Algerian Salafists and the New Face of Terrorism in Spain

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 21

The involvement of Moroccan Islamists in the Madrid terrorist attacks on March 11 has overshadowed the significantly larger role that Algerian Salafists — with ties to al-Qaeda — have had in recent terrorist activities in Spain. In mid-October, Spanish authorities dismantled an Algerian Salafist terrorist cell which was identified as part of al-Qaeda’s European network with plans to blow up the National Court in Madrid. The role of Algerian Islamists in both the March 11 attacks and the National Court terrorist planning suggests that Spain has become a new locus of operations for North-African based al-Qaeda terrorism.

The Algerian Extremist Threat

Algeria’s two principal Salafist groups form part of al-Qaeda’s North African network. The Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — an organization that two years ago kidnapped European tourists in the Sahara desert — is the country’s most hard-line group fighting the Algiers regime. The GSPC is on the United State’s list of “terrorist groups” since 2002 because of links to al-Qaeda. As with other Muslims around the world who identify themselves as Salafists, GSPC members advocate a pure interpretation of the Qur’an and strict observance of the original texts of Islam and the traditions of the “pious ancestors”. [1]

The other militant group is the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French acronym GIA: The GSPC is an off-shoot of the GIA. Many members of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) migrated to the GIA. Algeria’s civil war unleashed a flood of fleeing Islamists who primarily traveled to France, but they also found “havens” in London, Cologne, and Spain. Although the Algerian government’s counter-terrorist campaign against the GIA and the GSPC has significantly diminished the numerical strength of both groups and their operational capabilities, nonetheless the extreme jihadist orientation of the dedicated members remains intact. Moreover, the alignment of Algerian and other North African Salafist groups to al-Qaeda’s European terrorist network represents a nexus of terrorist resources that will serve to strengthen al-Qaeda’s reach into the continent.

The Algerian Connection

Recently, the Spanish authorities uncovered and dismantled a cell of Islamic extremists in Operacion Nova. The cell planned to blow up the Madrid headquarters of the National Court, which handles high-profile cases of corruption and terrorism. The group, calling itself “Martyrs for Morocco,” was made up of militants from Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Afghanistan. The “Martyrs for Morocco” professed allegiance to the ideology of the GIA. It is alleged that National High Court Judge Baltazar Garzon was the actual target — Garzon is Spain’s high-profile justice prosecuting al-Qaeda associated terrorists in Spain as well as ETA. [2] Judge Garzon has charged 18 people in the alleged Islamic plot to blow up the court — a police source alleged that two of the attackers were ready to serve as suicide bombers.

Algerian-born Mohamed Achraf, who is currently incarcerated in a Swiss jail, is suspected of heading the dismantled “Martyrs for Morocco.” Moreover Spanish authorities believe he is a member of the GIA and have requested his extradition to face terrorism charges in Spain. [3] Furthermore, Spanish investigators learned that another Algerian, Abdelkrim Bensmail (entrusted with securing money for the GIA), was also linked to the foiled National Court operation. Both Achraf and Bensmail formed a GIA group while in prison, and extolled the glory of jihad from their cells. [4] Garzon’s 14-page court order links Bensmail to Allekema Lamari, a suspected ringleader of the Madrid train bombings and also to three men serving sentences in the U.S. for their roles in the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

According to the Spanish press, Judge Garzon alleged that Achraf recruited and planned the National Court operation from Topas Prison (Salamanca Province in western Spain). Garzon stated that Achraf, “had made the necessary arrangements to acquire 1,000 kilos of explosives (Goma 2) of which they would use at least 500 kilos in a lorry that they would ram into the National High Court….they aimed to kill the people inside, and destroy the archives which affected the ‘mujahideen brothers’…” [5]

Once Achraf and Bensmail were released from jail, they continued to engage in underground Islamist activities in Spain. Significantly, Spanish police and security services identified an Algerian, Allekema Lamari, as the “emir of 3/11.” [6] Lamari also belonged to the GIA “prison group.” He later committed suicide in Leganes, a suburb of Madrid, on April 3 when Spanish police stormed his safe-house.

