Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC there has been an ongoing controversy about whether the real threat of global terrorism is posed by al-Qaeda, its territorial extensions and affiliated organisations, or by decentralised groups inspired by, but unconnected to, such entities. The 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings are often held up as the archetype of an independent local cell at work, and the perpetrators depicted as self-recruited, leaderless terrorists. Six years after the blasts, however, new evidence connecting some of the most notorious members of the Madrid bombing network with al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, along with features of the terrorist network itself and distinctive elements of the likely strategy behind the blasts, suggest that these assumptions are misleading. Judicial documentation now fully accessible at Spain’s National Court and other relevant primary or secondary sources can help us better understand what the attacks can tell us about al-Qaeda and a global terrorism in transition, as well as about the changing nature of the threat to open societies.
First published in: Survival | vol. 52 no. 2 | April–May 2010