Spanish security forces have arrested a total of 568 jihadists over the past ten years in 124 separate operations against Islamic terrorism, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz revealed at an African security conference in Niger on May 14.
Fernández Díaz said that "constant police and judicial actions" have helped Spanish authorities prevent another large-scale terrorist attack similar to the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which nearly 200 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.
At the same time, Fernández Díaz has warned that it is "very probable" that Islamic terrorists will strike Spain at some point in the future; he has estimated the probability of an attack to be 70%.
At a two-day terrorism conference held in Madrid on April 23 and 24, Fernández Díaz said that at least 115 Spanish jihadists — including at least 15 women — are now known to have joined the Islamic State. He added that 14 jihadists had returned to Spain; nine of those are in prison and five remain free.
In January, Fernández Díaz said the number of Spanish jihadists abroad was 70, which implies a jump of more than 40 new jihadists in the first four months of 2015 alone. In August 2014, the first time that Fernández Díaz provided an official estimate, he said there were 51 Spanish jihadists fighting abroad.
Meanwhile, "dozens" of jihadists and other Islamic radicals are entering Spain from neighboring France, where they are said to be "asphyxiating" due to a government crackdown following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January. (On April 29, French President François Hollande announced that a force of 7,000 troops would be deployed to patrol French streets on a permanent basis.)
According to an anonymous Spanish intelligence operative interviewed by El Confidencial, a media outlet based in Madrid, French jihadists are moving to Spain because they feel they have "greater room for movement" on the Iberian Peninsula. They include individuals "suspected" of being Islamic radicals, but for whom there is insufficient proof for either government to arrest them.
The report says that most of the jihadists from France are moving to Catalonia and Spain's Mediterranean coast, where they are attempting to "blend in" with Muslim communities there. Also known as the Spanish Levant, the region roughly corresponds with what was once known as Xarq al-Ándalus, territories that were occupied by Muslim invaders for nearly five centuries.
Al-Andalus is the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France occupied by Muslim conquerors (also known as the Moors) from 711 to 1492. Many Muslims believe that territories Muslims lost during the Christian Reconquista of Spain still belong to the realm of Islam. They claim that Islamic law gives them the right to return there and re-establish Muslim rule.
In July 2014, jihadists with the Islamic State produced a video in which they vowed to liberate al-Andalus from non-Muslims and make it part of their new Islamic Caliphate. The video showed a jihadist speaking in Spanish with a heavy North African accent, warning:
"I say to the entire world as a warning: We are living under the Islamic flag, the Islamic caliphate. We will die for it until we liberate those occupied lands, from Jakarta to Andalusia. And I declare: Spain is the land of our forefathers and we are going to take it back with the power of Allah."
Counter-terrorism authorities are now warning that the Islamic State is actively looking for Spanish converts to Islam who possess gun licenses and who can legally purchase rifles and shotguns. The Islamists are especially interested in converts who have not yet taken on Muslim names and whose official IDs still have their Christian names, so that they can purchase weapons without drawing the attention of police.
At least 50,000 Muslim converts are currently living in Spain. Police say that converts are especially susceptible to radicalization because they are facing increasing pressure from Islamists who are calling on them to carry out attacks to "demonstrate their commitment" to their new faith. "Converts are the perfect breeding ground for Islamism," according to a Spanish intelligence operative.
These concerns have been confirmed in a new report published by the Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies, an organ of the Ministry of Defense, which warned that so-called lone wolves pose the biggest threat to Spain and other European countries.
"They are activists who secretly swear allegiance to [Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and act independently without making contact with anyone, so locating them becomes a living hell," the report said. It added:
"Terrorists no longer need to communicate directly with the leadership of the organization to which they belong, or use the telephone or emails to know exactly what to do, when and under what circumstances. There is no longer any need for prior contact to establish the type of signals to be used, the conditions and dimensions of an attack or any restrictions.
"These tactics end the dream of the intelligence services to control everything through the systematic interception of communications and the use of satellite imagery. If there is no communication, it is not possible to intercept anything."
Spain has also become a key entry point for human trafficking mafias being used by jihadist veterans seeking to return to Europe after fighting in the Middle East. A report prepared by Spanish border police identifies three main routes of entry — Africa, South America and Europe — and warns that human trafficking is "more lucrative than cocaine trafficking."
According to the report:
"The proliferation of organizations trafficking in human beings and taking advantage of counterfeit documentation is resulting in the introduction of thousands of people into European countries. The problem is compounded when one considers that European jihadist veterans who have fought in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State are using the same networks to facilitate their return. Many have arrest warrants in different countries (Spain, France, UK, etc.) and Islamic State members may cross our borders to carry out terror attacks in Europe."
In November 2014, police in Madrid arrested 18 individuals — eight Lebanese, four Spaniards, three Syrians, one Ecuadorian, one Moroccan and one Ukrainian — accused of running smuggling operation to bring people from Syria into Spain. Police estimate that the cell, which had branches in Lebanon and Turkey, generated earnings of between €50,000 ($55,000) and €100,000 ($110,000) each month. According to one of the agents working on the case, "Turkey is the Seven-Eleven of false passports."
Meanwhile, at least 60 jihadists in Catalonia are said to be waiting for a signal from the Islamic State to attack, according to the Madrid-based El País newspaper. The warning was given during a closed-door meeting of anti-terrorism police held in late April in Viladecans, a town near Barcelona.
The unofficial meeting was convened after a counter-terrorism operation in Catalonia was compromised, when some jihadists were allegedly tipped-off that they were about to be arrested. Although the exact circumstances of the imbroglio remain unclear, it appears to have been the result of poor inter-agency coordination between counter-terrorism police in Madrid and Catalan police known as the Mossos d'Esquadra. The two groups were apparently investigating the same Islamist cell without consulting each other.
The meeting in Viladecans, attended by 130 agents from different police forces — Mossos, Civil Guards, national and local police — from across the country, got together to discuss their mutual concerns about "the lack of training of law enforcement to combat jihadist terrorism."
Much of the daylong meeting was used to share information about how to detect "radicalization processes" and how to distinguish ordinary Muslims from Salafists and jihadists. A counter-terrorism specialist said that one of the key problems faced by police is that "jihadists have infiltrated society, they drink alcohol, eat pork and dress like a Westerner and are undetectable."
One of the organizers of the event, Alex Pérez of a local branch of the International Police Association, said:
"We go out on the street every day but we do not have the tools needed to combat threats against the public. Some of us are digging into our own pockets to train ourselves, protect ourselves and provide an adequate service to society."
Another police officer summed it up this way: "We are screwed and will be much worse off in the future because there are radicals increasingly inclined to attack."
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.