Since October 18, Spanish police have arrested 18 suspected Islamist militants in connection with the plot to blow up the National Court — at least nine are Algerian, several are Moroccan, and one is possibly from Ceuta (the Spanish enclave in Northern Africa). [7] Spanish police had already investigated one of the arrested men, Madjid Sahouane, for involvement in al-Qaeda suicide attacks in 2001. Police said that Sahouane was “already arrested on September 26, 2001 for his alleged involvement in suicide attacks against the U.S. Embassy and a U.S. cultural centre in Paris as a suspected member of…the GSPC.” Spanish investigators believe there are connections between “some of the March 11 attacks, the Salafists, the GIA, and Osama Bin-Laden.” [8]

GIA and GSPC Ties to al-Qaeda

According to some sources, GIA leaders probably had contact with Osama bin Laden while fighting in the 1979-89 Afghan war. GSPC rebels pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2003. European authorities have arrested numerous Algerian militants suspected of being al-Qaeda operatives plotting attacks in various European cities, some allegedly involving chemical weapons. [9] Nonetheless security experts note that cooperation between al-Qaeda and Algerian Islamist groups remains unproven. The Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, and other North African Islamist groups, likely have multiple allegiances: from supporting Islamic militants in their own countries to other Islamist causes, such as the “Islamic” branch of the Chechen resistance and Zarqawi’s terrorist group in Iraq.

The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in North Africa, are breeding grounds for young North African terrorists wanting to defend Islam and “liberate” the enclaves from “colonial” Spain. Algeria’s Islamic insurgency, which has been on-going over the last decade, provides young militants with the grievance and the spiritual fodder to take their local war to a more global level.

The Spanish Guardia Civil recently reported that Ceuta and Melilla are “being used by individuals linked with violent Islamism to carry out tasks of recruitment and/or indoctrination.” Their document highlights the creation of a hostile anti-Spanish climate in the two autonomous cities, which could favor the radical aspirations of Salafist groups in both Morocco and Algeria. [10] The report lists various regions of Spain where there are large North African populations and the likely existence of “sleeper” cells of Islamic militants. Of note, the Civil Guard highlights the number of Algerian residents who have settled in Alicante (Eastern coast of Spain), where Algeria has a consulate and from whose port the ferries leave for Oran and Algiers.

Improvements in Span’s Anti-Terrorism Efforts

Since the March attacks, the Spanish security services appear to have improved their methods of identifying and surveilling suspected Islamist radicals. Much of this success is due to Spain’s anti-terrorism cooperation with Morocco, Algeria, and France. According to press reports, Spain and France created the Joint Spanish-French Inquiry Corps, a counterterrorism police and judicial unit that targets both the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and Islamic extremists in Europe. [11] Recently, their efforts have been aimed at tracking the existence of radical Islamic groups in France and Spain that are part of al-Qaeda’s terrorism network.

Spanish security authorities will face a challenge in identifying Islamic extremists among the thousands of Muslims who attend mosques throughout the country. According to press reports, more than one third of the 55 mosques in Madrid have “some kind of connection with radical Islamist groups or the presence of Moroccan extremists has been detected in them.” [12] The Directorate General of National police recently advertised 357 posts for antiterrorist officers to monitor potential Islamists in areas where the presence of Muslim immigrants is well known, such as Melilla, Ceuta, Granada, Malaga, or Alicante. [13]

Spanish officials are also waking up to the fact that their country’s prisons are “hotbeds of radicals” [14] — Achraf formed his Salafist group while in Topas prison. While exact numbers are not known, some accounts estimate that there are about 7,000 Muslims out of a total prison population estimated to be circa 60,000. On October 25, Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso announced a series of measures designed to disrupt the activities of incarcerated Islamic extremists. Most importantly, inmates loyal to Islamist groups are to be separated from one another and dispersed around prisons throughout the country.

Demographic Considerations: North-South Terrorist Routes

Given the geographical proximity and the historical relations between Spain and Algeria, it is no accident that Algerian Islamists were involved in the attacks. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons, Algerians, and Moroccans have immigrated to Spain and successfully blended in. Prior to 9/11, most Spanish officials did not view the influx of North African immigrants with major concern. Following 9/11 and particularly 3/11 — in which immigrant Moroccan Islamists orchestrated the attacks — large portions of Spanish society together with the government have become increasingly suspicious of the North African immigrants.

The concern and reaction of the Spanish authorities is certainly not disproportionate to the threat that faces their country. Salafi groups have operated in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco for many years. These groups can potentially reach out to “compatriots” in Spain and execute attacks in that country and other European states. Increasingly, Spanish authorities are going to have to deal with the triangle of terrorism: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, which form a rear base for al-Qaeda.


1. The GSPC reportedly has ties to the Tunisian Combatant Group, which also presumably has ties to al-Qaida.

2. Spanish EFE; “Por Que No Investigar el Tema?” La Razon.

3. EFE News Agency, 23 October.

4. El Pais Internet Version, 21 October.

5. El Pais, 24 October.

6. El Pais website, 21 October.

7. EFE News Agency, 19 October.

8. El Pais, website, 21 October.

9. Council on Foreign Relations.

10. La Razon, internet, 15 May.

11. El Pais, 17 September.

12. EFE News Agency.

13. El Pais, 2 September.

14. El Pais internet, 21 October.