Jihadist terrorism: Could there be a new attack on Spanish soil?

Thousands of officers from the country’s authorities are working to prevent another atrocity

José María Irujo

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Spain continues to be in the cross-hairs of the jihadist threat, a form of global and multifaceted terrorism that, in Europe, has found a territory in which it can strike. But in Spain, a silent “army” of more than 3,000 officers from the security forces, spies, prosecutors, judges and analysts are working in the shadows in order to avoid another attack: the 2004 Atocha train bombings remain the deadliest of the 21st century so far in Europe.

Lahcen Ikasrrien, who was found guilty of sending combatants to Syria, is arrested in 2014.
Lahcen Ikasrrien, who was found guilty of sending combatants to Syria, is arrested in 2014.Álvaro García
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Currently, more than a thousand people are on the radar of the Spanish police, while 259 people are being investigated by the courts and 500 telephones are being tapped as part of dozens of investigations. That’s according to confidential information to which EL PAÍS has had access. The mission is so complicated that in their reports to the government the anti-terrorist services all arrive to the same, worrying conclusion: a new attack is inevitable.

What is Spain doing to combat this threat? How can you fight an enemy that has no structure or organization? The train attacks on March 11, 2004 changed everything. Before that massacre – in which 192 people died when an Al Qaeda-inspired cell planted explosive devices on a series of commuter trains – no one believed that there was a credible jihadist threat, and just 140 officers – from the Civil Guard, National Police and National Intelligence Center (CNI) – were investigating cells from the so-called Armed Islamic Group (GIA) or the Salafist groups who were preaching and recruiting mujahideen to their ranks.

Anti-terrorist services all arrive to the same, worrying conclusion: a new attack is inevitable

Imad Eddin Barakat, known as Abu Dahdah, and one of the founders of Al Qaeda in Spain, would see off fighters from Madrid’s Barajas airport, sending them to join the jihad in Bosnia, Chechnya or Afghanistan. And he would welcome back the wounded, and send them off to be treated in state-funded hospitals in Spain. The Syrian-Spaniard was shepherding his flock with total immunity. No one foresaw that those bearded fighters who came back from combat zones had been trained in weapons and explosives, and could be a danger to our safety.

The lack of foresight of this threat ended the day that the bodies of 192 people were collected from the blown-out shells of the Atocha trains. Ever since then Spain has been at the forefront of this fight in Europe: more than 700 arrests, dozens of convictions and 120 prisoners puts the country at the top of all of the statistics. In the last 13 years there have been no attacks, and many have been foiled – the majority during the planning stage, rather than execution.

Understanding the enemy is the main task faced by the CNI. Hundreds of agents spend their time combing the social networks, investigating the smaller mosques, recruiting informers and analyzing so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Al Qaeda and their acolytes. The secret service will not give figures on the resources it counts on, but Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría has just announced that 600 new officers will be recruited up to 2020 to combat jihadism alone. The Counter-Terrorism Division is the fastest growing of its kind, and its allocation from the special “reserved funds” budget is also the biggest.

More than 700 arrests, dozens of convictions and 120 prisoners put Spain at the top of all of the statistics

The recent attacks in other countries reveal just how hard the challenge is. The British secret services, MI5 and MI6, had been warned five times about Salman Abedi, who blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena two weeks ago. “We receive such a large amount of warnings that it’s impossible to attend to all of them,” a police chief admitted. In the Spanish exclave city of Melilla, for example, in North Africa, there are hundreds of targets. “Between people from Morocco and Melilla, including targets and associates, we have 400 people on the radar, although that’s not to say that they are all potential terrorists,” explains one Civil Guard officer. “We invest a lot on intelligence.”

One of the blown out trains at the Atocha bombing in 2004.
One of the blown out trains at the Atocha bombing in 2004.Peter Dejong (AP)

In the 12 square kilometers covered by the city there are five different services working: the CNI, the National Police, the Civil Guard, the Moroccan General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance (DST) and Israel’s Mossad.

In Spain’s other exclave city, Ceuta, there are 600 people of interest, many of whom come and go at the border at Tarajal. It was from this city that the first of Spain’s suicide bombers traveled to Iraq and Syria, youngsters such as Rachid Wahbi, 33, who created a breeding ground that attracted others. “They take a lot of security measures and when they cross the border we lose track of them,” confesses one officer.

Madrid, Barcelona, Ceuta and Melilla are considered to be the most dangerous cities in Spain

Madrid, Barcelona, Ceuta and Melilla are considered to be the most dangerous cities in Spain, given that a total of 150 combatants who have traveled to Syria live there. But one police chief plays down the risk of an attack in the North African exclaves. “They are small cities, well controlled, and Muslims could die,” he explains. Intelligence reports warn, however, of possible targets in busy areas in Madrid and Barcelona. Summer concerts are of particular concern.

So why has Spain not seen any attacks in the last 13 years? “Preventive arrests have a lot to do with it,” explains one police chief. “The Muslim community and the level of radicalization are not the same, xenophobia has not taken hold, and the risk is proportionate to the number of combatants who have traveled to Syria or Iraq. In our case there are very few.”

“It’s a combination of factors, says an analyst from the anti-terrorist fight. “Here we don’t have ghettos as they do in France. The integration of the Muslim population is greater, and there is an incipient second generation. The radicalization is not so great. If there were 100% integration, the phenomenon would not exist.”

All the sources consulted agree that collaboration with Morocco is one of the keys to avoiding a terrorist atrocity. “It’s a comfortable and noble companion on this journey,” says one police official who works side by side with the DST. “They have given us everything.” Sources from the Civil Guard in Ceuta and Melilla are not so positive, however. “Whenever the DST communicates something you have to wonder why it is doing so at this time, and what is going on in Morocco, or what they are interested in. It’s hard to know what the interests of the DST are.”

All the sources consulted agree that collaboration with Morocco is one of the keys to avoiding a terrorist atrocity

Dolores Delgado, the public prosecutor’s coordinator of terrorism cases at Spain’s High Court, admits that Spain is at risk of a new attack, but argues that the country is one of the “best at working with information,” as well as having established the best methodologies. “We don’t leave a single fact without investigation,” she says. “We could miss something, of course, but we’re always very clear what we are looking for. I believe we are at the forefront. We have overtaken the European directives and we maintain a balance between freedom and security.”

Spain’s Muslim community, meanwhile, praises the actions of the police, but is calling for more measures. “The police are doing things well, with recruitment slowing down,” says Laarbi Mateis, the secretary of the Islamic Commission in Ceuta. “But all of the efforts are related to security and not to education. We need social measures.”

The 11-M attacks showed Spain’s weakness, and the country continues to be a target – not least due to the constant stream of arrests. The defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is making the monster even more dangerous. The terrorists need to show that they are there and Europe is the scenario they have chosen in which to do so.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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