Assessing Spain’s al-Qaeda Network

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 13

Imad Eddin Yarkas

The Commission investigating the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid recently concluded that since the late 1990s, foreign radical Islamists have been using Spain for jihadist activities in support of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations, particularly al-Zarqawi’s anti-Coalition attacks in Iraq. [1] On-going counter-terrorism investigations reveal that Salafist Islamists traveled to Spain in the late 1990s to early 2000s to organize a network of cells for recruiting suicide bombers for operations in Iraq, Bosnia, and elsewhere and, for terrorist training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Indonesia. These foreign jihadists played a significant role in creating and organizing the cells that were involved in 9/11, conducted the Madrid attacks (11-M), and planned to bomb the National High Court. Moreover, the National Center of Intelligence (NCI) has identified numerous Muslim immigrants who have recently left Spain to join the insurgency in Iraq.

The 11-M Commission details that senior cell members were connected in one way or another to the 2003 Casablanca attacks in Morocco and had relations with other Islamic terrorist organizations such as Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda. Cell members were connected to Ansar al-Islam, Algerian and Moroccan Salafist groups, to Zarqawi’s “al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers” and to al-Qaeda proper. A significant majority of the 104 Muslims connected to the 11-M attacks are Moroccan. For example, the Imam of the Mosque in El Portillo, Toledo, Tensamani Jad, regularly called for jihad in his sermons; among those attending were various Muslims implicated in the 11-M attacks. Jad was detained in Morocco due to his ties to the Casablanca attacks. [2]

Spanish Terrorist Cells Inter-Connected

Spanish terrorism experts have identified Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas aka Abu Dahdah (of Syrian origin) as head of a presumed al-Qaeda cell with members tied to the 9/11 and 11-M attacks. His 2001 arrest in Granada in “Operacion Datil” resulted in the dismemberment of his cell. [3] Abu Dahdah’s cell was involved in recruiting mujahideen to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. [4] This recruitment activity “…was happening in our homes, our towns, in Spain – and he even sent Spaniards.” [5] For example, Sais Bahaji, who lived in Hamburg with Mohamed Atta, had Dahdah’s telephone number. When Bajaji left Germany, he accompanied Mohamed Belfatmi, who lived in Tarragona, and whom Spanish police confidently believe was a member of Dahdah’s cell. Another member of Dahdah’s cell, Amer Azizi, participated in the March train attacks and had direct links to Belfatmi. [6] Another member of Dahdah’s Spanish cell and his associate, Yusuf Galan, also traveled to the Indonesian al-Qaeda camp for military training. [7] Intelligence uncovered in the November 2001 “Operacion Datil” confirms a conversation between Farid Hilali aka “Shakur”, a member of a cell that was involved in the planning of 9/11, with Abu Dahdah. [8]

Separately, the 11-M Commission report identified Rabei Osman Ahmed, (better known as Mohamed the Egyptian), a presumed head of an al-Qaeda cell and one of the planners of the 11-M attacks. Confusingly some press reports instead identify Allekema Lamari – an associate of the Egyptian and the explosives expert – as the head but it is likely that he was the overall emir of the networks that planned and executed the 11-M attacks. [9] The Egyptian was detained in Italy after Italian authorities intercepted a conversation wherein he bragged about the Madrid bombings. [10] Surprisingly no direct connection has been established between the Egyptian and Dahdah, but this could be due to their counter-intelligence practices. In a related case, a Spanish judge in April 2005 accused 11 Pakistani citizens of forming a terrorist cell in Barcelona to support global terrorism and having connections to the cells involved in planning for 11-M. The head of the group, Mohammad Azaal, is linked to Mohamed the Egyptian.

One of the more pernicious personalities to emerge from counter-terrorist operations is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musa’ab al-Suri, a 46 year-old Syrian of Spanish nationality with allegedly close connections to Osama Bin Laden. Spanish authorities believe he founded the first al-Qaeda cell in Spain. Al-Suri recently revealed that he is working on a manifesto for designing the future of jihad. In his vision, he calls for a new holy war that employs nuclear, chemical and “bacteriological” (biological) weapons, and dirty bombs. [11] Abu Dahdah and several of the 24 al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists currently on trial in Spain maintained contact with al-Suri up until their arrest in 2001.

Zarqawi’s Soldiers in Spain

In mid-June, Spanish authorities conducted “Operacion Tigris,” arresting sixteen Islamists in Madrid, Cataluna, Valencia, and Cadiz because of their alleged ties to Islamic terrorism: 11 are allegedly linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq headed by al-Zarqawi. [12] Currently, five men are in jail because of their collaboration in Mohamed Afallah’s escape in April 2004. Widely believed to have been involved in 11-M, Allafah recently perished in a suicide attack against Coalition Forces in Iraq, according to the Spanish Police and the Ministry of Interior. [13] The cell’s headquarters was in Syria, from where the two senior recruiters and financiers – Muhsin Khaybar, alias Abdelmajid Al Libi or Abdelmajid Al Yasser, and Abdel Hay Assas, alias Abdalla – managed the activities in Spain.

Assessment and Implications

The 11-M Commission notes that Spanish authorities failed to understand the nature and extent of radical Islamists in-country and therefore, undervalued the terrorist threat to Spaniards. In a November 2003 Spanish terrorist threat report, the authors note that, “It is clear…that Spain already figures as a declared target for al-Qaeda…deduce that Spain could be a target, either in our land, or against Spanish interests overseas, in the near future.” The Commission notes that this “threat alert” was issued just a few months before March 11, 2004. [14] Although many of the individuals were picked up for petty crimes, Spanish Police and other security organs had not identified any terrorist-related activity by the cell members.

