ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

PsyOps: Al-Qaeda's Spanish Litmus For Europe

From Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda Threatens European NATO Allies

By Steve Schippert

The trend is not new but its intensity and frequency has increased. Al-Qaeda has long sought to drive a wedge between the United States and her allies fighting the jihadiyun war on the West. Chief among those targeted are the European NATO member allies. Al-Qaeda realized reward following their Madrid attacks of 2004, as the bombings swayed an election and netted the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq. Now, French intelligence believes al-Qaeda is planning attacks on their soil before or during the upcoming elections there. Recent kidnappings of citizens of European NATO allies have been followed by demands that Germany, Austria and Italy withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. Within this context, a concerted push by al-Qaeda and aligned movements against perceived politically vulnerable European NATO allies is discernible.

Spain: Precedence of Political Gains Through Terror

On March 11, 2004, al-Qaeda aligned terrorists exploded ten bombs on crowded commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, just three days ahead of a national election. 191 commuters were killed and over 2,000 injured. At the time, Spain had troops deployed in Iraq as part of the Coalition supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then-Prime Minister Aznar had initially blamed indigenous Basque separatist ETA terrorists for the worst terror attack in Spain’s history. ETA leaders denied any involvement. A letter was soon published by Islamists warning Spain of more attacks if it did not withdraw forces from Iraq.

With the Spanish public divided on Spain’s participation in the Iraq war, the election was expected to be relatively close, but the conservative Popular Party and Prime Minister Aznar were expected to retain control. The Socialists won the ensuing election and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became Spain’s Prime Minister, who promptly withdrew Spain’s forces from Iraq.

But the warning before the attacks came from bin Laden himself five months prior.

In The Madrid Attacks: Results of Investigations Two Years Later, Javier Jordán and Robert Wesley wrote, "The hypothesis that the order to commit the attacks came from a higher level in al-Qaeda is largely credible. In October 2003, bin Laden explicitly threatened Spain for its military presence in Iraq. A day later, Yousef Belhadj [a terrorist from the al-Qaeda aligned Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group or GICM] bought a new card for his mobile phone and inserted "March 11" as his birthday. This could be seen as coincidental except for the fact that another of Belhadj's phones had encoded the date May 16--the date of the Casablanca attacks (El Pais, August 5, 2005)."

Through terrorist attack and the electoral results in its wake, al-Qaeda had achieved tangible gains on the ground in Iraq with Spain’s withdrawal and had effectively driven a wedge between America and a once-staunch ally. Al-Qaeda issued a truce after Zapatero’s election. And while no major attacks have occurred since, Spain has become a hub for Islamist jihadis facilitating travel and false documentation for terrorists bound for Iraq as well as from Iraq and into Europe. It is highly unlikely that the traveling Islamists are seeking gainful employment or university enrollment in their various European host countries.

Current French Presidential Election Threat

Recent reports have suggested that France may face a possible threat during its presidential elections straddling April and May 2007. The French Le Monde and London-based Al-Hayat newspapers reported secret French intelligence memos, one of which addressed “planning, from the Middle East, of a wave of suicide attacks against a European country not identified, anywhere between September 2006 and April 2007.” In Jamestown's Terrorism Focus, Kathryn Haahr wrote that "a multiplicity of indicators—threatening letters on websites close to al-Qaeda, an alleged letter from bin Laden encouraging Salafi-Jihadi groups to attack France and the arrests of various jihadis in France—suggest an attack is likely."

Days after the French reports were made public, France arrested 11 al-Qaeda suspects. Nine were in France and suspected of being part of an operating terrorist cell and two were arrested at a Paris airport where they "had just returned from abroad."

If the Islamist jihadists are planning attacks during or leading into the French elections, it is almost certainly inspired by the effectiveness of the 2004 attacks in Madrid and the favorable effect it had on the ensuing elections days later.

Threats on Austria and Germany

Through an Islamist website, al-Qaeda aligned terrorists warned Austria and Germany to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan or face terrorist attacks against civilians on their soil and against their troops in the Afghan theater. Austria and Germany have no troops in Iraq, but both nations have troops in Afghanistan in non-combat roles.

Two Germans were abducted in Iraq and appeared on a propaganda video from a group calling themselves the “Arrows of Righteousness.” One was identified as Hannelore Marianne Krause, who was seated next to her own son, also abducted in Iraq. On the video, Krause pleaded with the German government to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan. Perhaps originally a target of opportunity, the German is being exploited by jihadists in Iraq to further the aims of their fellow terrorists in the Afghanistan war.

The speaker in the video release said, “Austria has always been one of the most safe countries in Europe, depending on tourism both in summer and winter. But if it doesn't withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, it may be among targeted nations.”

That an Iraq abduction has been transformed into an Afghanistan demand is of significance to note. While many Americans tend to differentiate definitively between the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operations, to the jihadi they are clearly both subsets of the same war.

Threats on Italy

The Taliban abducted Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a journalist from the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and accused him of being a spy for the Coalition. They had said that if it can be proved that he is not a spy, he would be released. However, his life is now under threat regardless of whether he is perceived a spy or not.

After Italy's lower parliamentary house approved a measure keeping Italy's contingent in Afghanistan as a part of NATO, the Taliban's Mullah Hayatullah Khan said, "This vote has put the life of the reporter in danger." Though no specific threat of attacks on Italian soil are known to have been made in this instance, as a participating member of NATO, it remains a standing threat.

What is significant is the marriage between the fate of non-combatants from Coalition nations at the hands of terrorists and the political actions of the captives’ home countries.


None of these incidents taken individually are necessarily unique or original. Abductions and demands of troop withdrawals have occurred since the beginning of the greater conflict. What is at least noteworthy, however, is the recent clustering of these events and the nations they are targeted against.

As was the case with Spain, none of the countries – France, Germany, Austria or Italy – has a strong majority public support for actions abroad aligned with the United States. Each nation utilizes a government beholden to their people through elections. The militaries of each are currently involved in the Afghanistan theater of operations. None of them have active roles in front-line combat, with the exception of French Special Forces units, which can be seen as a collective reflection of the will of the governments’ respective electorates.

In essence, these governments are not the staunch allies that, for example, the governments of Britain and Australia are. It is at least noteworthy that the Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo stands accused of spying for British troops. Yet, the withdrawal demand was not made of the British government. The governments of Italy, France, Germany and Austria are perhaps seen by the Islamist jihadists as more vulnerable to terrorist influence, as was Spain in 2004.

Political vulnerability is a force multiplier for the political tool of terrorism. This is not to say that similar results will be achieved, but rather to suggest that this perceived political vulnerability is a likely contributing factor shaping the actions of the enemy. Ultimately, it is the response of the electorates which will determine the enemy's success or failure in each endeavor. Spain serves as al-Qaeda's litmus test and should serve as the West's lesson.

Perhaps unwilling or unaware subjects of psychological warfare, the war - jihad - is waged against the you, the electorate.