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The Politics of Tragedy


Warning: In compliance with Spanish Intellectual Property law, Common Sense no longer quotes nor reproduces links to sites based in Spain. Verification of the veracity of this information is the sole responsibility of the reader.

On August 17th, Barcelona became the latest European city to suffer tragedy from the ongoing war waged by terrorists on the West. That afternoon, a young Moroccan drove a van into the crowded pedestrian street of La Rambla, killing 15 people and wounding approximately 120 more. The driver escaped from the vehicle, murdered another person in order to commandeer his vehicle and escaped the city. That night, members of the same cell drove into another crowd in Cambrils, killing one and injuring six others. All five terrorists were killed by police. The escaped driver of the first van was eventually tracked down by police in Subirats, a town 30 miles west of Barcelona, and killed while resisting arrest.

The night before the Barcelona attack, police had responded to an explosion in Alcanar, a town in Southern Catalonia where two men died. Police initially filed this as an accidental gas explosion, but failed to question the unusual circumstance of a private residence containing 120 propane and butane gas canisters. They also failed to note the presence of TATP: triacetone triperoxide is a crystalline explosive that is difficult to detect using traditional nitrogen scanners, cheap to make and utilizing easily obtainable precursors, making it a favorite of Islamic State terrorists. It is also highly unstable and liable to accidental detonation, which is why the terrorists also refer to it as “the Mother of Satan”.

These attacks left many unanswered questions. How was such a large cell allowed to operate for so long undetected? There were warning signs: the “mastermind” imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, behind the group had been arrested for drug smuggling and spend 4 years in prison, yet was never deported due to his successful asylum application nor put on a watch list. There were warnings to the Spanish and Catalan authorities as well: Belgian police warned of Es Satty’s presence in Vilvoorde in 2016, a neighborhood that has produced more than its share of radicalized young men. There was also a highly disputed warning[1] from American sources of increased electronic traffic pointing to Barcelona as a likely terror target, though without giving specific details. These warning were considered too vague and discounted. Why wasn’t there an emergency alert issued after the Alcanar explosion pending a complete investigation of the scene? At this point in the West’s recent history of terrorism, this should be standard operating procedure.

Spain has a long history of domestic terrorism and its anti-terrorist efforts are usually considered to be quite good. Unlike other European and American counter-terrorism programs, the Spanish typically favor early action to break up terrorist cells immediately, rather than letting them mature in the hopes of catching more member in a wider net. In this case, it failed spectacularly — this 12 man cell wasn’t even on the radar.

Counter-terrorism is extremely difficult work: balancing security needs with civil rights is difficult enough and Western agencies have to process literally thousands of warnings every day and prioritize which to respond to. It is a job that demands the highest degree of cooperation by intelligence and police agencies at the international, national and local level to stop the bad guys from succeeding. Some will always get through; that is the calculus of evil that the terrorists exploit. When an attack does get through it is usually either: a “lone wolf” attacker who was self-radicalized and nearly impossible to detect in time, or else it is due to a breakdown in this complex web of information sharing and prioritization.

The Barcelona attack fell plumb into the middle of the increasingly acrimonious dispute between the pro-independence Catalans and the authorities in Madrid. It almost certainly benefited from this increasingly tense institutional atmosphere of distrust. The lack of coordination was palpable during the response to the crisis: the Interior Minister in Madrid, the Guardia Civil, the National Police and the Mossos were unable to present a coordinated picture of what was going on: in fact, they continuously contradicted each other. There is also a high degree of mutual suspicions and distrust. There was a story in May 2015[2] alleging that the Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, had planted “moles” inside Spain’s National Intelligence Center (CNI). That can’t have fostered warm feelings between the two agencies, even if the story was false. The authorities in Madrid have also denied the Mossos direct access to Europol’s early warning systems as well as the Centre Against Terrorism and Organized Crime, despite granting it to the Basque’s regional police, the Ertzaintza. This is a political decision that has repercussions on the broad institutional capability within Spain to identify, track and prevent terrorism.

