Why Barcelona, a tourist paradise, is a ‘Salafist city’

Lluis Gene, AFP (archives) | Spanish police arrest a suspected jihadist in Barcelona on April 25, 2017.

Barcelona, a world-renowned tourist destination, has also been an attraction for jihadists on a trail linking European countries such as France and Belgium to Moroccan criminal networks.


Since the 2004 Madrid train bombings – the deadliest Islamist attack on European soil -- Spain had been spared the sort of jihadist violence that has struck France, Belgium, Germany and the UK over the past two years.

That was until Thursday, August 17, when a van mowed into crowds on Barcelona’s busy Las Ramblas, killing 13 people, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. Hours later, a woman was killed in a second attack in the southern coastal town of Cambrils.

Spanish authorities were preparing for the possibility of such an attack on their territory: the terror threat level was raised to four on a scale of five in 2015 and Spanish intelligence services had warned against attacks, particularly from the IS group, targeting tourist sites.

Most experts interviewed by FRANCE 24 expressed dismay, but no surprise, over the attack, citing a Salafist drift in parts of Spain, particularly in the autonomous region of Catalonia.

"It is not surprising to see Spain and Catalonia targeted by terrorism, because this has been a relatively well-known terrain for years, for Islamist networks and jihadist activists," said Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s former top anti-terrorism judge.

‘Barcelona is a Salafist city’

"It was to be expected; Barcelona is a city that has long sheltered a form of radicalisation, which for a time embraced the Muslim Brotherhood, Tabligh [a movement advocating a rigorous and literal interpretation of Islam] and then the Salafists," explained Pierre Conesa, a former senior French Defence Ministry official and author of several books on political Islam.

"There is a kind of radical immersion in Catalonia. If London had long been the home of Londonistan [a term coined by French intelligence services for the 1990s Islamist networks in the British capital] Barcelona is a Salafist city, where a nucleus [of Salafist radicalisation] has been formed over time in the image of Molenbeek in Belgium, or Trappes in France," explained Conesa, referring to the infamous district in the Belgian capital that was home to several suspects in the Paris and Brussels attacks and the restive Parisian suburb of Trappes.

"In Spain, there are centres of Islamist activists, some of which have been dismantled in large numbers by the Spanish services in recent years," said Roger Marion, former head of the French police’s national anti-terrorist division, noting that French security services had uncovered links between Islamists in France and Spain over two decades ago, when France was tackling the fallout of the Algerian civil war. “In France, when we neutralised Islamist networks in 1995, there were already connections with that country."

In recent years, Spanish security services have arrested dozens of individuals suspected of jihadist links, particularly in the Barcelona area. Between 2012 and October 2016, 186 people were arrested in connection to Islamist terrorism, including 63 in Catalonia and 50 in the province of Barcelona, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry.

Several dozen individuals have also been arrested since early 2017. In April, Catalan police conducted a major "anti-terrorist" operation involving numerous arrests and house searches on the outskirts of Barcelona. Some of the detainees were believed to have had links to suspects in the March 2016 Brussels attacks case.

Tracing an alarming phenomenon in Spain’s ‘Salafist corridor’

Spain’s “Salafist corridor,” which runs from the Catalonian heartland all the way north to the border with France, came under the international spotlight in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when US investigators discovered that one of the main airplane hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had met a Pakistan-based handler in the Spanish town of Salou.

Catalonia as a jihadist hub contrasts sharply with the image of the region as a major tourist destination on the world map. In 2015, influential Spanish think tank, Elcano Royal Institute, published an alarming report, "Terrorists, networks and organisations: facets of the jihadist movement in Spain," detailing an "extraordinary transformation" of jihadism in the country, particularly in Catalonia, since 2011.

The authors of the report, Fernando Reinares and Carola Garcia-Calvo, noted that "the metropolitan area of ​​Barcelona continues to be the main focus of jihadist terrorism in Spain." Almost 32 percent of those arrested between June 2013 and November 2015 in Spain, "due to activities related to jihadist terrorism," particularly for propaganda and jihadist recruitment, were residing in Barcelona at the time of their arrest.

"Catalonia is, undoubtedly, fertile ground for the jihadist networks with radicalised individuals and former Islamists, wrongly called veterans, who recycle themselves on the spot," said Bruguière.

