"Police and intelligence were working under the mental framework that Islamists would never attack Spain." That, to my mind, is the most damning quote to emerge from this Christian Science Monitor report on the controversy that kicked up last week when it was revealed that Spanish law enforcement had a huge amount of advance knowledge on the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004.
The strength of the piece, like much Monitor reporting, lies not only in recounting the controversy so that readers care but in stepping back to help us make sense of it all:
They had the names. They knew when and where the men met and how they raised money. They even had the cell-phone numbers of the group's leaders. But with all that information, police were still unable to prevent the bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004.
Spaniards have known for months that, long before the bombings occurred, police and intelligence forces here were monitoring the individuals who would carry out the attacks. But last week, El Mundo newspaper published 12 notes written by Abdelkader el-Farssaoui, imam of a mosque outside Madrid and informer to the intelligence unit of the national police, that describe with chilling specificity the members and activities of the suspected cell. Since the report, the debate over whether the police could have prevented the bombings has intensified, with the opposition Popular Party voicing demands for more hearings on the attacks.
El Farssaoui, who went by the code name "Cartagena," began providing Spanish police with information in October 2002. He identified Serhane Abdelmajid, who would later kill himself and six associates by setting off explosives when police converged on their apartment, as the leader. In February 2003, he observed that Jamal Zougam, currently awaiting trial as a presumed author of the attacks, had joined the cell. And he recounted how Mohammed Larbi Ben Sellam, suspected of a role in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, had told him that "he didn't understand why most were so obsessed with going to . . . Afghanistan to make jihad when the same kind of operation was possible in other countries, like Morocco and Spain."