Friday, December 17, 2010

Barcelona: Islamist Stronghold on the Mediterranean

by Soeren Kern

American and Spanish officials say the autonomous region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain is "a major Mediterranean center for radical Islamists" and the United States has proposed setting up an intelligence hub at the US Consulate in Barcelona to counter the growing threat, according to diplomatic cables that were obtained by Wikileaks and published by the Madrid-based El País newspaper on December 11.

The three cables, all of which are from the US Embassy in Madrid, say that Catalonia has become "a prime base of operations" for Islamic terrorists; and thanks to uncontrolled immigration the region, it now has a "large Muslim population susceptible to jihadist recruitment." The documents also provide insights into the extent of the links between Islamic terrorists and organized crime in Barcelona, which the cables call a "crossroads of worrisome activities." Viewed as a whole, the cables largely corroborate the conclusions of many independent analysts about the huge challenges Spain faces from militant Islam.

A five-page cable, dated October 2, 2007, describes the link between mass immigration to Spain during the past decade and the rise of radical Islamism in the country. The document, which is classified secret and apparently authored by then-Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre, says: "Heavy immigration – both legal and illegal – from North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) and Southeast Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh) has made Catalonia a magnet for terrorist recruiters. … The Spanish National Police estimates that there may be upwards of 60,000 Pakistanis living in Barcelona and the surrounding area; the vast majority are male, unmarried or unaccompanied, and without legal documentation. There are even more such immigrants from North Africa. … They live on the edges of Spanish society, they do not speak the language, they are often unemployed, and they have very few places to practice their religion with dignity. … Individually, these circumstances would provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment; taken together, the threat is clear."

The cable also describes the "amorphous threat represented by the nexus of terrorism, crime and drug trafficking" in Catalonia, which the document says has become an international magnet for drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, illegal smuggling, prostitution, organized crime and counterfeiting. Spain-based Islamist extremists are strongly influenced by the Takfir wal-Hijra doctrine, which justifies the use of illegal proceeds to fund jihadist operations, and accepts non-Muslim practices such as drinking alcohol and drug trafficking as a cover for extremist activities.

"There is little doubt that the autonomous region of Catalonia has become a prime base of operations for terrorist activity. Spanish authorities tell us they fear the threat from these atomized immigrant communities prone to radicalism, but they have very little intelligence on or ability to penetrate these groups," the cable says.

"Specifically, we propose that our Consulate General in Barcelona become the platform for a multi-agency, jointly-coordinated counterterrorism, anti-crime, and intelligence center. … The Spanish political class is gradually waking up to the threat, and would likely look favorably on our proposal," the cable concludes.

Another cable, dated September 15, 2005, provides eight pages of historical background and in-depth analysis of the Islamist groups based in Spain. The cable says: "Spain is both a significant target of Islamic terrorist groups and a major logistical hub for Islamic extremist groups operating across the globe. … Historically, Spain-based extremists have tended to be older (30-40 years), first-generation immigrants with a history of militant activity in their home countries. The first Islamists did not establish themselves in Spain until the late 1980s and early 1990s, coming mainly from Syria and Algeria. The influx of large numbers of North African immigrants is changing the profile of Spain-based Islamic extremists, creating a large pool of young, alienated men available for recruitment."

According to the document, "Extremist groups active in Spain tend to be decentralized, collaborating on an ad hoc basis and united more by friendships, family ties, and loyalty to the global jihadist cause than by membership in any given terrorist organization. While Spain-based groups at first focused on organizing themselves and providing logistical support to extremists in other countries, they became increasingly aggressive after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent GOS [Government of Spain] crackdown on Islamist terrorist cells in Spain. … Spain's withdrawal of troops from Iraq does not appear to have reduced the desire of extremists to strike at Spanish targets."

The most important recent development in the local Islamic extremist community in Spain has been the influx of Moroccan radicals. "Moroccan extremists tend to be less well off and most are involved in criminal activity. … Moroccan extremists appear to have moved to the forefront of the jihadist community in Spain, at least in numerical terms. The large and growing Moroccan community provides Islamic extremist recruiters in Spain with an ample supply of poor, alienated young men and access to funds from drug trafficking and other illegal activities," the document says.

