid’s main station, Atocha. Cambronero had just heard the beeps signaling the closing of the doors when an explosion ripped through the adjoining car, knocking her over.

Screaming people stampeded for the exits, stepping on her. A second bomb detonated, compounding the panic; Cambronero frantically called her husband.

“He said I should say farewell to my children,” she recalled, “because we didn’t believe I’d get out of that situation.

“It took me a long time to recover. I lost [44 pounds]. I used to have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, claustrophobia. I didn’t want to ride public transport,” said Cambronero, who is now 45. “No one around me understood.”

The Madrid Assn. of Victims of Terrorism says that, out of more than 300 victims of the 11-M bombings who recently underwent psychological evaluations, at least 40% still exhibit symptoms of stress disorder. Personal relationships have been put under severe strain, or broken up altogether.


Victims’ groups also say that rates of hypertension and cancer are higher among them than in the general population. And they accuse the government of forgetting that many survivors need prostheses, hearing aids and other medical equipment that would improve their quality of life.

Cambronero’s marriage ended a few years after the attack. She has also survived a bout with breast cancer.

Through therapy, through her children and through sheer force of will, she has decided to focus on how lucky she is.

“I consider this a second chance at life that other people don’t get,” she said. “I want to be happy. I want to enjoy life.”

As for the attack that nearly took it all away, “I’ll never forget it. But I’ve learned how to live with it.”


Times staff writer Chu was recently on assignment in Spain.