In his book, “Hisba in Europe? Assessing a Murky Phenomenon,” Lorenzo Vidino, director of the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, traces the rise of Salafism in Catalonia to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when “Salafist activists began opening mosques, in many cases little more than garages, basements or abandoned factories. Most of their leaders and attendees were North African, mostly Moroccan, mirroring the demographics of immigration into Catalonia.”

Catalan scholar Jordi Moreras has divided the Salafists in the region into three categories. The first category arrived with the first wave of Muslim migrants to Spain in the 1990s and were not particularly devout until they later radicalised and became heads of Salafist mosques, Islamic institutions offering immigration advice, or businesses employing migrants new to the system.

The second category included individuals employed in Salafist-run institutions or businesses, while the third group comprised supporters frequenting Salafist mosques and conferences who had embraced some of the ideas, but were not actively involved in the movement.

Tensions between Morocco and Spain over North African enclaves

Spain’s vulnerability to jihadism is also heightened by the impoverishment in the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Cetua, which lie across the Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa. In recent years, the two Spanish North African cities have come under increased scrutiny as hubs of jihadist activity. The vast majority of suspects arrested on jihadist terrorism-related offences between 2013 and 2016, for instance, hailed from Ceuta and Melilla.

While Spanish counter-terror operations rely on cooperation with Moroccan security services, the security coordination between the two countries is sometimes dogged by political tensions between Spain and Morocco over the two enclaves. Rabat has repeatedly called on Madrid to transfer sovereignty of the two enclaves, a claim Spain – and the majority of the populations in the two cities – reject.

"We have known for a very long time that in Spain there are hotbeds of Islamists, in Barcelona, ​​Madrid, Ceuta and Melilla,” explained Alain Juillet, former director of the French external spy agency, DGSE (Directorate-General for External Security). “There have always been problems with the rise of terrorists from Morocco and Spain, who pass through the Iberian Peninsula to France or Belgium.”

Links from Morocco to Europe

Investigators are also unraveling the links between last week’s attacks in the Barcelona area and the 2016 Brussels attacks, as well as the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The links centre around Abdelbaki Es Satty, the Moroccan-born “imam” who preached at a mosque in the Catalan town of Ripoll.

Younes Abouyaaqoub, the 22-year-old Moroccan who rammed a car into Barcelona's Las Ramblas, lived in Ripoll, where he came into contact with Es Satty, according to Spanish media reports. In the Moroccan town of M'rirt, Abouyaaqoub's grandfather blamed Es Satty for radicalising his grandson, according to AFP.

Es Satty is believed to have radicalised in a Spanish prison, where he was serving a sentence for hashish smuggling, underscoring an established link between crime and jihadism in Western Europe, and the nexus between Moroccan marijuana smuggling networks and violent Islamism. In prison, Es Satty is believed to have met Rachid Aglif, who was serving time for his part in the al Qaeda inspired Madrid bombings.

A growing number of terrorist links over the past few years have stretched from France and Brussels via Spain and Morocco. In August 2015, for instance, Moroccan-born Spanish citizen Ayoub el-Khazzani, attempted to attack a Thalys train from Brussels to Paris before he was subdued. Frenchman Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, had traveled to Spain, where he bought weapons from a Malaga-based arms dealer, just days before the attack.

Harking back to 'al-Andalus' in the Middle Ages

Experts are still trying to understand why the IS group decided to target Spain. Although a staunch NATO member, Spain has not played a major role in the international coalition against the jihadist group in Syria and Iraq. Neither has the country been the source of many foreign fighters headed for the IS group battlefields in the Levant.

"We can assume that Madrid is paying the price for its involvement in the [anti-IS group] coalition, like France, Germany or Great Britain," said Conesa, although he conceded that "this country is much less involved than the main Western powers ". The Spanish government has deployed troops in Iraq to participate solely in a mission to train Iraqi troops.

But attacking Spain has symbolic weight for IS group sympathisers. “There’s a bunch of evidence in recent years, in the IS group and other radical Islamist propaganda, which castigated Spain by recalling that part of its territory was Muslim for several centuries," explained Alexandre Vautravers of the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute.

Indeed, in its propaganda messages, the jihadist group often cites the Islamic past of Andalusia – or al-Andalus in Arabic -- during the Middle Ages, and its willingness to incorporate it into its self-proclaimed caliphate.

This article has been adapted and translated from the original, which appeared in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app