Immediately after the attacks, the Spanish government accused the Basque separatist movement Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty — the ETA) of responsibility for the attacks. In the immediate aftermath, Prime Minister José María Aznar and Interior Minister Ángel Acebes announced that the ETA was responsible and contacted media outlets to assure them of the allegations. However, many people, both throughout Spain and around the world, believed otherwise.
With a national election only three days away, and Spanish troops fighting in an unpopular war in Iraq, critics charged that the government accusation against the ETA was intended to deflect attention away from the link between the terrorist attacks on Spanish civilians and the fighting in Iraq. The country had recently sent 1,300 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and there was widespread opposition in Spain to the war (a 2003 poll had shown that 92 percent of Spaniards opposed the war).
A spokesperson for Batasuna, the political arm of the ETA, denied responsibility. In addition, the large-scale impact, coordination and simultaneous nature of the attacks were not characteristic of the ETA.
On March 13, 2004, an audiotape was found in a van near a Madrid mosque. The tape claimed responsibility for the attacks by the Groupe Islamique Combattan Morrocain (Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group — GICM), believed to be inspired by al-Qaeda’s vision of global holy war (jihad). A mobile phone was also found in one of the bags of explosives that did not detonate, and five men, including Jamal Zougam, who was alleged to have links with the suspected leader of an al-Qaeda cell in Spain, were arrested.
As evidence pointing to Islamist extremists rather than the ETA emerged, anger rose against the Spanish government. On March 13, the eve of the election, hundreds of Spaniards protested, accusing the government of manipulation and demanding transparency. This distrust was revealed during the next day’s election, as Spain voted in the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who withdrew all 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq within five weeks of his inauguration.
That same day, a video was uncovered claiming responsibility for the attacks from a supposed al-Qaeda military spokesman in Europe. The spokesman claimed that the attacks were avenging Spain's collaboration with the United States and its allies.
On April 3, 2004, Spanish police raided the group's holdout in Leganés, a suburb of Madrid, where seven suspected ringleaders of the attacks blew themselves up as the police closed in, killing one Spanish policeman. By April 2005, twenty-four suspects were in jail and another sixty-five suspects had been charged with lesser crimes in connection with the bombings. In October 2007, after a five-month long trial, a Spanish court delivered a one-hour long verdict, convicting 21 of 28 defendants. The key perpetrators are believed to be linked to the GICM, and although the investigation found no evidence of a direct operational link to al-Qaeda, the GICM was later declared a derivative structure of al-Qaeda.
Of the 21 men convicted, three were considered key perpetrators and faced 191 charges of mass murder and more than 1,800 charges of attempted murder. Although these defendants were given sentences of more than 40,000 years in jail, the maximum sentence that can be served under Spanish law is 40 years.
Othman el-Gnaoui, 31, given maximum sentence of 42,924 years in jail. Moroccan-born el-Gnaoui was found guilty of carrying out the bombs and suspected of helping procure explosives.
Jamal Zougam, 33, given maximum sentence of 42,922 years in jail. Moroccan-born Zougam ran a mobile phone shop in Madrid that supplied most of the phones used to detonate the bombs. Zougam is believed to have links to Islamist extremist groups.
José Emilio Suárez Trashorras, 30, given a 34,715-year sentence. Suárez Trashorras, a former Spanish miner, was charged with supplying the dynamite for the bombs.
Membership in a Terrorist Organization
Hamid Ahmidan, sentenced to 23 years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and drug trafficking.
Rachid Aglif, sentenced to 18 years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and supplying explosives.
Abdelmajid Bouchar, sentenced to 18 years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and supplying explosives.
Hassan el-Haski, sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Fouad el-Morabit, sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Saed el-Harrak, sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Mohamed Bouharrat, sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Youssef Belhadj, sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Mohamed Larbi Ben Sellam, sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Collaborating with a Terrorist Organization
Rafa Zouhier, sentenced to ten years in prison for collaborating with a terrorist organization and for trafficking explosives.
Nasreddine Bousbaa, sentenced to three years in prison for document forgery.
Mahmoud Slimane Aoun, sentenced to three years in prison for document forgery.
Antonio Iván Reis Palacio, sentenced to three years in prison for transporting explosives.
Sergio Alvarez Sánchez, sentence to three years in prison for transporting explosives.
Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed
Antonio Toro Castro
Carmen Maria Toro Castro
Emilio Llano Alvarez
Iván Granados Peña
Javier González Peña
Mouhannad Almallah Dabas
Abdelilah el-Fadual el-Akil
Rául González Peláez