WASHINGTON—The trial of 29 people connected to the terrorist attacks that cost the lives of 191 people and injured 1,824 others three years ago in Madrid constitutes the first effort to bring to justice the al-Qaeda organization, as opposed to individuals linked to the terrorist group. Whether it will throw substantial light on Osama bin Laden’s franchise-based worldwide network is an open question. But the significance of this trial should not be lost on anyone who cares about the challenge that Islamic terrorism poses to our civilization.

The 9/11 attacks in the United States never produced anything like the Madrid trial. The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui and the pending case against Jose Padilla are minor episodes compared to the Spanish case. In the past five years, the United States has been more focused on Iraq, and on obtaining information from al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere, than on putting the organization on trial.

In Spain, in part because of the bitter political division caused by the attacks, the effort has been geared toward bringing to justice the Spanish branch of al-Qaeda, and by extension the all-important European branch. The division pits those, like leaders of the conservative opposition, who claim that Basque terrorists were major players in the attacks and those, like officials of the current Socialist government, who claim that al-Qaeda was responsible. Today’s conservative opposition was in power when the attacks took place and lost the elections because Spanish voters interpreted the attacks as a punishment for Madrid’s support of the Iraq War.

Apart from the fact that al-Qaeda was clearly linked to the massacre, the significance of the trial is reinforced by the mounting evidence that, after five years of trying to avoid putting al-Qaeda on trial in order to pursue a semi-secret fight against that the organization in various places, America’s “war against terrorism” is not producing conclusive results—except for making it much harder for the enemy to strike U.S. territory. American intelligence sources maintain that al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, setting up major training camps. The growing chaos in Afghanistan seems to confirm that al-Qaeda is back with force.

So, learning more about the structure of the organization and its modus operandi is of paramount importance. The Madrid trials are bringing to justice Islamic terrorist suspects who are part of the European network and answer to al-Qaeda’s bosses in the Afghan/Pakistani region. The main link with those bosses is Rabei Osman El Sayed, aka The Egyptian, who was trained in Afghanistan and left that country in 2003 in order to set up camp in Spain, where he contacted Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet, aka The Tunisian. A few months later, using dynamite stolen from a mine, the al-Qaeda cell bombed four commuter trains in Madrid.

The connection with other European cells is undeniable. Soon after planning the attacks, The Egyptian left Spain and established himself in Italy, where, luckily, he was imprudent enough to tell one of his contacts over a bugged telephone that he had masterminded the Madrid massacre. And Youssef Belhadj, known as the European spokesman for the organization, also is on trial.

The court case does not guarantee that we will come to fully understand the complex, decentralized and “renewable” organization that is al-Qaeda. The accused are refusing to answer questions from prosecutors, and they are well trained in “silence techniques,” as described in the manuals found in an apartment in the outskirts of Madrid where seven of their alleged accomplices committed suicide. But at least some very useful information is bound to come out. After all, the accused have links with 9/11. One of their fellow Islamic fanatics, Imad Barakat, who was convicted in another trial, was the leader of the Spanish al-Qaeda cell that collaborated in the 9/11 attacks.

Even if the trial does not seriously weaken al-Qaeda, it is a moral milestone in the effort against terrorism. It is about time that a civilized country brought a significant portion of the European al-Qaeda operation before a court of law. Keeping the fight semi-secret ultimately helps the enemy, because that is precisely one of its objectives—to show that liberal democracy is a farce and that notions such as Western civilization constitute a smokescreen to hide the forces of imperialism and Christian Crusaders. The Madrid trials will help undermine that case, at least in the eyes of those who are not under the fanatics’ spell.