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Opinion: Dangers of Passing the Blame

The Spanish government says Basque separatist group ETA is responsible for Thursday's bomb attacks in Madrid. But the police have no proof. Nor is al Qaeda connection convincing.

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Without concrete evidence it's not only futile but also wantonly careless to assign blame for acts of terrorism like that in Madrid. It would be all too easy to lose sight of the real culprits and to waste valuable time devoting inordinate attention to others. On the other hand, it's only human to wonder who would carry out such a monstrous and unfathomable deed.

In efforts to come up with a criminal profile, every detail that could even vaguely be relevant must be compiled. That's what the Spanish authorities are now doing. The deed is atypical of ETA, since it was directed blindly against innocent civilians and because the Basque organization neither issued a warning nor took responsibility for the attacks afterwards. This point is important, since in carrying out attacks, ETA normally aims to show that it still exists and that it's indestructible. But that only works if it takes responsibility for its actions.

Yet other signs point to ETA, not just overeager Spanish officials who see ETA as the source of all evil. Instead, there are indications that the explosives used were identical to what ETA has used in the past. Even more incriminating is the fact that at least two planned ETA attacks on trains were thwarted in the past few months.

Sending investigators off track?

Thus, the chain of evidence appeared to have been quickly closed -- if only a van hadn't been found with detonators and recordings of Quranic verses. And if an e-mail hadn't been received in London in which -- keeping with Osama bin Laden's style -- the deeds were exalted as a blow to the "crusaders" and further attacks were threatened. This is a capital way to serve theories of a second criminal profile, of Islamic terrorists from al Qaeda (or its surroundings).

But here too caution is necessary, not just because people close to ETA immediately said the attacks could only have been committed by "Arab resistance." Was it merely an attempt to send investigators on the wrong track? The van with the Quran recordings could be as much. Someone with the organizational "talent" to hide a dozen bombs in numerous trains and set them off simultaneously is certainly capable of leaving false clues.

Knee-jerk reaction

Such clues only lead in one direction these days. No matter where, since Sept. 11 the first suspect is always Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda -- sometimes with good reason, often surely just because it's easy. Reasons enough are quickly listed. In Iraq just as now in Madrid, wasn't it Osama bin Laden personally who, on an audio cassette in October, threatened the Spanish as close allies to the USA? Hadn't the Spanish become victims of targeted attacks in Iraq?

Still, there is an important departure from al Qaeda's previous behavior: It does issue threats in advance but normally leaves open who carried out the deeds. That's why an e-mail claiming responsibility is suspicious, for terrorist "successes" have many fathers. The Internet makes it easier than ever for terrorist freeloaders to communicate "confessor" spam mails. In the end what counts is proof, not theories, no matter how plausible they sound.

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