The Long Shadow of al-Andalus

Spain is on the periphery of Europe, but central to modern jihad.


MADRID — Until last week, when, a few minutes before 5 p.m. on Thursday, a white van began careering along the pedestrianized section of Barcelona’s iconic La Rambla avenue, Spain had been spared the recent spate of crude jihadi terrorist attacks inflicted on Western Europe. While countries like Britain, France, and Germany endured multiple attacks claimed by the Islamic State, Spain went overlooked — or so it appeared.

But Thursday’s attacks on Barcelona and the coastal town of Cambrils didn’t mark a sudden elevation of the country as a target for jihadi groups. Spain has had a special claim on the imagination of Islamist extremists for more than a decade.

The Spanish have long been acquainted with terrorism, but for most of the 20th century the violence was primarily perpetrated by ETA, an organization fighting for an independent Basque homeland that killed more than 800 people in bombings and assassinations. By the late 1990s, however — partly as a result of this focus on ETA, which sucked up the state’s counterterrorism resources, and partly as a result of Spain’s geographical position as a hub between North Africa and Europe and from there onward to the United States — the country had become one of the primary bases for al Qaeda in Western Europe.

Initially, the group viewed Spain primarily as a logistical base: a relatively easy place in which to harbor jihadis and to make plans. Abu Dahdah, one of the founders of al Qaeda in Spain, reportedly saw off his fighters headed to theaters like Bosnia and Chechnya at the airport and sent those wounded in battle to treatment at Spanish hospitals, operating with what Spanish daily El País in June called “total immunity.” It was just a few miles along the Tarragona coast from Cambrils, the location for the secondary attack last week, where the chief 9/11 suicide pilot Mohamed Atta and Hamburg-based al Qaeda coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh met in 2001 to finalize their plan eight weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Eventually 18 multinational members of an al Qaeda cell in Spain would be convicted for helping organize 9/11, among other acts of logistical support for the international terrorist network.

But Spain would eventually transition from an operating base to a target. The history of Spain — under Arab control for the best part of eight centuries up to 1492 — has long held a certain allure for Islamist groups; then, in 2003, the country’s government took Spain to war in Iraq, against the majority view of the population.

If the 9/11 connections had not been sufficient warning, the bombing of Madrid commuter trains on March 11, 2004, in which 192 people were killed, finally opened Spanish authorities’ eyes to the alarming freedom with which jihadis with al Qaeda connections had been able to travel into the country and form cells. The attacks were carried out by an international group of jihadis from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, with help from Spain-based Muslim immigrants and petty criminals who obtained stolen dynamite from a mine in the northern region of Asturias.

In the years since, Spain’s security forces have been obsessed with preventing further attacks. Before March 11, the number of security agents assigned to investigate Islamist extremism was lower than the number of victims on that bleak day. Now it stands at 3,000 and rising. More than 700 jihadi suspects have been arrested since then; of those, some 200 were detained since Spain last raised its terrorism threat level — to four out of five — in June 2015. Catalonia, in particular, has been identified as a hot spot for radical Islam in Spain, with a quarter of those arrests accounted for by the province of Barcelona alone.

Spanish officials have taken the approach — unusual in Europe — of intervening as early as possible when they get word of potential terrorist plots, disrupting cells almost before they form. Sometimes, the choice to dismantle cells quickly produces unsatisfactory judicial results, with scant evidence on which to level major criminal charges. In 2008, French authorities were reportedly miffed when Spanish police used testimony from one of their agents to break up a cell mainly comprising Pakistanis in Barcelona, although no explosives were ever found. Eleven men were eventually convicted of plotting to bomb the city’s subway system, but the French mole’s cover was blown for good. But, for the most part, Spain’s approach has worked: For 13 years, Spain successfully avoided any loss of life on its soil from jihadi terrorist attacks.

But the Islamic State views as a key battleground the territory it calls al-Andalus — the name given to a region of present-day southern Spain while it was under Moorish rule until 1492. A 2016 Spanish Interior Ministry report noted that the numbers of messages on jihadi propaganda networks calling on volunteers to launch attacks on Spain and to “liberate” cities such as Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville had doubled compared with previous years, also noting that the Islamic State had begun to translate its media material into Spanish. It has recruited in the country, aided by the fluid links between Morocco — from where more than a thousand volunteers are estimated to have traveled to the battle zones in Iraq and Syria — and Spain, via the two Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, small colonial vestiges on the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar and Alboran Sea. According to Spain’s Interior Ministry, more than 200 jihadi volunteers have traveled from Spanish territory to Syria and Iraq; around 20 are believed to have returned. But none of the named members of the cell responsible for the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils was on a watchlist. Some were Moroccan nationals, others the children of Moroccan immigrants born in Spain, and most were under 25 years old; two were minors, and none is reported to have had a criminal record of any kind.

The only exception is Abdelbaki Es Satty, a traveling imam reportedly from northern Morocco who served a prison sentence in Spain for hashish trafficking and had some reported contacts with jihadi recruiters in Catalonia arrested in 2006. Early reports suggest that, in a matter of months, as imam in the Pyrenean town of Ripoll, Satty radicalized a close-knit group of around a dozen men and boys, several of whose families hailed from the same town of Mrirt in central Morocco. Over the weekend, Spanish police were investigating whether the remains of Satty, who had spent the early part of 2016 in Vilvoorde, outside Brussels, were among those found in the rubble of the group’s bomb-making hideout, a beachside house in Tarragona province destroyed by an accidental explosion the night before the vehicle rampages were carried out. More than 100 butane gas canisters had been hoarded along with acetone peroxide as a detonator — the unstable “Mother of Satan” explosive that has become the weapon of choice for Islamic State bombers in the West everywhere from Manchester to Brussels. It seems certain that the explosion forced the group to make a last-minute decision to switch from bombs to vehicle rampages, possibly with the additional plan of a mass knife attack in the case of Cambrils.

Ultimately, perhaps the Spanish security forces’ record of success in snuffing out threats rapidly, long before operational capacity could usually be reached, may have succeeded in averting worse atrocities in Barcelona. The extreme haste to launch its operation may have led to the group failing in its ultimate objective of launching spectacular bomb attacks against tourism hot spots in Barcelona.

But the attack underlines the fact that security efforts can never guarantee absolute success. Spain’s Moroccan community mainly comprises first-generation adults. Their children are beginning to emerge into a society that, while generally tolerant, offers few Muslim role models in public life. Not one member of the country’s 19 regional and national legislatures comes from that community. Much depends on geopolitical developments outside Spain, of course. But the best security policy should include a focus on equality and respect for all Spaniards.

Photo credit: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

James Badcock is editor of the English edition of El País.