Spanish police have arrested a Moroccan woman on suspicion of running a jihadist recruiting network for the Islamic State.
Samira Yerou, 32, was arrested at Barcelona's El Prat airport on March 7 upon her arrival on a flight from Turkey, where authorities had detained her for trying illegally to enter Syria with her three-year-old son, a Spanish citizen.
Police say Yerou, who lives in Rubí, a Catalan town situated 15 kilometers north of Barcelona, disappeared in December 2014, while her son's father, a Moroccan-Spaniard, was away on a trip to Morocco. Spanish authorities issued an international warrant for Yerou's arrest.
In a statement, the Spanish Interior Ministry said Yerou had specialized in recruiting women from Europe and North Africa to join the Islamic State. She allegedly became interested in militant Islam after visiting Morocco during the summer of 2013, and later became radicalized through the Internet by "spending many hours consulting" jihadist websites. The boy, who was unharmed, has been returned to his father.
Yerou is one of at least 50 jihadists who have been arrested in Spain during the past twelve months alone. Most of the arrests have taken place in Catalonia and in Spain's North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
In February, police arrested four jihadists — two in Melilla, one in Barcelona and one in the Catalan city of Girona — for training and recruiting for the Islamic State.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said that the two arrested in Melilla used Internet platforms to post "all types of terrorist propaganda, especially from the group known as Daesh." (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.) The two edited and translated the material into Spanish and were also responsible for recruiting women as potential jihadist fighters.
The two jihadists arrested in Catalonia were allegedly responsible for a 2014 social media campaign aimed at generating support for the Islamic State. The campaign involved posters that included images of famous Spanish landmarks and monuments emblazoned with Arabic slogans such as, "We are all the Islamic State" and "Long Live the Islamic State."
In January, police in Ceuta arrested four jihadists — Spanish citizens of Moroccan origin — who were "fully prepared and ready to attack in Spain" on behalf of the Islamic State. Police seized a pistol, combat uniforms, machetes, automobile license plates, documents and computer equipment.
In December, police in Barcelona arrested a single mother named Francis Peña Orellana for allegedly recruiting young women to join the Islamic State. Peña Orellana, a 25-year-old Chilean national, was among seven jihadists arrested in Barcelona, Ceuta and Melilla for belonging to the network. Police said the group, which was "consciously convinced and radicalized in the service of the Islamic State," used social media to convince at least a dozen females to marry jihadists or to become jihadist fighters themselves.
The arrests have, once again, cast a spotlight on the problem of radical Islam in Catalonia, which has the largest Muslim population in Spain. The region is home to an estimated 465,000 Muslims, who account for more than 6% of the total Catalan population of 7.5 million.
In his book "Jihadism: The Radical Islamic Threat to Catalonia," the Catalan terrorism analyst Jofre Montoto estimates that at least 10% of the Muslims in Catalonia are "radicals" who are hardcore believers in the "doctrine of jihadism." He describes Catalonia, which constitutes an important transit point and destination for migration flows, as the "Mediterranean corridor of jihadism."
According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, Muslims are more likely to become radicalized in Catalonia than in any other region in Spain. A new computer model, which seeks to determine the "risk of violent radicalization" in any part of Spain based on census data, puts the Spanish region of Andalusia in second place, followed by Valencia and Madrid. The numbers show that the risk of radicalization is three times greater in Catalonia than in Madrid.
At the same time, Ceuta and Melilla have also emerged as key centers for the recruitment of Islamic radicals. Over the past twelve months, police have dismantled at least five jihadist recruitment networks linked to the two cities, which border the Rif, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions of Morocco.
According to an analysis published by the Spanish newspaper La Rioja, the population of Melilla has increased by 60% over the past 25 years, three times the Spanish average; roughly 15% of the city's population consists of illegal immigrants from Morocco. The unemployment rate in Melilla remains consistently above 30% and the smuggling of contraband comprises a significant portion of the city's economy.
The La Cañada de Hidum neighborhood of Melilla is considered the second-most dangerous in the European Union, followed only by the El Príncipe district in Ceuta. The areas, which are marked by high rates of youth unemployment, truancy, illiteracy, drug use and crime, are fertile ground for jihadist recruiters.
One of the four jihadists arrested in Ceuta in January was Fareed Mohammed Al Lal, a Moroccan-Spaniard who had three prior convictions for the illegal possession and use of firearms. Police say he became radicalized in prison where he was exposed to Salafism. This form of Islam is a virulently anti-Western ideology, committed to re-establishing an Islamic Caliphate (empire) across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe, including Spain, which Salafists view as a Muslim state that must be reconquered for Islam.
Much of Spain was ruled by Muslim conquerors from 711 to 1492; Salafists believe that the territories the Muslims lost during the Spanish Reconquista still belong to them, and that they have a right to return and establish their rule there — a belief based on the Islamic doctrine that territories once occupied by Muslims must forever remain under Muslim domination.
Since the raid in Ceuta, the Interior Ministry has stepped up its monitoring of at least 150 Muslim inmates, to prevent them from organizing jihadist activities in and from Spanish prisons. These include between 50 and 60 inmates who are in prison on terrorism charges, another 10 or 15 who are in prison on other charges but who have displayed an interest in radical Islam, and about 70 or 80 inmates who are believed to be susceptible to radicalization.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted immediately after the terrorist attacks in Paris found that 58% (up from 31% in April 2012) of Spaniards believe it is likely that a major terrorist attack on the scale of the 2004 Madrid train bombings will happen again, and 64% (up from 44% in April 2012) say it is probable that "isolated attack of Islamic character" will occur.
In February, the lower house of the Spanish Congress approved far-reaching changes to the country's penal code, as a way to combat Islamic extremism and support for the Islamic State.
Under the new law, anyone convicted of carrying out a terrorist attack will be subject to a life sentence (35 years) without the possibility of parole.
The law also calls for 20-year sentences for anyone convicted of supplying weapons to terrorists, or ten-year sentences for funding terror networks. Spanish citizens who join foreign terrorist groups can also receive up to five years in prison. The Senate is expected to approve the bill before the summer, and the new measures are set to take effect in 2016.
Unlike similar laws in Britain and France, however, the new law does not include a provision to revoke Spanish citizenship from terrorism suspects. At last count, least 100 Spanish jihadists are believed to have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.