The cable says "there are at least 300 suspected Islamist terrorists or logistical operatives in Spain and the Ministry of Interior's senior terrorism adviser believes there may be as many as 1,000. … Islamic terrorist organizations with a presence in Spain include: al-Qa´ida, Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (GICM), Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Ansar-al-Islam, Salafiya Jihadiya and Hizballah."

"The rapid growth of the Moroccan immigrant community, combined with worrisome trends among Spain-based extremist groups, suggest that Spain is likely to remain an active front in the war on terror for many years to come," the cable concludes.

Another five-page cable dated October 24, 2007 says: "The Spanish are worried that their Muslim immigrant population is prone to radicalization and our counterparts tell us that Spanish prisons have become hotbeds of budding jihadist activity. … We believe that they [the Spanish authorities] would be receptive to any advice or guidance we could provide from experiences integrating our own Muslim populations to encourage the Spanish to think about this problem in new ways."

All of the three cables indicate that the Spanish authorities are unable and/or unprepared to deal with the security challenges posed by Islamist groups, and Spanish inter-agency bureaucratic rivalries are a major impediment to progress. One document says "Spain's National Police, Civil Guard, and National Intelligence Center rarely meet among themselves. … By all accounts, a national counterterrorism center created in 2004 to improve coordination among the services has thus far failed to achieve its purpose. As a result, there does not appear to be a consolidated terrorist lookout list shared among the services."

Another cable says: "Spanish authorities are having trouble following the flow of illegal drugs and laundered money through Catalonia. … Spanish authorities do not have a complete grasp of the entire spectrum of the mafias' activities. … Spanish authorities remain challenged to cope with the magnitude of the problem."

Overall, Spain's march against Islamist groups in Barcelona has been "two steps forward, one step back." Spanish officials have achieved several important operational successes against Islamist groups in Catalonia. In January 2008, for example, Spanish police arrested eleven suspected Islamic extremists of South Asian origin just days before they were set to stage suicide attacks on the Barcelona subway system. The defendants, nine Pakistanis and two Indians, are believed to have been acting on orders from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a Pakistani Taliban group linked to al-Qaeda, and motivated by their opposition to the presence of Spanish troops in Afghanistan.

Since then, Spanish police have detained dozens more Islamists in Catalonia suspected of funding terrorist groups and recruiting fighters to travel to Iraq. On December 1, 2010, for example, Spanish police arrested six Pakistanis and one Nigerian in Barcelona on charges of collaborating with Islamist terrorism. The detainees are accused of robbing tourists in Barcelona of their passports, forging them and then sending them to al-Qaeda-linked groups around the world, including the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed at least 160 people.

Several recent incidents, However, show the increasing assertiveness of Catalonia's Muslim community. In December 2009, nine Salafists in Catalonia kidnapped a woman, tried her for adultery based on Sharia law, and condemned her to death. The woman escaped and fled to a local police station just before she was to be executed by the Islamists.

In January 2010, an imam in Tarragona was arrested for forcing a woman to wear a hijab head covering. The local prosecutor had asked the judge to jail the imam and three others for five years for harassment, but the Socialist mayor tried to get the case dismissed to prevent "a social conflict." In November a judge finally sentenced the imam to one year in prison for harassing the woman.

In September 2010, CNI, the Spanish intelligence agency, reported a "jihadist media offensive" unlike any seen since the March 2004 Islamist terror attacks in Madrid. Intelligence analysts say the popular jihadist Internet forum Atahadi Islamic Network has been publishing an unusually large number of Arabic-language articles against Spain. Prompted by an August 2010 border crisis between Spain and Morocco that involves Spain's two North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, jihadists are now calling for a "crusade" to recover the two cities.

Members of the forum proposed attacking the Barcelona metro, among other targets, on September 24, the day the city celebrates its annual Festes de la Mercè. The holiday has its origins in a medieval Roman Catholic religious order established to liberate Christians from Muslim captivity at a time when the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic occupation (711-1492).

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Soeren Kern

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