One in three arrested Spanish jihadists wanted to attack Spain

Most detainees were not lone wolves but part of newly created cells, report shows

Patricia Ortega Dolz
Civil Guard officers with a jihadist suspect in the Catalan city of Lleida.
Civil Guard officers with a jihadist suspect in the Catalan city of Lleida.EFE

A new report by a leading think tank about the activities of Islamic State (ISIS) in Spain shows a shift away from the “lone wolf” radicalization process to one in which relatives, friends and neighbors are playing a growing role.

Researchers at the Real Instituto Elcano also found that out of the 124 jihadists who were arrested in Spain between June 2013 and May 2016, 34.5% of them – one in three – wanted to carry out an an attack on Spanish soil, either out of hatred or a desire to earn a place in paradise.

129 Spaniards in ISIS

P. O. D.

Figures ending in May 2016 show there were 129 Spanish nationals in Syria and Iraq fighting for the Islamic State. Another 29 had died and 20 had returned to Spain.

Barcelona stands out among all Spanish cities as a hotbed for radicalization: 28.2% of detainees lived in the Catalan capital or surrounding area.

Meanwhile, the exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla, located along the northern coast of Africa, remain the main places of origin of Spanish islamists.

Most Spain-based jihadists (83.1% of cases) are men aged around 30, either Moroccan or born in Spain to Muslim immigrants. Typically they are married and have at least two children. These recruits also tend to have little or no personal knowledge about Islam (only 11% displayed understanding of its precepts) and often have a criminal record.

Fernando Reinares and Carola García Calvo, the authors of the report, found that the lone wolf is increasingly being replaced by a new type of jihadist. In 94% of cases they looked at from 2013, terrorists were part of recently created cells,  while three out of four had some form of direct organizational link to the so-called Islamic State. In other words, they were not acting independently, but were part of networks.

Most of these networks are international. In many cases, jihadists had connections to individuals in Morocco, France and Belgium, as well as with Turkey, which is a transit nation for most European combatants heading to Syria and Iraq.

Wolf packs

Spain-based jihadists, says the report, no longer act or become radicalized alone and now belong to what the authors call “wolf packs.” Their reasons for joining the Islamic State are varied, ranging from emotional crises to a desire to go to heaven or undertake personal penance.

All people who live in Spain are criminals

Jihadist suspect

“There came a point when I didn’t care about the world anymore,” one jihadist is reported as telling police. “It’s an opportunity for sinners like me,” said another.

Hatred of Europe and European values also drives some young men toward radicalization, as evidenced by conversations intercepted by the police and referred to in the report. “Seeing the terror on Europeans’ faces was priceless,” said one of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. “All people who live in Spain are criminals,” said one individual arrested here. “Damn their race, I can’t stand them,” said another.

This analysis contradicts the widely accepted sociological theory that recruits are radicalized on the internet and social networks. Instead, the report shows that the main points of contact with violent radicalism are worship centers headed by charismatic leaders, personal homes or penitentiaries. That is to say that physical contact is more important than virtual contact, in a process that typically begins when the target is between 15 and 29 years old.

English version by Susana Urra.

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