Behind the Headlines: Understanding Islamist Terror in Spain

A view of Sagrada Familia and the city of Barcelona, Spain.

Source Tatyana Kildisheva/Getty

Why you should care

Spain should be the ultimate tourist destination, not a terrorism incubator.

In light of yesterday’s terror attack at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, responsibility for which has been claimed by the Islamic State group, this article, originally published in December 2015, is re-presented to examine the roots of Islamic extremism and Jihadism in Spain.

It’s Sunday, and downtown Barcelona is buzzing with life — happy couples walking hand in hand, children playing soccer in alleyways and flocks of tourists following their sweaty tour guides to the next tapas bar. Little do they know that only a few blocks away, several supporters of the Islamic State group were recently detained — the police say they were ready to attack.

The threat of jihad hangs like a dark cloud over this proverbially sunny southern country. Tucked between Europe and Africa, Spain is becoming fertile ground for jihadi recruiters and wannabe terrorists. Arrests of alleged jihadis are becoming routine here: Last year, more than 50 were taken into custody, and the Islamic State group has even produced a video in Spanish promising to “take Spain back.” The issue is only growing, especially among the sons of immigrants who feel pulled between two cultures, says Carlos Rontomé, an expert on jihad and a professor of sociology at the University of Granada in Ceuta. “The problem with jihadist indoctrination,” he adds, “is that by the time you see the signs, it’s already too late.”

Of course, Spain is no stranger to Islamist terrorism. In 2004, al-Qaida blew up a train in Madrid, killing almost 200 people and injuring about 1,800. Still, its number of jihadi arrests pales in comparison to other European countries like Belgium, Germany and the U.K. That’s probably because, despite being mostly Muslim for eight centuries, the percentage of Muslims in Spain today is small: 2.1 percent, compared with 5.8 percent in Germany and 7.5 percent in France.


Relatives of someone arrested on suspicion of working with the Islamic State group, shown in their home in Sant Vicenç dels Horts, Spain.

Source Josep Lago/Getty

Yet Spain has something none of its European neighbors do: a foothold in Africa. In Ceuta and Melilla — the country’s two African outpost cities — locals need no visa to go in and out of Morocco, and 60 percent of the Muslim population lives under the poverty line. So the Islamic State group’s recruitment networks are growing like mushrooms. They lure people in when they are young and are still struggling to find their place in the world, Rontomé notes. The bartender who served the professor coffee every morning was detained a week ago, accused of being a recruiter. “Nobody saw it coming,” laments Rontomé. “He was such a sweet kid.”

There was similar surprise in Sabadell earlier this year, when police took away a local hairdresser and 10 other men in handcuffs. The northern region has the largest Muslim population in Spain, and quiet residential cities like Sabadell have become jihadi hot spots. According to the police, the hairdresser’s cell was about to launch a series of deadly bombings. “He was a normal guy until he got depressed. It was then he grew a beard,” says his neighbor Abdeslam Charqaoui. The 31-year-old from Morocco says the fear of terrorism is making his life increasingly difficult in Spain. All he wants is peace.

Some warn this über-cautious, politically correct approach may cost Spain dearly.

What’s surprising to some, though, is that Spain is showing little sign of jihadi paranoia or anti-Muslim sentiment. Unlike Germany’s massive anti-Islam protests, France’s rising number of hate crimes or Sweden’s burned mosques, Spain’s public discourse around terrorism tends to focus on crime and poverty — not race or religion. Even the country’s conservative government is refusing to play the cultural-integration card or terrorism warning bells to justify its strict immigration policies. Most politicians fear being accused of racism, and some believe fanning the flames of social conflict only helps the Islamic State group’s cause. 


Some warn this über-cautious, politically correct approach may cost the country dearly. One of the latest high-profile arrests here included a young woman from Rubí, a sleepy town outside Barcelona, who was caught trying to flee to Turkey with her 3-year-old son, allegedly to join the Islamic State group. She is accused of running a vast recruitment network for the infamous terrorist group. Despite the serious warnings by experts, politicians have wasted precious time worrying about their image, argues Rogelio Alonso, director of the terrorism master’s program at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. “We are simply not prepared.”

Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, however, Spanish politicians have taken some action. The leaders of both major parties recently signed off on a series of changes to the country’s penal code designed to combat extremism, such as toughening penalties on individuals, making it a crime to visit bomb-making websites and increasing the punishment for glorifying terrorism — with three years in prison, up from two. (Government officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

But it is not clear whether Spain’s soft-words, harsh-laws approach will be enough to nullify the threat that someone spray-painted in a small Ceuta street: “Charlie Hebdo was nothing. ISIS is coming to Spain.”

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