Spain as a target for al-Qaeda, domestic impact of North African Jihadist terrorist networks under restructuring and likely consequences for national security.
Summary: It is time to rethink the threat currently posed to Spain by Jihadist terrorism. This is due, on the one hand, to the frequent and aggressive targeting of Spain by the al-Qaeda leadership, with reiterated references to al-Andalus as part of a pan-Islamic caliphate, and, on the other, to the restructuring of the global neo-Salafi Jihadist networks in the Maghreb, which are spreading through Spain. Both of these developments are likely to have consequences for national security in the short, medium and long terms. There might be, for instance, significant changes in the style of planned Jihadist attacks in Spain, where the possibility of a forthcoming act of international terrorism does not appear unthinkable.
Analysis: It is possible to assess the threat currently posed to Spain by Jihadist terrorism, three years after the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004, by studying two kinds of relevant indicators. This is not about confidential information, since it is amply available in open sources such as many Internet sites, the webpages of official bodies with competences in security, specialised publications accessible in university libraries and mass media reports. The first indicator comprises the recent references to Spain as a target for international terrorism by leading figures in the global neo-Salafi Jihadist movement and, in particular, by the directorate of al-Qaeda. It is worth recalling that, while Spain became a generic target for this kind of international terrorism in the mid-nineties, like all other western countries, it was in October 2003, just five months before the Madrid massacre, when Osama Bin Laden made it a declared target via a statement that was widely publicised by the press all over the world.
The second indicator is no less significant to adequately assess the current threat of international terrorism to Spanish citizens and interests, both at home and abroad. In this case, the indicator has to do with the composition, activities and recent developments of existing Jihadist networks in Spain, especially, but not limited to, those of North African origin. Their existence has been made evident by successive police operations, reactive as well as preventive, over the last few years. Considering, on the one hand, the targeting of Spain by leading Jihadist terrorist figures or groups and, specifically, the statements by al-Qaeda in this regard, and, on the other hand, the structural changes to the threat as deduced from the individuals arrested or from the cells dismantled in Spain and their international connections, there are clear implications from these factors in terms of national security. In other words, the issue is also what form the next Jihadist terrorist attack in Spain will take, in the event of there being one.
Spain as a target of al-Qaeda
Aggressive remarks from the al-Qaeda leadership in reference to any country are, in practice, an indication of that country as a target, instigating attacks thereupon and warning that the terrorist structure itself that is the founding nucleus and permanent reference for the global neo-Salafi Jihadist movement as a whole may be involved, either directly or indirectly, in executing such attacks. Over the past year, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command and recognised by the individual and collective actors involved in the global terrorism network as its leading strategist, has made a series of worrying references to Spain. Let us take a brief look at when and how some of these messages pointing to Spain as a target have been issued. This targeting, in principle, suggests that international terrorism currently poses a rather high level of threat to Spain.
In July 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the pre-eminent subordinate to Osama Bin Laden for more than a decade, issued a statement in which, when setting forth the meaning of what he calls “Jihad through the way of Allah”, he added literally: “a Jihad that has as its goal the liberation of Palestine and all the territory that was Muslim once, from al-Andalus to Iraq”. As well as trying, for the umpteenth time, to interfere with the Palestinian question and emphasise how central the Iraq conflict is for al-Qaeda, his words were an aggressive and kind of permanent declaration of Spain as a preferential target, inasmuch as almost all of its territory should be recaptured, as a substantial part of an imaginary new caliphate unifying the Islamic world by means of holy war. Furthermore, in the same speech he maintained that Muslims are “sons” of, among others, Yusuf Bin Tashfin, the Almoravid emir who unified the Iberian Taifa kingdoms and incorporated them into his North African domains and who in 1086 fought triumphantly against the troops of Alfonso VI of Castile.