In the blame game now being played out in the Spanish and Catalan media, with some newspapers going so far as to publish doctored documents alleged to be from the NCTC and CIA[3], is all about the politics of secession and has nothing to do with finding and fixing whatever went wrong in Spain’s counter-terrorism efforts. It is about fixing 100% of the blame on the other guy: Madrid to demonstrate that the Catalans are incompetent and unable to protect their own citizens, and Barcelona to demonstrate that they acted perfectly and that it was only Spain’s perfidy that allowed the attacks to happen in the first place, thus independence is a guarantee of greater security. Anyone who disputes these self-evident narratives is either naïve or has an agenda. The contrast with other attacks is very evident: can anyone imagine a similar vilification campaign against the London police after the March and June terror attacks? It is inconceivable.

In the middle of this venomous interchange are the families of the victims. They too have become pawns in the political game being played out. On Saturday, the 25th of August, the people of Barcelona came out in large numbers to demonstrate solidarity with the victims and to show “No Tinc Por” — “I am not afraid” in Catalan. Authorities estimate that approximately half a million people marched in the Catalan capital. Also in attendance was the King of Spain and most of the national government ministers. Both the King and the ministers were met by a large gathering of whistling and jeering protesters calling out “Your policies, our dead” — a reference to the close business, family and military ties between the Spanish House of Bourbon and the House of Saud. There were also thousands of “esteladas” on display — the Catalan independence flag — while Spanish flags literally couldn’t be given away.

The Spanish media response was immediate, enthusiastic and outraged. “They have no shame” and “they politicize the dead” were the most frequently repeated expressions of righteous indignation. If the Spanish press had any morals, these accusations might carry some weight. Regardless of where you stand on the actual events — the jeering and cat-calling were unsettling — it is important to admit some basic truths: first, the demonstrations were by their nature political acts; and second, both sides used the opportunity to their maximum advantage.

The demonstration as politics

It is important to start with a clear distinction between private grief and public demonstrations. When a family member dies and are waked them, there is a reasonable expectation that only family and friends will come to commiserate, and that respect for the deceased will be the primary concern. When a public official or agency organizes a mass demonstration of hundreds of thousands, that is politics: the victims are no longer the focus, they are being used to deliver a message. That message may be a laudable one, it may be one that you agree with (or not) but it is a political message nonetheless. To think otherwise is to ignore the long and powerful history of demonstrations and protests as instruments of political power — or else to ignore it hypocritically for other purposes.

When a politician attends a function in their official capacity, it immediately becomes the public demonstration of a political message. If the head of state wishes to visit the victims of the terrorist attack in the hospital in a private character, as Mr. or Mrs. de Borbón, then they don’t take a photographer with them: the moment they do take that photographer, it is a loaded public action. The King of Spain cannot go to a public demonstration and not deliver a political message — and that message can be legitimately open to criticism by his subjects.

Pretending that both sides did not have ulterior motives in the events leading up to and including the “No Tinc Por” march is too ingenuous. Support for the victims was only the superficial justification for organizing the march: and I have no doubt that everyone at that march had a sincere (personal) regard for the suffering of the victim’s families. But politics never stops at the superficial. For the Catalan organizers, the primary message was one of competence and resilience: we have things under control; we are as capable of running the country as Madrid is, even more so. The King — who has never attended such a demonstration in the past[4] — and the government ministers had their own messages: we are all Spaniards, strength through unity. You may support one message and not the other, but no one can deny that these are political statements wholly unrelated with the victims.

