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Behind the Madrid massacre

Whether last Thursday's attacks in Spain, in which 201 people were killed and nearly 1,500 wounded, were carried out by the Basque separatist ETA or by al Qaeda, they make one thing very clear: Terrorism cannot be fought by military means.

After the first Gulf War, and particularly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, U.S. military analysts concerned themselves extensively with the question of terrorism. An early conclusion was that it is precisely the extreme dominance of the U.S. military that makes potential opponents turn to what is sometimes called "asymmetric warfare" -- i.e., attacks in which the other side also has a chance of inflicting damage.

The Bush administration's response, involving a tremendous new wave of militarism, new weapons systems, and a newly aggressive posture in the world, could not have done more to exacerbate the threat of terrorist attacks if it had been planned that way.

Worse, there has been a shift in the modality of attacks after 9/11. The 9/11 attacks and previous ones by al Qaeda, like that on the U.S.S. Cole or those on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, were attacks on hard targets, requiring suicide bombers and, in the case of 9/11, a highly sophisticated operation. Furthermore, the targets were ones of obvious political significance; there was hardly a more potent symbol of American economic might and world domination than the World Trade Center.

That changed after the Afghanistan war, with a decision made by elders of al Qaeda in Thailand in January 2002 to turn more toward soft targets. The first major such attack was the November 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, which killed nearly 200. Just as with the Madrid bombing, the targets had no particular political significance. While it is true that Spanish President Jose Aznar supported the war on Iraq, 90 percent of the Spanish people opposed it, and they were the victims of last week's attack.

And thus we are led to the reductio ad absurdum -- more military prowess leads to more terrorist attacks, more defense of hard or politically significant targets leads to more indiscriminate attacks on soft targets, and it is simply impossible to defend all soft targets.

The progression of events in Iraq under the occupation mirrors this.

Initially, one saw mainly attacks on the U.S. military. It quickly responded by increasing the level of alert, and so August of last year saw numerous terrorist attacks. The U.N. humanitarian headquarters was attacked and Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim was assassinated at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. These were still aimed at very specific persons or organizations and involved targets with some level of protection.

As Iraq began to fill up with concrete barricades and razor wire, the targets changed. Attackers took to bombing lines of people waiting to interview for jobs as police. Cleaning women who worked on a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) base were gunned down. Attacks against random targets of opportunity proliferated. The culmination was on Ashura, the holiest day of the year for the Shi'a; a dozen suicide bombers attacked processions in Baghdad and Kerbala, killing likely over 200 people.

The Spanish Popular Party -- which lost the election to the Socialist Party on Sunday -- had a heavy political investment in the claim that the ETA perpetrated these attacks. Evidence seems to point in the other direction now, with the discovery of a videotape claiming that al Qaeda was responsible, and a denunciation of the attacks by the spokesman of Batasuna, the Basque party most closely associated with the ETA.

But it doesn't matter. If al Qaeda didn't do this, whoever did it was inspired by al Qaeda. The attack involves the same modus operandi, the same abandonment of clear political purpose for body count as the sole criterion.

So far, all military measures in the "war on terrorism" have strengthened the emerging archipelago of Islamist terrorist organizations. Weakening it requires taking away the political ground on which they stand -- their opposition to U.S. imperial control of the Islamic world, a grievance that most Muslims share.

It doesn't matter whether you're a dove or a hawk, left or right, concerned with the suffering of others or concerned merely with your own skin. Military means will not work. The beginning of a solution is the end of the twin occupations in the Middle East. Only after that will it be possible to take measures against terrorism that don't worsen the problem.

Rahul Mahajan serves on the Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice. He is the author of The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism.

  • Behind the Madrid massacre

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