More recently, in February 2007, nearly one month before the third anniversary of the Madrid bombings, Ayman al-Zawahiri reiterated this obsession with al-Andalus which implies the demarcation of Spain as part of the ultimate ends of global neo-Salafi Jihadist terrorism, and specifically targets Spain. This time, it was through a reference to the development of Jihadist groups and organisations in the Maghreb, showing his support for the “lions” who are battling on the so-called western edges of Islam, literally adding: “I ask Allah to grant that your feet remain firm to obey Him and that He grant you His help and His victory, and that you may thus free the Islamic Maghreb and raise the flag of the Jihad so that it may fly victorious over its land, and that Allah grant you the favour of being able to soon feel the soil of the usurped al-Andalus under your purified feet”. This looks like a clear indication of where is the central focus of the threat from international terrorism to Spanish citizens and interests, both at home and abroad, and of the fact that he appears to be urging swift action in attacking mainland Spain.
These and other belligerent quotes regarding al-Andalus are not, it is true, new to the fundamentalist discourse underlying global terrorism. Abdullah Azzam, ideological mentor of Osama Bin Laden during the war between the Mujahadeen and the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and later on a promoter of defensive Jihad in other areas of the world, at the end of the eighties expressly mentioned al-Andalus among the lands that were once Muslim and that must be recaptured. Highly influential religious leaders among al-Qaeda’s followers in North African countries and in Europe, such as Abu Qutada and Mohammed Fazazi, have often referred to the return of al-Andalus to Islam. The same idea is recurrent in a number of neo-Salafist documents seized during police raids in Europe for several years now, as well as in private Internet fora where the notion of a Jihadist campaign to recapture al-Andalus is normally associated with expressions of revenge on Spain. Even the terrorists who claimed responsibility for the Madrid bomings of 11 March 2004 introduced themselves as the “al-Andalus brigade” and at the end of that same month recorded a video in which they asserted: “We will continue our Jihad until Martyrdom in the land of Tarek ben Ziyad”.
But it is the frequency and aggressiveness with which al-Andalus is mentioned lately by the al-Qaeda leadership itself that is so worrying from Spain’s perspective. These references, which are in fact targeting and instigation, and indeed imply possible facilitation of terrorist activities against Spain, now acquire particular significance for three reasons. First, because they are combined with other specific expressions of hostility towards Spain, like that of Ayman al-Zawahiri himself in December 2006 concerning the “Spanish occupation of Ceuta and Melilla” in a message broadcast by al-Jazeera television. It is especially significant that in this reference the supposed occupation of those two cities in North Africa under Spanish sovereignty is compared to what the speaker describes as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Russian occupation of Chechnya. In other words, in his comparison, Ayman al-Zawahiri seems to be pointing to Ceuta and Melilla as a conflict zone, something which could bring serious potential consequences for both cities in terms of terrorist threats.
Secondly, the identification of Spain as a target for Jihadist terrorism by references to al-Andalus is especially significant also because it is combined with a series of generic threats from the leaders of global terrorism which implicate the country. An example of this is when al-Qaeda threatens countries that have troops in Afghanistan or Lebanon, where hundreds of Spanish soldiers are deployed. Thirdly, it is so because the idea of a violent recovery of al-Andalus has already permeated the narrative of the North African networks of Jihadist terrorism and, in particular, of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), of Algerian origin, which recently changed its name to become a regional extension of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. In a statement issued on 9 January 2007, shortly after changing its name, the GSPC said: “We embrace Jihad to fulfil an ineluctable Divine plan which has been imposed on us since the fall of al-Andalus and the sale of Palestine, and since we were divided by the borders which the invaders invented”. Just a few weeks earlier, the group’s leader had also made a solemn reference to Algerian Muslims as “the grandsons of Tarek ben Ziyad” and “sons of Yusuf bin Tashfin”.
Developments in Jihadist Networks
The current threat posed by international terrorism in Spain must also be reconsidered in connection with the development of the global neo-Salafi Jihadist networks whose activity has been detected in this country. It must be reconsidered particularly, although not solely, because of the restructuring of their original networks in North African countries, especially Morocco and Algeria, that have also spread to other western European countries. Exactly 79% of individuals sent to prison in Spain between 2001 and 2006 on suspicion of being involved in Jihadist terrorism activities were from North Africa, and 77.7% were from the Maghreb. Specifically, 39.7% were born in Morocco and 31.4% in Algeria. Although the number of Moroccan immigrants in Spain is more than 10 times that of Algerians, the disproportionate number of Algerians is linked to the decade and a half of Islamist terrorism in that country and the diffusion of their networks to the opposite shore of the Mediterranean.