Both sides went away satisfied with the outcome. The pro-independence Catalans were pleased because anything that energizes their base and widens the breach between Catalans and Spaniards in the run-up to the 1-October referendum ought to play in their favor. The fact that the march was entirely peaceful, safe and that there was a quick return to normalcy also helps their argument of competence to run a country. For the visitors from Madrid, although the “we are all Spaniards” message fell flat, they were nevertheless rewarded with a load of inflammatory images with which to mobilize their own base and continue to drive the message that “the Catalan separatists are wicked.” Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe that the King and government would go to a region in the middle of a secessionist referendum and not expect a political reaction. They expected it and hoped to provoke it. The march was a win-win for everyone except the families of the victims, who probably wished that everyone had stayed at home.

Nothing new under the sun

What is sadly startling about this most recent controversy is that it should be treated as a unique event. Let’s be clear: politicizing the victims is as old as time. It’s also known as celebrating martyrdom and has been practiced by every culture and religion right up until modern times. A good martyr can be worth a battalion of soldiers in fighting for a cause and they have been always been exploited for political ends without much regard for the sentiments of the family.

Spain is no different in this regard; the country’s recent history provides many examples of the politics of tragedy and the political use of the victims of terror.

The Spanish Civil War remains a divisive topic in Spanish society with a heavy weight of symbols and martyrs, which is still in living memory for some Spaniards. The transition to democracy has not healed this breach and nothing demonstrates this better than the Law of Historic Memory. As written by the Socialist Deputies of then Prime Minister Zapatero, the law was meant to recognize and broaden the rights of those who suffered or whose families suffered prosecution and violence during and after the war. You would think that such a measure supporting the victims of terrorism — perpetrated by both sides during the war — would find broad support with a democratic and tolerant society, but you would be wrong. The Spanish conservatives live in fear of a single bone being exhumed which might point to a Republican soldier or civilian executed by their grandfather or uncle; while Spanish leftists use their loss in the civil war as a political bludgeon every chance they get. Both sides use the most simplistic and grotesque caricatures to justify “their side” and vilify the other: everyone on the Republican side was a godless Bolshevik bent on killing every priest and raping every nun on the peninsula, while everyone on the Nationalist side was a xenophobic goose-stepping fascist whose only pleasure in life was murdering innocent peasants, workers and their families.

Caught in the middle are the families of the dead, who would like nothing so much as to bring the bones of their loved ones home.

A similar story can be made about ETA, the Basque terrorist group which started life as a legitimate resistance to Franco’s dictatorship, his suppression of historic Basque rights and his determination to wipe out the unique linguistic heritage of the Basque people. Once the country made the transition to democracy, the group failed to reintegrate itself into mainstream politics, instead continuing a now unjustifiable violent struggle for Basque independence[5]. ETA is responsible for over 820 deaths, including 340 civilians, since 1968. These victims are a gift that keep on giving in Spanish politics: anytime there was a possible negotiation with ETA or a potential normalization of the political wing Batasuna that one of the parties did not like, the victims were trotted out and cynically used to undermine the efforts of the government[6].

The most obvious and perhaps egregious utilization of victims occurred after the 11th of March train bombings in Madrid. The Spanish left quickly organized mass protests with a clear political purpose: to discredit the conservative government of José María Aznar and its policy of supporting the war in Iraq. Given that the attacks occurred three days before the Spanish national elections and during the “blackout” period during which political campaigning is prohibited, these “spontaneous” protests took on a very political dimension. The 192 victims of the attack quickly became a secondary item in the solidarity marches; the real point was to unseat the government and ensure the election of the Socialist candidate. Antipathy towards the government’s Iraq policy and revulsion with the government’s increasingly thin efforts to blame the attacks on ETA without evidence, led directly to a resounding defeat for the conservative candidate, Mariano Rajoy. Yet so politicized did this issue become that Spaniards are still waiting for a definitive and untampered analysis of what actually happened on that day.


