Spain’s counterterrorism measures lag behind rapidly changing threat

Despite the slaughter in Madrid, Spanish jihadism remained a largely imported phenomenon.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Changing threat. An armed police officer stands between vehicles outside a subway station in Madrid. (AP)

A year after the terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, in which 16 people died, Agence France-Presse journalists visited the mountain town of Rapoli, home of the cell that carried out the attack. There, they said the population was reeling from the effects of the terror group that had flourished in their midst.

That sense of shock falls wider than Rapoli and reaches back further than August 2017. A report by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), an Italian think-tank, stated that from the mid-1990s to the months before last year’s attacks, Spain had been struggling with adapting its counterterrorism strategies to reflect an unpredictable dynamic.

It can be difficult to comprehend a time before the jihadist threat that dogs the security services of the present. In Spain, conditioned to regard the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) as its principal threat, the first arrest for violent jihadism occurred in 1995. Between that arrest and 2003, slightly more than 100 people were detained for association with violent Salafist groups.

The influence of the ETA on Spanish thinking is hard to overstate. From its founding in 1959, the ETA evolved into a highly effective paramilitary group responsible for a campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings across Spain. From 1968-2010, the ETA killed 829 people, including 340 civilians, and injured thousands more.

By the time of the outbreak of jihadist violence in Spain, the country’s popular consciousness, as well as much of its counterterrorism infrastructure, had been shaped in opposition to a threat both nationalist and leftist in character.

As ISPI report pointed out, official and public attitudes to the ETA continued to inform and hamper Spain’s response to the growing jihadist threat and delayed official consensus on the topic until January 2015 and the signing of the country’s National Strategic Plan to Fight Against Violent Radicalisation (PEN-LCRV), which contained sweeping powers to counter Spain’s jihadist threat.

Radicalisation in Spain followed a familiar path, with small, foreign-dominated, cells metastasising as they spread. The first al-Qaeda cell in Spain was established in Madrid in 1994. That unit survived until 2001 when its links to the German cell whose members were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks led to its dismantlement. It was from the remnants of this group that the impetus towards the March 2004 Madrid bombings came.

Despite the slaughter in Madrid, Spanish jihadism remained a largely imported phenomenon. Until the seismic changes of 2013, 90% of those arrested in relation to jihadism were young foreign men who entered the country from Morocco, Pakistan or Algeria.

Following the establishment of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq that changed dramatically. Data cited in the IPSI report indicated that, since 2013, four of every ten jihadists arrested or killed in Spain were Spanish nationals and three of every ten had been born in Spain.

Despite the growth in indigenous jihadism, all those suspected of involvement in last year’s attacks were either born in or had familial links to Morocco.

That Spain is confronting its jihadist threat is beyond doubt, the report noted, even if much of the impetus for that came from elsewhere in the European Union. Despite the wide-ranging powers in PEN-LCRV, a lack of dedicated financing and the unsuitable positioning of its coordinating body in the bureaucracy have hampered its work.

Federal challenges have been compounded by municipal nervousness over how the creation of local bodies designed to counter violent jihadism may be perceived by both Christian and Municipal communities.

Spain's state institutions and the public have a long history of living alongside terrorism. However, how adaptable both may be to dramatic changes in the nature of that threat remains a work in progress.