It is not surprising then that the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisations which have been a particular concern for Spain’s domestic security are, precisely, the somewhat elusive Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) and the more articulated Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). This latter group, which emerged in Algeria around 1998, as a result of a split in one of the armed Islamist groups operating in that country since the early nineties, has been the leading terrorist organisation in the Maghreb for nearly a decade. Since around 2003, the successive leaders of this organisation have been integrating al-Qaeda’s discourse into their own narrative, evolvinging from their own beginnings as Algerian insurgents to positions more in line with a pan-Islamic global Jihad. For its part, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group is somewhat more vague and less well-defined in its articulation. It is believed to have been created at the end of the nineties. It aspires to establishing a strict Islamic state in Morocco, but it is affiliated to the al-Qaeda and allegedly some of its members are also members of this latter terrorist structure.
To a considerable extent, individuals and cells linked to the GSPC or the GICM which have carried out terrorist activities in Spain are devoted to attracting adepts, mobilising financial resources, legally but more often illegally, and facilitation, for example by providing false travel documents or other logistical support, as well as to operations undertaken both inside and outside Spain by members of those terrorist organizations or related groups such as Ansar al Islam or the al-Qaeda Organization for Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers, active in what is now Iraq. Over the last four years, dozens, perhaps already a few hundreds of young individuals, some still teenagers, and early adults have been recruited by Jihadist terrorism groups established in Spain. In some cases, they have later been transferred to commit attacks or become human bombs in certain conflict scenarios, most notably Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Chechnya and perhaps even Kashmir. Other times, they are sent to the Sahel Desert in northern Mali, where the GSPC has mobile camps for training in the use of weapons and explosives, and to al-Qaeda’s facilities in Pakistan.
Existing data concerning individuals and groups related with international terrorism networks in Spain, as well as the geographical proximity between countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula, which largely explains that evidence, is basic to asses the likely impact of the restructuring of Jihadist networks in the Maghreb on national security inside Spain, as well as in France or Italy. It is in these three countries where North African global terrorism networks have spread most notoriously in the past. And the fact is that this kind of restructuring is already taking place in that geopolitical region of the world. The GSPC has recently culminated a process of internationalisation, and has gone from being an affiliate of al-Qaeda to merging with the latter to become its regional branch, to the extent that the former has even changed name and, with Osama Bin Laden’s express approval, is now known as the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.
This is an arrangement of mutual convenience with implications for the development of global terrorism both in the Maghreb and south, east and north of the region. The GSPC now has a coverage which will no doubt help it access financial and human resources, thus offsetting its relative weakness in the wake of a number of counter-terrorism operations performed in North Africa and Western Europe over the last years. For its part, al-Qaeda finally has a platform to introduce itself into the Maghreb and the Sahel areas, as well as, possibly, more authority over Algerian networks already existing in European countries, including Spain. Furthermore, the incorporation of GSPC to al-Qaeda and the appearance of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are likely to produce synergies that will influence the restructuring of the North African threat from Jihadist terrorism and that may well have also consequences for Spain. There would be a process of absorption of less well-articulated groups and independent cells operating in the Maghreb and in Europe, specifically in Spain.
There are, of course, other increasingly worrying factors that pose a threat to Spain in addition to the restructuring of the neo-Salafi Jihadist terrorism networks in the Maghreb. For instance, the existence of individuals linked to Pakistani organisations affiliated to al-Qaeda who have penetrated immigrant communities of their same origin settled in Spain, especially in Catalonia. They tend to come from the Punjab, on the border with India and the disputed Kashmir territory, where there is a prevailing Jihadist culture and terrorist groups such as Lashkar e Tayiba or Jaish e Mohammed have infrastructure. Neither should we ignore the even more unpredictable danger posed by self-constituted independent cells set up in Spain in accordance with the purposes and methods promoted by al-Qaeda. In short, these are networks, groups and cells seeking to benefit from the support for this terrorist structure and its leader of in between 10% and 15% of the close to one million Muslims which are estimated to live in Spain, according to surveys such as that conducted by the US State Department’s Office of Research or the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. These attitudes are in part produced by the intervention of Salafi-oriented Islamic associations which inhibit the social integration of Muslim immigrants and even promote the Jihadist radicalisation of some Spanish converts.