Spain has managed to elude the terrorist target list for many years, mostly because the government of Socialist Prime Minister Rodrigues Zapatero immediately withdrew Spanish forces from direct involvement in Iraq and the Spanish government has refrained from direct combat operations against terrorist groups[7]. Spain remains the only Western nation to have substantially changed its foreign policy in the wake of a terrorist attack[8]. The country has nevertheless been an important transit point for radicalized persons, with numerous jihadist leaders visiting the country at different points in time and using it as a transshipment point for ISIS recruits on the way to Syria. The Iberian nation is also routinely mentioned in jihadish publications, calling for the faithful to “liberate” the Muslim territories of Al-Andalus, the medieval Umayyad caliphate that once controlled 90% of the entire peninsula. Spain is also a “target rich environment”, the second largest tourist destination in Europe and full of “soft”, difficult to defend public areas. It was only a matter of time before terror returned to reap more death and suffering. The fact that these events transpired near the culmination of a deeply divisive dispute between Madrid and Barcelona over an upcoming referendum on secession and independence is likely no coincidence: like water, the terrorists flow down the channel of least resistance and the evident dysfunction between the national and regional authorities left them an ideal space in which to operate undetected.

The terrorists will come back. ISIS is being defeated on the battlefield, but the terrorist will lash out all the more desperately in its death throes. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has continued to quietly build capabilities to strike at its “far enemies”, including Spain. The current bickering and blame game being played out in the Spanish and Catalan press is a great disservice: it directly aids and comforts the terrorists who would kill more Spaniards. The institutional disorganization and lack of cooperation within Spain will make foreign intelligence agencies wary of sharing information, on the possibility that it might ignored or, even worse, warn off the terrorists through bungling. It is also grossly hypocritical, given the history of politicization of terror and victims in recent history. In a landscape of “open borders” the role of the national and regional intelligence and policies agencies is not limited to keeping Spaniards and Catalans safe: it is to keep all Europeans safe. Spain cannot afford to become the weakest link in EU security and counter-terrorism. The politics of separatism and referendum need to be left to the politicians: the professional counter-terrorism services need to act like professionals and not political acolytes.

The best way to honor the victims is to ensure that there are never any more. Spain and Catalonia are failing — monumentally failing — in this endeavor.

Sources and Notes

[1] Catalan authorities have confirmed that a warning was received in May, which was analyzed and considered too vague to be creditable; but they have denied that it was from a US national intelligence agency like the CIA or NCTC. There is a lot to be suspicious of in this warning, which was released after the fact to a Spanish newspaper El Periódico.

[2] The story ran on 31 May 2015

[3] Referencing note 1 above, El Periódico ran a front-page story claiming to have received confirmation from an “unrevealed source” that the CIA that a warning had been sent to the Mossos in May regarding the Rambla attack. This cover story featured a “photo” of a purported note

[4] At least as far as a Google search going back to 2002 shows. The former King Juan Carlos visited hospitals after the Madrid train bombings in 2004, but didn’t march in any of the many demonstrations that followed the attack. The royals have also attended various acts and ceremonies commemorating victims of (Basque) terrorism, but have never marched in popular demonstrations. This is a first, as far as I can tell, though I’d be happy to have it shown to be otherwise.

[5] The goal of Basque independence may or may not be justifiable, but the use of violence and intimidation as a political tool in a democratic state is certainly not.

[6] I stand by that affirmation of the deliberate and cynical nature of the use of victims of ETA terrorism. Both Socialist and Conservative governments have negotiated with the ETA terrorists and both parties have acknowledged that the end of ETA could only be achieved by political means. So the use of the victims to undermine whichever party was undertaking the negotiations at that time was a calculated act of sabotage to score political points.

[7] The Spanish government has been involved in a support role in the War on Terror: the country has contributed trainers, non-combat aircraft and support personnel to Operation Serval (Mali), Operation Inherent Resolve (Iraq only) and to the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan.

[8] To be fair, the majority of Spaniards never supported a direct combat role for Spanish troops in the Middle East, so this was something of a “natural change”. However, that is not how the terrorists see it, and Al Qaeda has in the past cited Spain as an example of a successful change of policy imposed by terror on a “crusader state”.

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