After 3/11: The Evolution of Jihadist Networks in Spain

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Spanish authorities arrested 20 suspected militants on January 10

Nearly two years after the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, new militant Islamist cells continue to be disrupted in Spain on a regular basis. In 2004, Spanish Police detained almost 100 jihadists. The trend continued in 2005 with more than 80 Islamic militants apprehended. In the latest arrests, on January 10, 2006, Spanish police detained 20 suspected Islamic militants alleged to have recruited sympathizers to join the Iraqi insurgency. The alleged militants were detained during pre-dawn raids in and around Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque town of Tolosa. These staggering figures do not even include the significant roles played by common delinquents and ideological sympathizers. This period has illuminated several emerging characteristics of jihadi groups that will affect the long-term evolution of Islamic terrorism in Spain.

The first two distinguishing characteristics are the increasingly mixed nationalities in these networks and the proliferation of individuals of Maghrebi origin, especially Moroccans and Algerians. When the first Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and then Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) cells were detected in Spain in the 1990s, the cells were characterized by their national homogeneity: all members were Algerian. The few jihadi Moroccans in Spain were integrated into the Syrian-dominated Abu Dahdah network. According to a senior Spanish police official, until that point, cooperation between Algerians and Moroccans had not developed because many Algerians considered the Moroccans weak, cowardly and untrustworthy. Conversely, the Moroccans viewed the Algerians as extremely violent (Personal Interview, January 2004). These prevailing attitudes seem to have been pushed aside in favor of a more multi-national approach. The reasons for this change are not presently clear, but it is likely that counter-terrorism efforts and the globalization of jihad have been the main driving factors.

The dissolution of the Abu Dahdah network at the end of 2001 had the inevitable consequence of elevating those who, at that time, had maintained a low militant profile into positions of greater prominence [1]. They were people of varying backgrounds, including Syrians, Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians. In addition, some of them, like the Algerian Allekema Lamari or the Syrian Almallah brothers, played very important roles in the formation of the Madrid attacks group.

After the attacks of 2004, similar configurations have occurred in subsequent disruptions of jihadi cells. This was the case in a network that formed in various Spanish prisons, and which was disrupted in November 2004. The prison network was apparently preparing a new campaign of attacks in Madrid and included both incarcerated members and those who had already been released. There were also the June and December 2005 disruptions of two large recruiting and support networks for the jihad in Iraq. Besides these networks, there were further detentions of other smaller more homogeneous cells composed of Moroccans, Algerians, and Pakistanis.

Detentions are not only revealing the diversity of cells, but are also showing that Moroccans are increasingly assuming leadership roles. For example, the last network to be unraveled by police in 2005, allegedly included 11 Moroccans, an Iraqi, a Saudi, an Egyptian, a Belarusian, a Ghanaian, an Algerian, and a Spaniard (Office of Information and Social Relations, Home Office, Spain, December 19/21, 2005). Moreover, in the latest arrests on January 10, 15 out of the 20 alleged militants are thought to be Moroccans.

The increasingly diffuse boundaries of these groups are not solely explained by the dismantlement and disintegration of older networks marked by more homogeneous national character (e.g., the Algerian GIA and GSPC; the Syrian Fighting Vanguard; or the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group [GICM]) and their consequent reconstruction from dispersed elements. What has also contributed to this interconnection between radicals of distinct nationalities is the more global political agenda of the jihad, which is overshadowing the previous national priorities. The disruption of Maghrebi networks involved in support activities for foreign jihads exemplify the threat posed by these networks to Iraq, North Africa, and other European countries—as well as the threat of globalized jihad to Spain itself.

It is probable that the complexities of these Spanish networks will be compounded as groups previously focused on national jihads, such as the Algerian GSPC, attempt to extend their operational networks by partnering with other jihadi groups. The overtures of mutual assistance and affiliation from al-Qaeda to national groups has resulted in the call for the establishment of an “al-Qaeda Organization in the Arab Maghreb,” which, while attempting to act as an umbrella organization, might also serve to support the continued interrelations between expatriate communities in Spain (Al-Hayat, December 8, 2005).

Another new characteristic is the increasing prevalence in the number of individuals whose initiation into jihad occurred after settling in Spain. In the 1990s, militant jihad was an imported phenomenon, as cells that found refuge in Spain were principally involved in the support of jihad in other countries, primarily Algeria. Nevertheless, over the past years, the conversion to jihad has become an increasingly indigenous phenomenon.

A possible contribution to this problem has been the high immigration levels from the countries of the Maghreb, especially Morocco. The official figures place the total number of Muslim immigrants at close to a half-million, but the actual number is likely to be over one million [2]. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants are honest workers who came to Spain to improve their livelihoods. Nevertheless, a small minority are sympathetic to Islamic militants, thus enabling the recruitment drives of clandestine jihadi networks.

The radicalization of Muslims living in Spain constitutes an enormous challenge for the future. One of the areas of significant concern is the numerous Islamic centers espousing radical and militant interpretations of Islam. Recently the contents of an intelligence report concerning the state of radical preaching at Islamic centers was leaked to the press. The report notes that of the approximately 600 mosques and other Islamic centers, roughly 10 percent propagate radical ideas. In addition, six of them are thought to be in the orbit of Takfir wa al-Hijra (El Pais, December 19, 2005).

Takfir wa al-Hijra (Excommunication and exile) is not so much an organization but an ideological current of Salafist jihadism, to which many of the members of the aforementioned Spanish networks adhere. With origins in the Middle East and the Maghreb, Takfir ideology justifies indiscriminant killing and is characterized by its clandestine nature and willingness to engage in prohibited activities (e.g. drinking alcohol in public and eating pork) as a means to deflect attention from its members’ subversive activities. As in other European countries, Takfiri recruitment in Spain has fed on individuals previously engaged in delinquent activities and has had significant success. Spanish police have estimated that around 50 incarcerated Salafi jihadists are Takfiri. [3]

The final characteristic of jihadi groups in Spain is the continued planning of Spain-based jihadi groups against targets within Spain. The hurried withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq by the new government of President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which assumed power following the Madrid attacks, has not diminished the terrorism threat. In fact, there have been at least four foiled terrorist attacks since the withdrawal. One of these groups was composed of Pakistanis who had relationships with important members of original al-Qaeda cadres (El Pais, December 19, 2005). The other three networks were primarily composed of members with familial origins in the Maghreb. In addition to these groups, Spanish police arrested two Moroccans related to the Madrid attacks network in December 2004, who were in possession of a camera with photographs of a nuclear power plant (El Pais, December 15, 2004).

The continued hostility is perplexing on the surface, considering the distance that has developed between the Bush Administration and the Zapatero government. There are several grievances that explain this hostility. They are, inter alia: the presence of Spanish troops in the NATO mission in Afghanistan; the repeated detention of scores of influential jihadists since 1995 and the continuing “occupation” (as jihadists see it) of the cities of Melilla and Ceuta on the North African coast.


1. Javier Jordan & Nicola Horsburgh, “Mapping Jihadist Terrorism in Spain,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28, (2005), pp 169-191.

2. Gustavo de Arístegui, La yihad en España, (Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros, 2005), p. 243.

3. Ibid; Tamara Makarenko, "Takfiri presence grows in Europe," Jane’s Intelligence Review, February 2005, 16-19; Petter Nesser, Jihad In Europe – A survey of the motivations for Sunni Islamist terrorism in post-millennium Europe (Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2004).

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