It will take a long time for Europe to digest the emotional and political earthquake Spain has been through since Europe’s M-11 (for March 11, as the tragedy is now enshrined).

A four-day whirlwind saw the worst terror attack in modern European history; no fewer than 11 million people all over Spain rallying in the streets against terrorism; a sort of “SMS (short message service) revolution” calling for demonstrations against the conservative Aznar government; successive al-Qaeda claims of responsibility; and general elections with a very high turnout (77.2 percent, including 2 million new, young voters), which led to the conservatives being evicted to the benefit of the socialists.

The new Spanish prime minister will be Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, 43, a soft-spoken former law professor from Leon, in the north of Castile. His priority will be “the fight against terrorism,” along with more progressive social policies and, crucially, a new foreign policy. Zapatero wants to “position Spain in the frontline of European construction.” This means, unlike the outgoing Jose Maria Aznar, no more unconditional alignment with George W. Bush’s preventive wars. This means, unlike Aznar, very close cooperation with Europe’s Franco-German engine. And this means – following a key campaign promise – no more 1,300 Spanish soldiers in Iraq, unless the United Nations takes over military operations before next July.

The conservatives of the Popular Party (PP) were thrashed from the Basque country to Galicia, from Catalonia to Andalusia. Most Spanish political scientists agree it was less a vote for the socialists than a referendum on Aznar and his party, widely, graphically accused of “lying” to the country by insisting on blaming Thursday’s Madrid terrorist bombings on the Basque separatists of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Liberty) even when all the leads started pointing to the global jihad. Waves of placards in Barcelona said it all: “Your war. Our dead.” By Sunday morning, polling time, in the minds and spirits of most Spanish voters, the connection was finally clear. Hyperterrorism had struck against Europe. And average Spaniards had paid with their own blood for their government’s blind support for Bush’s war on Iraq – rejected by 94 percent of the population.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to overestimate al-Qaeda. It’s as if Osama bin Laden were a deus ex machina thundering destruction orders out of his cave somewhere in the Pakistan-Afghan tribal areas. It’s equally hard to underestimate al-Qaeda. For some time now the global jihad has been a mutant virus. The whole thing is smoothly evolving in terms of terror franchising: small cells or groups organized around Arab-Afghan operatives (jihad veterans who have been in touch with the original al-Qaeda), and all of them operating autonomously.

Nihilism and politics

It’s a paradox that in its nihilistic refusal of politics, in its tragic perversity, and profiting from indefensible methods, the global jihad’s political strategy in Spain was nevertheless meticulously calculated. The objective was to punish a Western government aligned with the “crusaders Bush and Blair” and their wars “against Afghanistan and Iraq” – as Osama bin Laden himself had clearly warned in a tape of last October.

The Madrid bombings were timed for just three days before the general election. The Aznar government fell into the trap and immediately blamed ETA, without any evidence or investigation. Already by Thursday night it was leaked that the Foreign Ministry had ordered Spanish ambassadors around the world to blame ETA. Then the global jihad started unleashing its second artillery barrage: al-Qaeda and/or affiliates started claiming authorship by e-mail and video, as clues were progressively “dropped” around – the van with the detonators and the Koran tape, the dynamite backpack linked to a cellular phone. For its part, ETA vehemently denied any involvement – twice. The ruling Popular Party may have seen it coming by Saturday, when a real “SMS revolution” – as the word in Barcelona’s streets goes – launched a series of spontaneous political demonstrations against the government’s “lies” and “manipulation.”

Even before the demonstrations, Arnaldo Otegi, spokesman for the Basque independent left and former leader of Batasuna – the political party outlawed by Aznar because of its links with ETA – was adamant: “A leftist organization like ETA could never have planned such an undescribable massacre of honest workers, especially because it happened in a suburb that was a resistant focus against [Francisco] Franco’s regime … ETA always took responsibility for its actions, and it never lied.” By Saturday night, what Otegi seemed to know since Thursday afternoon was evident to millions of Spaniards, and there was even an allusion to it in the El Pais daily: since the early hours, the Aznar government and the Spanish special services knew ETA was not in the picture. Any realpolitik analyst would add that by this time no government could possibly not recognize that the 200 dead and more than 1,500 wounded in Madrid were the price to pay for a political choice regarding the Iraq war.

Barcelona took to the streets in force on Saturday – again displaying countless badges and flags first used in February 2003, when the city was in the frontline of the demonstrations against the coming war on Iraq. Meanwhile, in the Basque country, solidarity with the victims in Madrid soon merged with deep anger. “To see the word ‘Basque’ assimilated to this barbaric act, this creates a shock beyond anyone’s ideology. We defend our identity and our culture, but no one is ready to pay such a price,” said Panpi Dirassar, a spokesman for Batasuna. The crowds in Bilbao were furious that “the Basques had become the new Jews of this century.”

The Aznar strategy totally backfired. According to numerous polls, as many as 70 percent of Spaniards consider Aznar, Bush’s and Tony Blair’s “third man in the photo,” an “arrogant and intolerant” character. During his second term (2000-04), he personalized authoritarian, centralized Castile almost to cartoonish proportions, fighting against Basque and Catalan nationalism (no wonder both regions voted massively against the PP).

But Aznar is a very ambitious man. As a sort of surrogate son of Margaret Thatcher, he is detested in Brussels, but anyway wants to engage himself in the battle of ideas on a global scale, by persuading Europeans to follow the US model. If his friend George W Bush is re-elected, he will certainly get some sort of reward in the limelight from Washington.

The Moroccan trail

The investigation on the Madrid bombings seems to be pointing to a Moroccan trail. Notorious Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon has all but proved that “al-Qaeda’s Spanish cell” was key in developing the attacks of September 11, 2001. Of the three Moroccans and two Indians already in custody in Madrid, Mohamed Chaui, a native of Tangier, has his name linked to a conversation involving Barakat Yarkas, considered to be in charge of al-Qaeda’s Spanish cell. On the other hand, no European intelligence service has been able so far to identify Abu Dujan al-Afghani, the man speaking Arabic with a Moroccan accent who appears in a purported al-Qaeda video claiming responsibility for the bombings.

The five simultaneous bombings in Casablanca last May were conducted by Moroccan kamikazes recruited in the suburb of Sidi Moumen. The authors of the Istanbul bombings in November were Kurdish Islamists, recruited by Arab-Afghans. Experts from a special European anti-terrorist cell in Brussels confirm to Asia Times Online the modus operandi of these attacks: a mix of extreme sophistication and amateurism (just like the Madrid bombings, when a cell phone, for instance, is abandoned but still charged with its SIM card). These operations are virtually autonomous – developed after a fleeting contact with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan in which local groups discuss the ways local jihad can contribute to global jihad.

Only one day before M-11, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had finished the simulation of an Islamist attack against a Dutch chemical plant, leaving 200 dead. But what really happened the day after was even more unprecedented: the global jihad directly influencing the outcome of a general election in a Western democracy.