In addition to the Madrid-bound truck packed with 500 kilograms of explosives
late last month, in December, police thwarted a planned bombing at another
Madrid rail station, arresting two suspected ETA members.
ETA has been waging a war for more than 30 years against the Spanish state
to establish an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southern
France. But most experts say it can, at best, count on the support of no more
than 10-15 percent of the Basque people.
Gustavo de Aristegui, a Basque member of parliament from the ruling conservative
Popular Party, says ETA represents a tiny minority that is trying to impose
its will on Basques and other Spaniards.
"There are people who are real monsters, who are trying to blackmail a whole
society through acts of terror. And what we have to do is to keep united and
build a political consensus to defeat terrorism," he said.
But a leader of Batasuna, a banned political party that is sympathetic to
ETA, denied the group's involvement. Arnold Otegi says the explosions were
of what he called the Arab resistance, a reference to Spain's support of the
U.S.-led war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
That led to a furious response from Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes.
"Mr. Otegi has given disinformation to detract attention from the real culprits.
This way, it would create confusion, and it would multiply the fear and achieve
what the terrorists are aiming at - to create fear and confusion," he said. "And
I think it is a strategy, a miserable strategy like everything else ETA does,
and everyone that supports them. But I don't think that, at present, anybody
has any doubts."
A security analyst at the University of London, Dan Plesch, says if the attacks
are the work of ETA, they represent a new benchmark for a group that has usually
targeted individual officials and police officers.
"ETA has always displayed an ability to have very professionally organized,
unfortunately, terrorist guerilla operations," he noted. "And seeing this seems
to take their operations to a new level, both in terms of simultaneity and
in terms of the amount of casualties."
Another London-based security analyst, Sajjan Gohel, of the Asia-Pacific Foundation,
says he is not 100 percent certain that ETA even has the capability to carry
out such an attack
"It was a coordinated, well-timed, well-planned, multi-purpose, mass-casualty
terrorist attack. And that usually involves a transnational terrorist group
like an al-Qaida or [an] affiliate," he said. "If this is, in fact, an attack
by ETA, then we're looking at a very new departure from its traditional type
of attack and a very disturbing level of sophistication in their ability."
Mr. Gohel thinks that ETA might have received assistance from al-Qaida or
another such group to carry out the bombings.
U.S. and British intelligence officials note that there was no warning phone
call, which ETA usually gives before an operation. They note the high number
of civilians killed is unusual for ETA. And they say that such simultaneous
bombings are much more the hallmark of al-Qaida than of ETA.
But Spanish and other European security officials say that even though ETA
has been hit hard by a government crackdown over the past two years, there
is still a radical core that apparently has no qualms about mass killings.
One expert says these people could have taken al-Qaida as a model to get media
attention and keep their cause alive.
Paul Heywood, an expert on ETA at the University of Nottingham in Britain,
says he believes ETA staged Thursday's attack to provoke even stronger action
by the government.
"This is a classic tactic by organizations such as ETA, which is to try to
set up a cycle of violence where the government response becomes so extreme
that it then forces some people into supporting ETA's position precisely on
the grounds that there's a perceived imbalance in the response," he said.
Mr. Heywood says Thursday's bombings will not stop Sunday's parliamentary
election. But he says they could achieve another ETA goal - to ensure that
its battle for Basque independence remains the central focus in Spanish political