Implications for National Security
The increasing tendency by al-Qaeda leadership to mention Spain as target and the simultaneous re-structuring of its North African affiliates, plus other related impending dangers, have implications in terms of national security. On the one hand, this is due to the ongoing possibility of new attacks in the country. Attacks which may have serious consequences on the constitutional order or cohesion of an open society, such as the case of Spain, which, incidentally, is increasingly plural precisely as a result of immigration, particularly from predominantly Muslim societies, where Jihadist terrorist claim to have most of their population of reference. On the other hand, since these potential acts of international terrorism might very seriously affect Spain’s critical infrastructures or fundamental strategic interests. Finally, because since the style of planned attacks against Spanish institutions or citizens, at home or abroad, could change with respect to the procedures and methods hitherto considered most likely.
In principle, the kind of attacks which the individual or collective actors who are mainly, but not exclusively, of North African origin linked to the global neo-Salafi Jihadist movement are likely to try to perpetrate in Spain are acts of terrorism whose immediate aim is to cause a high number of fatalities, generate a notorious social impact and attract considerable attention from the mass media worldwide. This combination of lethality, impact and publicity would in principle translate into attacks performed first by using conventional methods, but ones lethal enough to reflect both the skill learned by the terrorists or their ringleaders at various training camps and also the materials available in the environment where authors plan to execute violent actions. For example, relying on substances and accessories necessary to assemble explosive devices to which terrorists or their collaborators have immediate legal or illegal access.
Secondly, these terrorist acts would in principle be committed through some usual modus operandi of international terrorism, such as multiple coordinated bombings using remote control or timing devices. Thirdly, they would be attacks aimed at targets with no special measures of protection, that is to say soft targets, preferably located in urban areas where large numbers of people accumulate, or transport systems which, even while outside densely populated areas, ensure a sufficiently bloody outcome, help spread anxiety and make worldwide press coverage inevitable. Areas where tourism combines with mass concentrations of people offer attractive seasonal targets for terrorists, as made evident elsewhere in the world. In other words, the most likely kind of Jihadist terrorist attack in Spain, if another one takes place, a possibility which can by no means be ruled out in view of the intelligence gleaned in recent years and the attacks already thwarted, will be basically similar, although not necessarily in its specific targets and location, to those of 11 March 2004.
Groups and organisations involved in Jihadist terrorism have shown a singular inclination to try to perpetrate attacks against targets that they had previously but unsuccessfully tried to hit, either because the results fell short of their expectations or because the police and intelligence services thwarted their plans. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks in 2001, but they had already been targeted in 1993, although clearly the consequences of the first attack were much more limited, by individuals involved in the then incipient global neo-Salafi network. Just a few years ago, UK security agencies managed to prevent an attack on London’s Heathrow Airport and arrested those who were preparing it, but fellow members from the same terrorist network subsequently tried to enact the same plans, only to be frustrated again in an antiterrorist operation. What this means is that the high-speed train link between Madrid and Seville, the High Court in Madrid and some well-known tall buildings in Barcelona, for instance, could remain in the sights of Jihadist terrorists and perhaps merit special protective measures.
However, the fact that an act of international terrorism with the same basic characteristics of the attacks on 11 March 2004 is the most likely kind, if there is a new attack in Spain, does not mean that this is the only kind of possible Jihadist violent action. Both the increased targeting of Spain by al-Qaeda and the emergence of its Maghreb regional extension, based on a process of internationalisation of the Algerian GSPC, might influence the style of new attacks against Spanish citizens or interests, both at home and abroad. It is more likely now than it was some years ago, for instance, that a new act of international terrorism in Spain may involve suicide bombers. This is not only because it matches the operating preferences of the al-Qaeda leadership, but also because the GSPC has been explicitly justifying this kind of act since February 2005 and there is nothing to prevent individuals recruited in Spain to perform suicide missions in Iraq or elsewhere from performing them in Spain or against Spanish targets abroad instead.
