After Spain withdrew its 1,300 troops from Iraq in April of 2004, newly elected Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero urged all coalition governments to follow suit. No sooner would Spanish forces abandon Iraq, Zapatero confidently announced, than the imperiled country would “recover its freedom, stability and sovereignty as soon as possible.”
Fortunately for Iraqis, Zapatero’s advice went largely unheeded. Indeed, the prime minister could not have gotten it more wrong. According to a recently published report in the Spanish magazine Interviú, the situation in Diwaniya and Najaf, where Spanish bases were located and which formerly enjoyed relative calm, grew violent precisely around the date when Zapatero confirmed he would make good on his pledge to bring the troops home as soon as possible. In support of its findings, the magazine quoted internal army reports and military personnel on the ground during the last month of the deployment, after the calendar for withdrawal had been set.
Bolstering the magazine’s report was the Madrid newspaper El País. The paper counted 40 serious incidents in which a minimum of eight attackers and one Salvadoran soldier from the Spanish-led multinational group were killed and scores others wounded. Significantly, these attacks took place between April 4 and May 21—the day the last Spanish soldier crossed the border with Kuwait. Far from ameliorating the situation in Iraq, Spain’s decision to set a premature timetable for withdrawal (as some critics of the war, like Democratic Congressman John Murtha are now suggesting), served mostly to embolden the terrorists.
To be sure, more than plans to pacify Iraq through aggressive appeasement catapulted the Spanish Socialists to victory over the incumbent conservative Popular Party in 2004. At a demonstration in the wake of the March 11 Madrid train bombings, a protestor made it clear that the Spanish electorate had grown receptive to arguments that concessions could remove Spain from the terrorists’ hit list. “Maybe the Socialists will get our troops out of Iraq, and Al Qaeda will forget about Spain, so we will be less frightened,” he said hopefully.
Zapatero and the Socialists quickly lived up to their part of the bargain. The terrorists have been less cooperative. In April 2004, a bomb was found on the high-speed train line from Madrid to Seville. The culprits turned out to be the Moroccan authors of the Madrid attacks. After being trapped inside an apartment in Leganés on April 3, they blew themselves up. Several weeks later, on April 19, the body of Francisco Javier Torrontera, an officer who died in the Leganés raid, was pulled from its tomb and burned. The Spanish Interior Ministry, in a desperate attempt to appear culturally sensitive, called it an “Islamic rite of revenge.”
More terror ensued. In September, ten Pakistanis suspected of giving logistical support to Islamic terrorism were arrested in Barcelona. They were in possession of detailed footage of Spain’s “twin towers,” and an informant claimed they were trying to purchase "red mercury"-- an explosive that can be used for a dirty bomb-- for an attack during Christmas of last year. Then in October, Spanish police captured 40 militants who were planning to blow up the Audiencia Nacional -- the highest criminal court where Islamic cases are investigated. The Popular Party's headquarters, Atocha station, and the stadium of the Real Madrid soccer team were also targets of these “Martyrs of Morocco.” If any doubt still existed about the Islamic fundamentalist threat to Spain, just last month anti-terrorist police reported that Islamist sleeper cells in Northern Spain had been activated and were waiting for orders to attack. Spanish voters had traded the hawkish and staunchly Atlanticist Aznar for the concessionist Zapatero, but they had gained nothing in security.
What went wrong? A clue comes from the election itself. To this day, critics contend that Spanish voters did not hand a victory to the terrorists when they flocked in record numbers to the polls to vote Aznar out of office. This assertion does not withstand scrutiny. Consider that shortly after the train bombing, a Norwegian think tank, Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, discovered an Islamist strategy paper on a website revealing that the terrorists were counting on a campaign of violence to secure Aznar’s ouster. "We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw [troops from Iraq] as a result of popular pressure,” stated the document.
If strategic appeasement served only to inflame the terrorists’ wrath, what accounts for Spain's decision to endorse a policy of appeasement? An acute case of denial may be the best explanation. Though the Zapatero government is uneager to admit it, Spain has long been in the crosshairs of Islamic fundamentalists. Islamic militants have been active in Spain since the 1980’s. The Madrid cell responsible for the attacks, was one of the most active in all of Europe. Many of its members were cited in 9/11 planning. Ayman Al-Zawahiri has referred to “the tragedy of Al Andalus” -- the ending in 1492 of seven centuries of Islamic rule. According to Abu Qatada and Mohammed Fazazi, the two spiritual leaders of the Madrid cell, that lost glory can be restored when “Andalus returns to Muslim rule.” The terrorists’ grievances persist despite frenetic efforts by the Spanish government to propitiate their furor. Earlier this year, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos’ tried to remove Hamas from the European Union’s list of terrorist groups. Hamas responded to this good-will gesture by printing an article in its children’s magazine, Al-Fateh, exhorting children to free Seville from Spain by reinstating Muslim rule.
Spain’s governing elite has learned nothing from this history. Thus Zapatero clings to the belief that pre-emptive military strikes are ineffective in battling terrorism. Feminism evidently is his weapons of choice. The prime minister once told Time magazine that "sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength.” Interestingly, Mohamed Kamal Mostafa, an imam imprisoned for writing a book about how to beat women without leaving marks, was released in 2004, after just 20 days in a Spanish jail. His new punishment: To learn about human rights. Such is the progress of Zapatero’s sensitive war on terror.
More realistic Spaniards could be forgiven for fondly recalling Prime Minister Aznar’s tough-minded approach to fighting terror. In 2004, on the same day that Zapatero was addressing the UN General Assembly and proffering his latest olive branch—a proposed alliance of civilizations between the Western and the Arab and Muslim worlds—Aznar was speaking at Georgetown University, where he is now a visiting professor. Warning against coddling the enemies of the West, Aznar reminded his listeners that “if we want to win, the terrorists must be made to feel our hostility everywhere."
Not very sensitive words. But at a time of mounting pressure for a major concession to terror, in the form of American withdrawal from Iraq, they are words that poll-watching American policymakers, no less than appeasement-minded prime ministers, need to hear.
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