A journey without return, a one-way ticket to martyrdom is the fate that 95 people from Spain - 13 nationals and the rest Moroccans with residency papers from six different cities — have chosen since the civil war in Syria broke out. They went to join the ranks of Al Qaeda fighting on the front lines against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At least 11 of these young men have ended up strapped to a suicide bomb. The rest have been swallowed by a conflict that has so far claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Rachid Wahbi was a taxi driver in Ceuta, but in April last year he bade farewell to his 24-year-old wife, Sanaa. A video released posthumously shows Rachid wearing military gear and clutching a Kalashnikov assault rifle. It ends with footage of him driving a truck laden with explosives into a Syrian army barracks. The effect in Ceuta is a siren call to disaffected youth.
Intelligence service reports state that the 95 jihadists traveled to Syria from Catalonia, Madrid, Málaga, Alicante, Ceuta and Melilla. "Almost all of them with the firm determination not to come back, according to their friends," says an anti-terrorism officer. Those who do come back, trained in weapons and explosives and under the orders of Al Qaeda, are the ones who concern the security forces.
"Where are you from?" is the first question a jihadist will hear. The response will determine his value to the Al Qaeda-backed Al-Nusra Front, or the International Brigades. Rachid and his friends, known as Piti and Tafo at home, had a good résumé. They had been recruited by an Al Qaeda scout, Karim Adesalam Mohamed, but his backing was not enough to save their lives. The three paid their own way to Istanbul and were spirited across the border into Syria, where they were met by their handlers and driven to a training camp in the desert. Basic training lasted just a week. In that time Al-Nusra commanders decided that they were not of sufficient quality to be entrusted with important missions. None were well educated, they had no language skills and lacked a solid religious background, the most-desired trait among volunteers. So they were given the fateful option: "We think you'd be perfect to go on a suicide mission."
Rachid, Piti, Tafo and four more Ceutans at the camp agreed. The first, carried out by Rachid, claimed the lives of 130 Syrian army soldiers. The results of the others are not known. The Spanish police and the National Intelligence Center (CNI) believe they all died on suicide missions, although the latter has only confirmed the deaths of six Spaniards on the ground.
There has always been a caste system within Al Qaeda, ever since Osama bin Laden was overseeing camps in Afghanistan. Spanish nationals and Moroccans resident in the country end up in the most dangerous areas of the front line. For Al-Nusra, they are "expendable," says an analyst. Al Qaeda is obsessed with internal security and when a volunteer is not deemed up to scratch, or his backers not viewed sufficiently highly, a suicide mission is the easiest option for the organization.
An anti-terrorist officer explains what a raw recruit can expect: "The training they receive is in how to load and fire a weapon, read a map and operate a radio. They are the equivalent of cannon fodder at the head of a conventional army. Spaniards and Moroccans are not considered great fighters; those are the Iraqis, Syrians and Arabs, who have been fighting for years. It's another matter if a Jordanian turns up with language skills and an interesting passport. Then he would be sent to a different type of unit to carry out more important missions."
The volunteers from Ceuta had to buy their own weapons. Al-Nusra provides food and accommodation, but nothing else. Many sell their cars or motorbikes to fund the air fare to Istanbul, or to leave money for their young widows-to-be. "The perfect volunteer pays his debts before leaving and gives everything he can to the jihadist cause. Those from Spain just about cover their costs. They go determined that they are not coming back again," says a security services official.
The Ceuta neighborhood of El Princípe was the perfect hunting ground for the keen eyes of Karim Adesalam Mohamed: 12,000 residents live in illegally constructed buildings and youth unemployment and school drop-out rates are off the scale. Mohamed, who was arrested during the summer, is thought to be the leader of the network set up to send Spanish citizens to Syria. Al Qaeda's tentacles have always been active in this no-man's land, but the phenomenon of Spanish jihadists is a worrying one. "This is completely new and it makes us uneasy," says a specialist in combating jihadi terrorism.
Laarbi Maateis, leader of the Tablighi Jamaat society, which controls the majority of Ceuta's mosques, recognizes the problem: "Many young people have gone backward. I have brought them together and told them that the jihad is obligatory for Syrians, but not for Ceutans."
Family support is also common. "My husband is an example to others and I'm proud of him," says Sanaa.
Nobody denies that Al-Nusra's recruitment drive is anything other than a success story for Al Qaeda. One of the reasons for this is the message sent out by the propaganda machine of Al Qaeda's current leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, on the internet. The message is that the final victory of radical Islamism is dependent on victory in Syria; whoever controls the country will win the fight. "Al Qaeda is determined to throw all of its force behind fighting a secular and apostate regime of the sort that it despises. Its location in the heart of the Middle East makes it very attractive," says an intelligence chief.
The almost 100 jihadists resident in Spain who have volunteered in Syria represent more than the total known number who answered the call to fight in Iraq, Mali and Yemen. The CNI intelligence agency has confirmed the presence of at least 55 Spanish nationals in Syria, of whom 11 have been certified as killed.
Will others follow in the footsteps of Rachid? Will the flow of martyrs increase? The telephone messages with the words: "Your husband has married" — code the jihadists use to tell someone their loved one is dead — are now not only received in Ceuta but in homes in at least five other Spanish cities.