The Spanish government’s recent counter-terrorism operations illustrate the depth and breadth of radical Islamic operations in Spain in support of al-Qaeda’s operations overseas, particularly in Iraq. Over the last decade, militant Islamists in Spain organized themselves into distinct cells for specific jihadist activities. This “bee-hive” organizational infrastructure – which replicates the activity of other jihadist networks in Europe – became increasingly sophisticated in terms of recruiting individuals in Spanish prisons and mosques for overseas terrorist operations.

The Muslims involved in jihadist activities in Spain were not necessarily members of al-Qaeda. Instead, they were religious activists that either individually or in groups or cells, decided to act locally in support of al-Qaeda’s global jihad ideology. The international activities of the militants identified in the Commission’s year-long investigation, strengthens the notion that the “al-Qaeda method” became a roadmap and strategy for the foreign fighters who came to Spain and for local Spanish Muslims. Sociologist Manuel Castells, in his appearance before the Commission, argued that Muslims in Europe – who feel disenfranchised due to a variety of sociological and religious reasons – believe the myths and disinformation put forth by bin Laden and his organization. Consequently, the “al-Qaeda Idea” becomes a precept, a maxim, a cause, and ultimately a strategy for engaging in jihad.

Insofar as countering this threat in the future is concerned, the most pressing issue is the chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) threat from non-state actors; al-Suri’s “call to martyrs” and the legitimization of CBRN as a legitimate tool in jihad. Another area of concern to the Ministry of Interior and Spanish intelligence is the increasing presence of Moroccans in al-Qaeda cells. The apparent ease with which foreign jihadists motivated Spanish Muslims to radicalize their religious beliefs and recruit them for suicide operations in Iraq illustrates a demographic and ideological shift among Spanish Muslims.

The apparent specialization of recruitment and indoctrination techniques by Salafist Islamists now emphasizes a return to their home countries to continue the jihad in the name of al-Qaeda. Moreover, Spain and other European countries are increasingly becoming more than just a transit area for mujahideen who travel to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed it is particularly worrying that cities all over Spain have been converted into recruiting platforms for suicide operations.

Detecting and dismantling radical Islamist cells will challenge the Spanish intelligence and investigative agencies for some time to come. The Commission’s report—rich in facts, observations, and recommendations for dealing with militant Islam—is an excellent platform for devising a preemptive counter-terrorism strategy. The Spanish security services should focus on opening regional CT offices, which would combine police, intelligence, and other state services under one authority to monitor terrorist networks. The government needs to quickly increase the number of counter-terrorist police officers for the National Intelligence Center, National Police Corps and other security elements and train them in Arabic, cultural intelligence and other pressing terrorism issues. Furthermore, Spanish counter-terrorism agents have to be trained in analytical, targeting, and operational activities in order to identify, pursue, and apprehend the leadership, personnel facilities, and operational capabilities of those seeking to attack Spanish and broader western interests.


1. “Proyecto de Dictamen de la Comision de Investigacion Sobre los Atentados del 11-M,” (hereafter referred to as PDCISA), 8 Jun 05;

2. See pages 57, 70-71, Diligencias 166/03 and Sumario 09/03, in PDCISA.

3. See pages48-49, 57 of PDCISA. There have been three subsequent “Operaciones Datil’s: II & III in 02, and IV in 03.

4. See pages 46-47 of PDCISA.

5. Statement by Rafael Gomez Menor, page 48 of PDCISA.

6. Testimony of Commissioner Gomez Menor, page 50 of PDCISA.

7. See page 47 of PDCISA.

8. “Al-Qaeda- Puestos en Libertad Otros 5 Acusados en el Juicio Contra la Supuesta Celula Espanola,” 1 June 05.

9. “5 Detenidos por los Atentados del 11-M y otros 11 por su Relacion con gropo de Al Zarqaui,”, 15 jun 05; “Madrid Sigue Buscando Respuestas,”, 11 March 05.

10. See page 58 of PDCISA. In mid-April, the Spanish Government returned the Egyptian to Italy following an agreement with Italian authorities. He was extradited to Spain due to his key role in the 11-M attacks—he faces terrorism charges in Italy.

11. “Espana Sigue Amenazada,”, 6 Jun 05.

12. “Uno de los Sospechosos del 11-M Huyo a Irak con Ayuda de Al Qaeda y Murio en un Ataque Suicida,”, 21 jun 05; “Dos Nuevos Detenidos en Valencia Dentro de la Operacion contra la Red de Terrorismo Islamista,” EFE; “11 de los Detenidos Estan Vinculados a Al-Zarqaui,”, 15 Jun 05.

13. “El Juez Del Olmo Envia a Prision a Cinco Islamistas Vinculados al 11-M,”, 21 jun 05; “Ultimos Detenidos por el 11-M Ayudaron a Escapar de Espana uno de los Terroristas de Leganes,”, 15 Jun 05; “Detenidas 16 Personas en Una Operacion Contra el Terrorismo Islamico,”, 15 jun 05; La Policia Cree Que un Huido del 11-M Participo en un Atentado Suicida in Irak,”, 16 jun 05.

14. Testimony of Commissioner Rayon Ramos, page 51-52 of PDCISA; “Un Alto Responsable Policial Supo de la Presunta Vinculacion de los Acusados con el 11-S,” 7 Jun 05.