“Victory is not gained by the number killed, but by the number frightened”
- Arab Proverb
The explosion that raced through the second floor apartment of the 3/11 terrorists in the waning hours of April 3rd – taking each of their lives before blasting out several dozen windows and being forever immortalized by the rolling cameras of the Spanish media – never would’ve happened if not for those damn alarm clocks.
If you’ve ever relied on an alarm clock to wake up, chances are you’ve ended up being late to wherever you were supposed to. Be it to class, work, or an appointment. Or, more accurately, because of you. As devilishly simple as they are to set, you can probably relate to the fact that one simple feature of theirs has probably, at some point, resulted in you showing up somewhere late. Since most alarm clocks on the shelves these days lack a military-time setting, when you’re setting the alarm for the next morning you’ve got to be careful to make sure you’ve toggled the AM–PM selection carefully.
Because if you screw this up, the alarm you set to go off at 7:40 in the morning will actually trigger twelve hours later – at 7:40 in the evening. Which is the exact mistake the 3/11 bombers made when they were arming the bomb they left in the El Pozo station that March morning.
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At 7:40PM, inside a blue-cloth leather-handled gym-bag buried in a pile of unclaimed belongings at the El Pozo station, and twelve hours to the minute after eleven other bombs claimed 191 lives, the Spanish police, to their hasty chagrin, uncovered the alarm attached to one last bomb. Urgently sounding its strident tone – but harmlessly – as in addition to incorrectly toggling the AM-PM function, the bomb had been faultily wired.
And so the same mistake which has probably at some point resulted in your being chewed out by a boss or teacher helped save the lives of a few dozen policemen, standing mouths open and sweat beading on their foreheads over a beeping bag in the lost-and-found bin on the morning of March 11th. Spanish police pulled out the SIM chips from the back of the cell phone attached to this bomb and from the cell phones found as components of two other bombs that failed to detonate because of faulty wiring. They were able to trace these chips to the store where the phones were purchased. Information gleaned from this store provided the first lead and led to the arrest of three of the terrorist cell members before the sun set on March 11th, but the rest of the cell managed to elude arrest.
Until a tip led police to the Madrid suburb of Leganes. Here the 3/11 cell held the police off in a stand-off that was occasionally punctuated by the spray of machine guns across the apartment courtyard and which lasted for several hours. The standoff made for incredible evening news, as every single Spanish media outlet and several international ones covered the event with cameras rolling. Then in the last moments of the evening, as special agents were executing the final steps of a dramatic raid on the apartment, the terrorists detonated what would be their last explosion – a Masada in front of rolling cameras.
A Masada for all the world to see.
In a sense the terrorist cell responsible for 3/11 carried out a two-pronged terrorist effort. The first of which was the bombings on the morning of March 11th, which were actually meant to take thousands of lives instead of less than two-hundred. The only reason they didn’t is that the morning congestion happened to cause the bomb-laden trains to be delayed in reaching the central hub at Atocha, where they’d been timed to detonate.
The terrorists of 3/11 were intimately in tune with the rhythm of Spanish society, and they timed their attach explicitly so it would have the highest possible death-count. Had the bombs detonated in concert as intended the railway station at Atocha itself would’ve collapsed, killing thousands.1 This contrasts starkly with 9/11, there the planes crashed into the Twin Towers well before they were filled with their daily allotment of employees.
This first prong of the 3/11 attack was meant to be an act of Tactical Terrorism, with some particularly alarming features. The formation and indoctrination of the cell had been “an entirely local affair, carried out through the sermons and speeches of imams from the salafists movement,” and none of the cell’s members had any direct link to al-Qaeda.2 None of them had ever been to one of al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan and only one of them had anything even vaguely resembling terrorist training.3 However the men saw themselves as members of al-Qaeda in the same way that many who never met Karl Marx would come to consider themselves Marxists.
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The attack was meant as an homage to bin Ladin, “both honor and emulation – to him and his ideas.”4 The cell had been spurred into action by bin Ladin’s broadcast call to jihad the previous fall. On the day after they heard his message they began planning their attack. Claim for the attack was almost immediately made to London’s largest Arabic daily newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi – which, it should come as no surprise, translates as “Arab Jerusalem” – by a group named “Al-Qaeda in Spain,” a name that must’ve caused a bit of confusion among bin Ladin’s inner circle. In this claim the group directly invoked the events of 9/11, pointing out their attacks had been carried out exactly two-and-a-half years after that date.
