In March 2004, ten explosions ripped through the Madrid train system. The blasts killed 192 people, and are widely attributed to an al Qaeda-affiliated organization. The previously unknown group calling itself Abu Nayif al Afghani claimed responsibility for the attacks. Those attacks happened at the time the Spanish government had cooperated with the US on the invasion of Iraq, causing many people to vote in the opposing party, who called for the removal of Spanish troops. The bombings in Madrid achieved what terror is meant to do: cause fear, and change policy.
Since “11-M,” as the Spanish refer to the Madrid bombings, there have been no reported incidents of terrorism in Spain. Abu Nayaf al Afghani has all but disappeared. In recent years, eyes have turned to France and Belgium, both countries victimized by numerous attacks, large and small. But given the number of cells detected and militants captured in Spain, it is only a matter of time before Spain falls victim again, and with it more of Europe.
Since 2011, there have been nearly 200 individuals arrested on terror-related charges. That is approximately three times as many as were arrested between 1996 and 2012. In late 2015, Spanish terrorism experts released a report revealing the statistics about who made up Spain’s terror threat. Nine out of ten arrested were affiliated in some way with a known terror organization. Of those arrested, over half were born outside of Spain. This year alone, Spain has arrested almost 30 on terror-related charges. Most recently, a pair of Moroccans were arrested in July were charged with financing a terror organization.
At least 75% of the terror suspects have been residents of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, but cells have been interrupted all over southern Spain. The would-be terrorists captured by Spanish authorities are sometimes found to be plotting attacks inside Spain itself, or are involved in recruiting and support efforts. In August 2012, three al Qaeda-connected men were caught plotting to attack Gibraltar. Curiously, two of the men were Chechen, claiming to be in Spain seeking asylum. One Chechen, Eldar Magomedov (AKA Ahmad Avar), was said to have been former Spetsnaz before leaving to join terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mohammed Ankari Adamov is also said to have trained in Afghanistan, and is rumored to have been involved in 2011’s Domodedovo Airport bombing.
This is not to say Spanish terrorists are happy to simply plot inside Spain. Their efforts have reached into neighboring France. One individual was arrested in Malaga in April 2015 on charges of supplying Paris supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, with arms. While the 27 year-old was a French citizen from Sainte Catherine, the fact that he was in Malaga suggests more than coincidence. Other potential jihadis have been caught in Malaga, some caught coming from or going to Syria. Months later, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan-born Spanish resident from Algeciras, was tackled on a Paris-bound train, disrupting an attack.
The trend in terrorist attacks is leaning toward those inspired, rather than ordered directly by, Islamic State.
Yet, Spanish jihadis are not exactly streaming out of the country to join the cause. As of December of 2015, there were an estimated 150 Spanish fighters in Syria and Iraq. A more recent report stated than fewer foreign fighters are joining Islamic State. Does this mean there are fewer individuals willing to join the cause? The answer is likely "No." Given the recent attacks in Europe—specifically France and Belgium—it makes more sense to assume the fighters are staying put to plan attacks at home. Since Islamic State’s rise to power, more terrorists have switched support from al Qaeda, including affiliate al Nusra, to supporting the cause of IS. Years ago, support for a group calling itself Nadim al Magrebi briefly appeared on the radar. This is notable because of the group’s call to liberate Ceuta and Melilla from Spain. (It is interesting to recall that Ayman Zawahiri once called for the reconquering of al Andalus.) There had been concerns about Islamist infiltration into the Spanish military based in the enclaves. In 2013, there was a document issued by the Spanish Ministry of Defense reporting the detection of radicalism within the ranks.
The trend in terrorist attacks is leaning toward those inspired, rather than ordered directly by, Islamic State. A May 2016 message released by the group called on supporters to attack Europe and the U.S., encouraging what have become known as “lone-wolf attacks.” Other messages have encouraged Paris-style attacks in Germany and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Spanish IS supporters won’t eventually heed the call.
In the last 18 months, France, Belgium, and now Germany have been hit with several terror attacks, from large coordinated events (such as in Paris) to individual attacks, like the most recent in Germany. Since withdrawing from Iraq after the Madrid attacks, Spain has made few waves in the Muslim world. By contrast, France, Belgium, and Germany have actively fought both at home and in the Middle East against Islamic extremism. One attack in France came after that government began airstrikes in Syria, another after they announced they were moving their aircraft carrier to rejoin the fight. Spain, while not committing to airstrikes, vowed to support other countries in their fight against Islamic State.
For now, Spain has been lucky. Many of those arrested have been suspected of supporting terrorists rather than plotting their own attacks. The number of arrests by Spanish authorities may indicate they are getting more proficient at identifying and apprehending the threat. However, it would be unwise to believe that is the only case. That a major attack has not happened in Spain since 2004 does not mean there will not be another.
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Header Image: Bodies are removed from a train on March 11, 2004, after explosions on multiple trains in Madrid killed 192. (Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)