Albert Stahel on the reasons for the attack in Madrid|
"Al-Qaeda has been atomised"
Spain is deeply shocked in the aftermath of the devastating attack on 11th March. Security expert, Albert Stahel, titular professor and lecturer at the Military Academy of ETH Zurich, shares his thoughts about the background of the attacks with ETH Life.
Interview: Norbert Staub
Albert Stahel, signs are mounting that Islamic extremists were responsible for the devastating attack in Madrid. Does this surprise you?
Albert A. Stahel:
Not at all. The execution, dimensions and context of the attack hardly carry the hallmark of the Basque separatist movement, ETA. From the start I was more inclined to suspect the perpetrators amongst al-Qaeda or a group from a terrorist network with which it has ties.
What led you to this conclusion?
It is quite clear that the terrorists just want to kill ordinary people, not necessarily decision-makers. They want to cause as much suffering and horror as possible – a maximum of fear and destruction in the target country. The attacks in the States on 11th September 2001 and in Bali in October 2002 bore the same characteristics. ETA, on the other hand, still has the declared political goal of an independent Basque state. Such an attack would be totally counterproductive as far as their goal is concerned.
The Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar was very quick to support the USA during the Iraq crisis. There are Spanish troops today amongst the occupying forces in Iraq. Due to stricter security measures it has become difficult to attack foreign troops in Iraq itself. An obvious displacement – from the terrorists' point of view – is to carry out attacks in the home countries of US allies.
According to this logic, Italy, for example, also has to be prepared to become a target for Islamic terror?
Yes, certainly. Especially as neither Italy nor Spain are able or willing to protect their ocean boundaries from illegal immigration – which means that they can hardly act against terrorist infiltration.
Moreover, it has been known for a long time that al-Qaeda has a well-functioning network of sympathisers and activists in Spain. What makes the situation even more precarious is that the armies of both countries are actually thinning out their forces, especially at the cost of internal security.
How can terror of these dimensions be effectively combated, if at all?
In order to foil such attacks extra effort from the intelligence services is called for, and what's more underpinned by the physical reconnaissance of specialists at the logistical bases, skilled in the language and culture, in countries like Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. And I think this shows, once again, that a country needs an efficient, centrally co-ordinated and steered police force capable of taking on paramilitary challenges.
What, in your opinion, is the greater context of what happened in Madrid?
First of all, the declared objective of the intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 – namely to destroy al-Qaeda –- has not been reached. The network has only been atomised – which only makes it even more difficult to combat. There are al-Qaeda cells today in all those countries that sent troops at the time to fight against Russia's occupation of Afghanistan. In addition the Iraq war in 2003 continues to have a humiliating effect on wide sectors of the Middle East. Unfortunately, these two issues make it more likely that we have to expect more attacks of these dimensions in future, at anytime and anyplace.
Do you think any consequences arise for Switzerland from "three-eleven"?
It is what I have said for a long time; the continuous reduction of the size of Switzerland's army weakens controls at our borders and the capacity to act effectively to prevent internal violence. We lack a central police force. The permeability of our southern borders is probably one of the main real reasons for Germany's current disgruntlement with Switzerland. Because it is relatively easy for illegal groups to use Switzerland as a transit to enter Germany. And not just that; little Switzerland allows itself the luxury – despite the Bellasi affair – of six or seven intelligence services, that certainly don't always have the same aim. The situation is simply absurd.
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