Barcelona three weeks later

While Spain, like other European countries, has been under threat from radical Middle East groups since 2001, a certain complacency seems to have set in.

2017/09/10 Issue: 122 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès

Three weeks after the terrorist attack in Barcelona, for which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, many questions are being asked. Some can be answered, others not.

In this context, it is important to try to establish a few facts. Like France, Spain does not allow clas¬sification of those who reside in the country by religion. Nonethe¬less, it is reasonable to assume that 1.8 million Muslims live in Spain, which amounts to less than 4% of the population.

Two-thirds of the Muslims are of Moroccan extraction: 700,000 are legal Moroccan residents and 250,000 have acquired Spanish nationality. Other well-represent¬ed groups include Pakistanis, 60,000 of whom live in and around Barcelona, Bangladeshis, Tunisians and Algerians.

Of the Moroccan total, no more than 500,000 live in Catalonia, where they represent 7% of the population. The rest live along the Mediterranean coast, in Valencia and Murcia and in Madrid.

Contrary to what is sometimes written, most Moroccans in Spain are not from the northern Ber¬ber-speaking Rif region, though many are from Tangiers. Oth¬ers are from Beni Mellal, a poor central region whose children have migrated to other European countries, such as France and Belgium.

No one knows the complex¬ity of the Muslim community in Spain better than the former El Pais journalist Ignacio Cembrero, author of an authoritative book on the Muslim community in Spain, “La España de Alá” (Editorial La Esfera 2016).

The second point is that while Spain, like other European coun¬tries, has been under threat from radical Middle East groups since 2001, a certain complacency seems to have set in since there had been no terrorist attack since the Madrid bombings in March 2004, an attack by al-Qaeda that caused more deaths (192) than any other such attack on European soil.

The former head of Spanish intelligence service (CNI) Jorge Dezcallar warned last June in Barcelona that Spain was still very much on the ISIS radar, something the terrorist organisation’s website made painfully explicit for many months by claiming it must recon¬quer al-Andalus, a reference to the Muslim kingdoms in the peninsula that governed from the eighth through 15th centuries.

WikiLeaks reported, in 2007, that the US consulate in Barce¬lona offered the Spanish and Catalan authorities to set up a “multi-agency jointly coordinated counterterrorism, anti-crime and intelligence centre to work with (our) Spanish hosts in combating… terrorist and criminal activities in the region.”

“Criminal activities” refer to the fact that, the cable said, “money launderers gravitate to the region… Spain remains the principal and transhipment zone for large quantities of American cocaine, Moroccan cannabis and Afghan heroin destined for Span¬ish and European Union consumer markets.” To which can be added major crime groups of Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Chinese along Spain’s eastern coast, in Barcelona, Tarragona and Valencia.

Questions remain about why po¬lice failed to warn the head of the Muslim community in the small town of Ripoll in Catalonia, where many of the perpetrators lived, that the local imam, who appears to have been the leader of the ter-rorist cell, had been condemned for drug trafficking and was awaiting expulsion to Morocco. Nor has the quick visit he paid to Paris days before the attack been explained.

While the Nice and London terrorist attacks in the past 14 months that used vehicles to ram through crowds were the work of lone wolves, in the case of Barce¬lona, the attack was an organised cell of at least 12 people working over many months.

The Barcelona attack also poses the question of links the terrorist cell might have had with Moroc¬cans who volunteered to carry out jihad in Libya, Iraq and Syria. An estimated 1,600 Moroccans have left to fight in the Middle East, to which must be added the hun¬dreds of youngsters of Moroccan origin who have gone there from France, Belgium and other Euro¬pean countries.

Moroccan officials like to argue that the help they provide their European counterparts in their fight against ISIS is invaluable but, last year, Algerian security stopped all transits of Moroccans through Algiers airport to the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Their Moroccan counterparts never offered a satisfactory answer as to why so many Moroccans were going to the capital of a country plunged in civil war.

The charitable explanation is that the kingdom’s officials were glad to be rid of people they felt were a menace to their country’s security. That is not a helpful way of coordinating the international fight against ISIS.

Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

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