Targeting Barcelona was sadly predictable - Spain holds both historic and modern importance to jihadists
By Julie Lenarz
18 August 2017
Click here to read full article
The uncensored amateur videos taken in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s terrorist attack make for gruesome viewing. Victims, dead and injured, young and old, scattered across the pavement of Barcelona’s busy Las Rambas street, lying in pools of blood, in a perverse spectacle reminiscent of the road to hell.
The horrific scene was all-too familiar in Europe, which has dealt with a series of car-ramming incidents over recent months, such as in Nice, Berlin and London. And yesterday, Islamic extremists claimed another 13 innocent souls and ruined the lives of many others caught up in the atrocity claimed by ISIL in a statement published by its news agency Amaq.
Spain has been spared Islamic-inspired terrorism since March 2004, when four bombs exploded on commuter trains in Madrid, leaving dead 191 people. The attack was carried out by an Al-Qaeda affiliated cell.
What happened in Barcelona, however, was not a freak incident. The writing on the wall has been there for years. No, not because of foreign policy often cited as a legitimate grievance of why we see “backlash” on our streets, despite ISIL writing in its magazine Dabiq in 2016 that “even if you were to stop bombing us … we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”
On the contrary, Spain has kept a low profile and avoided foreign policy adventures since the departure of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in 2004, a close ally of the United States in “the war on terror” post-9/11. Under his leadership, Spain took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a decision for which Aznar paid a heavy price. Following the Madrid attacks, he lost in an election to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who immediately ordered the withdrawal of Spanish troops.
Spain has erred on the side of caution ever since and as countries around the world stepped-up their roles in a US-led coalition against ISIL in Iraq, the country remained a reluctant partner. But just because Spain had little appetite to confront ISIL, the group still showed interest in Spain.
The country has been identified as a key target on extremist websites for historical reasons, given that Muslims ruled in Spain for close to eight centuries until 1492, a fact that informs ISIL’s central narrative in the fight against the “crusaders”. In January 2016, the terrorist organization issued a chilling video threatening to launch attacks in Spain and to reconquer the territory of the Iberian Peninsula that previously was part of the Islamic caliphate. “We will recover our land from the invaders”, ISIL vowed in the video message.
As ISIL continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria, the group has increasingly focused on attacks abroad, including efforts to recruit supporters in Spain. In a report published in February 2017, the Spanish government warned that “ISIS has been publishing in Spanish, which means an increase in the risk of its influence on radicals living in our country”, adding that the group last summer “launched a campaign to hire Spanish translators, which suggests a growing interest in attracting Spanish-speaking foreign fighters”.
An exact number is not available, but statistics show that up to 100 Spanish nationals have so far travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group on the battlefield. According to Spanish authorities, 181 alleged jihadists have been detained since 2015, with Barcelona being identified as a hotspot accounting for 30 percent of all foreign, mostly Moroccan, jihadists arrested across Spain, the majority of which were men aged between 20 and 34. Only 10 percent of suspects can be classified as “lone wolves”, with nine out of ten arrested individuals operating as part of a terrorist network, predominately ISIL but also groups in North Africa.
Crucially, of those arrested on charges of terrorist activities between January 2013 and November 2015, over 40 percent were born in Spain. A Spanish passport belonging to a person of Moroccan origin has also reportedly been found at the scene of yesterday’s attack.
The circumstances surrounding the incident in Barcelona therefore fit perfectly into the pattern that we see unfolding across Europe. Angry young men, many of them homegrown, radicalised online, promised honour and glory by a vicious terrorist organisation with only its own interest at heart. That interest is not so much informed by our actions but rather eminently shaped by a skewed historical narrative and fascist ideology.
ISIL could not be clearer about its intention: “Even if you were to stop fighting us, your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you … before eventually resuming our campaigns”, they wrote in Dabiq. “So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”
It is an uncomfortable truth to accept for it sheds light on the real magnitude of the threat that we face, above all the admission that the options we have to stop, or at least contain, the global Islamist insurgency are limited. There is no common ground, no basis for negotiation with people that strap suicide belts around children to usher in an era of Islamic theocracy in which life as we know it would no longer exist.