Joining al-Qaeda in the case of the 3/11 cell had nothing to do with meeting bin Ladin, training under his supervision, or even receiving a blessing for an attack. For them, joining al-Qaeda meant living their lives in sync with ideology of the group. Which finally led to the second prong of the cell’s terrorism.
Cornered in their second-story apartment and facing sure incarceration, the cell made the best – in terms of dramatic impact and theatre – of their situation. To ensure, as they saw it, their membership in al-Qaeda the remaining members of the cell created a spectacle demonstrating their resolve and commitment to the cause in inarguable terms. Attempting to take as many Spanish police with them as they could, they detonated their remaining hashish-purchased Goma-2 plastic explosives and sealed their membership in al-Qaeda with a massive blast of mortar and glass.
A blast they intended and knew would be seen by the entire world via the media’s ever-rolling television cameras, an unmistakable act of Symbolic Terrorism. Because they were aware the entire world was watching, and wanted to demonstrate to all their commitment to the cause. Their mass-suicide was meant and has been used as a piece of propaganda to rally the forces of Al-Qaeda, and was meant to factor into one of the possible formulas of terrorism. But exactly which formula they were intending to invoke requires a return to the events of previous years.
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As one century melded into the next, a different sort of terrorism began to stir in the core of the world’s great power.
Like others before, it was rooted in protest against the oppressive policies of what it saw as an immoral and corrupt government. A government that was seen by many as having no right to be exercising any influence over the lives of a people and occupying its lands. A government that hadn’t been legitimately elected by its people and was seen by many as serving the interests of a wealthy elite while ignoring the moral and social degeneration going on inside the nation.
The group sought to buck this illegitimate authority and bring a new form of rule to its people, one which would better ensure their prosperity. For too long the group had watched as this oppressive government dominated its lands and acted for its own benefit, not taking into account the effect its decisions had on the local populace. Corruption seeped into their affairs. Resources were exploited. Women and children suffered. The terrorists were determined to enact change – however, this group was faced with a critical problem.
It seemed nearly impossible to rally the masses, the popular Street, to action. Generations of authoritarian militaristic rule had caused them to be filled with “apathy and alienation.” Any sort of democratic reform seemed impossible, as any move towards it was met with a heavy and lethal hand.
To fight this illegitimate and exploitive rule, the group had to find some way to break the Street out of its hellish shell of hopelessness and oppression – solving this dilemma was their first problem. And in the response to this problem lay this terrorist group’s novelty: they resorted to “daring and dramatic acts of violence designed to attract attention to the group and its cause.” So the terrorists chose targets which they felt embodied the symbolic value of their oppressors, targets which they believed would be most apt to awaken the Street from its apathy and despair. And finally, after having taken “extraordinary measures to ensure the success of this attempt,” they acted.
The attack was coordinated, well planned, and involved four separate, stunning explosions – each carried out by a group of volunteers who proved they were willing to die for their cause. The success of the attack caused the full wrath of the state they had attacked to rain down on the heads of the terrorists, who quickly saw their remote safe-houses and hide-outs swarmed by the government they’d assaulted.
On the first day of March in 1881, the Narodnaya Volya assassinated Tsar Alexander II by bombing his sleigh as it was traveling along the snowy late-spring Russian roads – one-hundred and twenty years before al-Qaeda carried out its own spectacular attack on the morning of September 11th. And, after the sun set on that cold Russian winter’s day, the world would – once again – never be the same.
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The Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, set that standard that al-Qaeda sought to emulate. Their actions against the Cossack-guarded Tsar were fueled by the first true manifestation of the theory “propaganda by deed.”
This theory, elucidated by the Italian extremist Carlo Pisacane, states that violence is necessary to both draw attention to a revolutionary cause as well as rally the disaffected masses behind it. Every terrorist act has an instructive purpose as well as a fomenting one. Pisacane argued, and many revolutionaries who listened to him have agreed, that violence was needed “not only to draw attention to, or generate publicity for, a cause, but to inform, educate and ultimately rally the masses behind the revolution.”4 This latter purpose of dramatic violence, the instructional and educational one, could never be accomplished through pamphlets, posters, or rallies.