In Spain, summer surveillance triggers alerts for returning jihadists

Authorities identified 46 suspected foreign terrorist fighters, but were unable to detain them

Vehicles waiting in the port of Algeciras to embark for Morocco.
Vehicles waiting in the port of Algeciras to embark for Morocco.Marcos Moreno

Between mid-July and mid-September, Spanish police monitoring travel across the Strait of Gibraltar detected 46 individuals suspected of being returning jihadists, according to a European Commission report. Part of a border control effort dubbed Operation Minerva, the 46 anti-jihadist alerts did not result in any arrests as there were no existing warrants against the suspects.

As part of Operation Minerva, officers from the National Police and Civil Guard were deployed at Spain’s busy seaports of Algeciras, Tarifa and Ceuta, a Spanish exclave city located on the northern coast of Africa. Law enforcement experts from 16 other EU states and observers from the United States were also present.

They were not arrested because the countries that had sent in information about them had not issued arrest warrants

The European Commission report shows that for the nearly two months that Operation Minerva was in place, and during which time 1.7 million people returned to Europe in 372,000 vehicles, authorities found 220 undocumented migrants, recovered 21 stolen vehicles, confiscated 1,629 kilograms of drugs as well as weapons, and made more than 480 arrests.

The report underscores that the operation also served to open new lines of investigation into terrorist activities, after officers detected 46 individuals suspected of being returning jihadists, known by the police as foreign terrorist fighters.

Although no arrests were made, surveillance measures were introduced in some cases. “Often, databases alert us to the fact that another country is requesting information about the arrival of a suspect, or even ask us to have him discreetly followed. Sometimes we are simply asked for all possible information on the individual, to either follow up or rule out any further action,” explains a high-ranking counter-terrorism official. This source said that the 46 alerts were made because of information fed into shared databases by neighboring countries, not by Spain.

Three of the women being held in a Kurdish-controlled camp in Syria.
Three of the women being held in a Kurdish-controlled camp in Syria.Natalia Sancha

According to the counter-terrorism official, Operation Minerva triggered 53 alerts in 2018. “Among other goals, these operations aim to detect the movements of terrorists returning from combat zones following the defeat of the Islamic State,” he notes.

Operation Neptune 2

Another European surveillance operation, Neptune 2, identified 12 other suspects, nine of whom were headed for Spain. This operation, which was coordinated by Interpol and supported by Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, focused “on the threats posed by suspected foreign terrorist fighters potentially using maritime routes between North Africa and Southern Europe during the busy summer tourist season,” according to a release by Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency.

During Operation Neptune 2, officers inspected passengers on ships, ferries and cruise liners departing or arriving at seven ports of the Western Mediterranean, including Alicante and Motril (Granada) in Spain.

“Officials carried out more than 1.2 million searches across Interpol’s databases for stolen and lost travel documents, nominal data and stolen vehicles. These resulted in 31 active investigative leads, with more than 12 of these linked to the movement of terror suspects,” said Frontex in a press release.

According to Spanish police sources, nine of these 12 individuals were headed for ports in Spain, but “they were not arrested because the countries that had sent in information about them had not issued arrest warrants.”

A European problem

The return of foreign terrorist fighters has become a leading concern for European countries. According to Europol, at least 5,000 European citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2014, and while many have died in combat or in attacks, the survivors who return tend to have even more radical ideas than when they left Europe.

“On the one hand, they now have experience handling weapons and explosives; on the other, they are viewed as heroes, which turns them into powerful tools of radicalization,” say Spanish anti-terrorism experts.

In February, the Spanish Interior Ministry produced a National Strategy against Terrorism that will remain in place until 2023. This document contemplates the future possibility of incarcerating returning jihadists in order to minimize the threat that they pose. But counter-terrorism sources admit that this would not be easy, as these individuals can only be charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, and collecting evidence of crimes committed abroad remains a difficult task.

The Interior Ministry document estimated that 237 individuals holding Spanish nationality or residency had traveled to jihadist conflict zones, particularly Syria and Iraq but also Mali and the Philippines. Of these, 21 had returned to Spain and 12 had been detained and jailed.

Meanwhile, three Spanish women and a Moroccan national with three Spanish children are being held inside a Kurdish-controlled camp in Syria for relatives of jihadist fighters. The Spanish High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, recently issued arrest warrants against them for terrorist activities.

English version by Susana Urra.

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