The choice of symbolically significant targets that are also hard targets, that is to say much better protected than others, seem to also be preferred by al-Qaeda when the directorate of this terrorist structure directly engages in planning and execution attacks. The frequency and aggressiveness with which, from the al-Qaeda leadership, Spain is being targeted, plus the fact that this terrorist structure now has a regional extension in the Maghreb, in turn having European branches, leads us to reflect on the possibility that the range of suitable targets for acts of international terrorism might be widened, inside Spain, to include more symbolic targets or ones that are better protected. These include commercial airlines, monuments and emblematic buildings, major critical infrastructures, government headquarters and security agencies or armed forces installations. Neither should we rule out the possibility, still remote but increasingly less unthinkable, of a non-conventional attack such as the ones which should be perpetrated in western societies according to a very popular Jihadist strategy available on the Internet, written by a Spaniard of Syrian origin, Mustafa Setmarian, founder of the al-Qaeda cell established in Spain in the nineties, shortly before being arrested in Pakistan in the second half of 2005. Incidentally, in early spring of that same year, this individual, also know as Abu Musab al Suri, published a document in which he threatened future attacks in Spain.
Conclusions: Spain is now more a target for al-Qaeda than it was before the attacks of 11 March 2004 in Madrid. Indeed, the country seems to be more of a target for international terrorism than ever before and, based on the nature of the indicators which suggest this conclusion, this is by no means a temporary situation. The fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri keeps insisting on the violent recovery of al-Andalus as part of a future pan-Islamic caliphate, his discourse permeating now the narrative of North African groups and organisations linked to al-Qaeda, makes Spain a permanent target for individual and collective actors belonging to the multinational networks of the global neo-Salafi Jihadist movement as a whole. All this invites to rethink the threat currently posed to Spain by international terrorism which now involves more specific signaling, such as those relating to the presence of Spanish soldiers in Muslim territories or the demarcation of the cities of Ceuta and Melilla as conflict zone.
Furthermore, the current threat from international terrorism for Spanish citizens and interests, most notably at home but also abroad, has increased as a result of the restructuring of North African networks belonging to the global neo-Salafi Jihadist movement and the synergies resulting from al-Qaeda extension in the Maghreb. These and other worrying circumstances could have very serious consequences for Spain, in terms of national security, in the short, medium and long terms, since there could be changes in the modus operandi of possible new acts of international terrorism. Suicide attacks or attacks on highly symbolic or well-protected targets are thought of as much more likely now than two or three years ago. Neither can we ignore the likely operations planned by self-constituted independent cells, whose range of action would mostly include individual assassinations and the use of improvised explosive devices against unprotected or soft targets.
Throughout the last three years there have been considerable advances in adapting Spanish national security structures to the challenges posed by Jihadist terrorism. Nowadays though, the threat posed to citizens, residents and interests of Spain by al-Qaeda, its regional extension in the Maghreb and other Jihadist organisations from south Asia or the Middle East connected with groups and cells in this country is developing at a pace that may not be being sufficiently matched by anti-terrorist and counter-terrorist efforts. It is now crucial that the flow and consumption of intelligence relating the threat of international terrorism in Spain be adequate and inform the corresponding governmental decisions in this matter. The Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 are history, even though not so in its social and political effects, but it is now time to reassess the current threat to Spain by Jihadist terrorism and, logically, for the authorities to act accordingly.Fernando Reinares Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute, where he directs the Programme on Global Terrorism, and Professor of Political Science at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid
 [Author’s note] Exactly three days alter this analysis was originally Publisher in the web page of Elcano Royal Institute on 8 March 2007, a new video recording was made public in which Ayman al Zawahiri reiterated his aggressive mentions to al-Andalus.
 [Author’s note] Also on 11 March 2007, the Internet television channel known as The Voice of Caliphate, established from al-Qaeda in September 2005, broadcast a message threatening Spain because its current Government had sent more soldiers to Afghanistan.