Catalonia: Europe’s New Center of Global Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 11

The strengthening of Islamist groups, combined with an increase in jihadi networks and activities in and around Barcelona, underscores Catalonia’s status as a European center for al-Qaeda-associated terrorism operations. Statements by al-Qaeda leaders that emphasize Spain’s unique “status” within the Global Salafi-Jihad, coupled with recently disclosed terrorism trends for Spain, reveal that the culture of global jihad has consolidated in Spain’s northern autonomous region. Once seemingly disparate Salafi Islamist groups and neophyte militant Muslim grassroots networks have coalesced into radicalized Islamist collectives throughout Catalonia to pose a national threat to Spain, as well as to Western interests in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Current Perspective of Islamist Activities in Catalonia

According to Spanish counter-terrorism officials, the Spanish Confederation of Police and various terrorism experts, Catalonia has become the “principle focus” of the development of jihadi terrorism in Spain and, more specifically, the largest jihadi recruitment center in Europe (La Vanguardia, June 3). “The study about the imprisoned terrorists in Spain—more than 300 since the end of the 1990s—shows that Catalonia is unquestionably the epicenter of jihadi activities in our country,” stated Fernando Reinares, the main researcher and director of the Global Terrorism Program of Elcano Royal Institute and the adviser for anti-terrorism policies in the Interior Ministry between 2004 and 2006. Reinares believes that the analysis about Muslim extremism shows Catalonia as the meeting point for jihadis, and he clarifies that if the study had been made on the basis of the number of detentions instead of imprisonments, the percentage would be even higher. According to officials and various studies, the majority of Islamist terrorists in Spain now regard Muslim communities throughout Catalonia as “safe-havens” for building their Islamist ideological support bases, logistical and terrorism financing and recruitment of suicide jihadis for the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for potential targets in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.

According to the Spanish Confederation of Police, the three cities of Badalona, Santa Coloma de Gramenet and Sant Adria de Besos form the “most important triangle of jihadi recruitment in Europe” (El Pais, May 30). Every month, approximately three to five Muslim residents of Catalonia travel to Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan for terrorism training (El Periodico de Catalunya, September 9, 2006). After their training, the jihadis return to form sleeper cells in preparation for terrorist attacks, many of which have installed themselves in the jihadi triangle—there is a high concentration of Muslims in the three cities. Spanish counter-terrorism officials observe that many recruits come out of Catalonia due to the strong influence of Salafi Islamism and the susceptibility of young, marginalized and predominantly foreign-born Moroccan men. Many of the jihadi recruiters are foreign-born, typically from France and Belgium, and they reportedly travel throughout Spain on recruitment missions. After Catalonia, the other recruitment mills for militant Islamists are in Madrid and the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla (Terrorism Monitor, May 4, 2006; Terrorism Monitor, February 15).

A March 31 news report from Informativos Telecinco recently filmed the apartment of a detained jihadi recruiter in the city of Reus, where police found tapes of Osama bin Laden as well as training videos. According to the security services, Moroccan Mbark El Jaafari had trained an estimated 32 jihadi suicide bombers. National Police sources noted that the new recruitment strategy that El Jaafari employed was to “Westernize” his young recruits in order to better integrate them into Catalonian society; he encouraged them to wear jeans and modern dress and to refrain from growing long beards. The next step was to remove them from their cultural and sociological context by sending the trainees to smaller towns (places where they were not recruited), where a “sponsor” would find them employment. Eventually, the “trainees” would travel to Iraq, Algeria or Afghanistan. The favored “trainees” are apparently those who serve in the Moroccan or Algerian military services.

Synopsis of Counter-Terrorism Operations in Catalonia

Since 2001, an estimated 31% of the imprisoned Islamist terrorists in Spain have been captured in Catalonia, and most are Moroccans. Catalonia is home to around 300,000 Muslims, of which 100,000 are Moroccan immigrants. Officials estimate that the real number of Maghrebi immigrants is likely more than one million. Major counter-terrorism operations have taken place almost every year since 2001. In Operacion Tigris right after the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings, the national police detained around 20 Islamist terrorists in Catalonia, Madrid and other regions of Spain. As a result of information obtained in this operation, police in 2005 arrested five Islamists in Catalonia, all of whom were connected to the March 11 bombings. In 2006, the Guardia Civil detained two dozen North African Muslims, primarily in Vilanova I la Beltru, who had been working as part of a recruitment ring to send “kamikazes” to Iraq; one of these suicide bombers, Algerian Belgacem Bellil, killed 28 people by targeting the Italian base in Nasiriya in November 2003 (El Periodico de Catalunya, May 29).

In May of this year, Spanish counter-terrorism officials detained 15 Islamists—13 Moroccans and two Algerians—involved in recruiting jihadis for insurgencies in Iraq, North Africa and Afghanistan; 13 of them were detained in Catalonia alone. The raid was a result of two counter-terrorism operations in 2006—”Chacal” and “Camaleon” (, May 28; La Vanguardia, May 31). The Spanish government believes that these individuals formed part of al-Qaeda’s Maghreb branch in Spain. One of the 13 Catalonian Islamists, Taoufik Cheddadi, is the imam of the Santa Coloma de Gramenet y Mollet mosque. Judge Baltazar Garzon is in the process of determining if there is enough proof to incarcerate the 13 Catalans (La Vanguardia, May 31).

Salafi Islamist Groups and Networks in Catalonia

Since September 11 and the ongoing revelations emerging from terrorism trials in Madrid, Spanish security officials observe an increase in the number of cells and networks associated with al-Qaeda and other Salafi organizations, notably: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM; formerly known as the GSPC), GICM, Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami al-Magrebi (Party of Islamic Liberation of Morocco, HUT), Takfir wal-Hijra, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), al-Adl wal-Ihsane (Justice and Charity), and the Jama’at al-Da’wa wal-Tabligh (La Vanguardia, January 29; La Vanguardia, May 31; La Vanguardia, June 3; El Pais, November 3, 2006; El Periodico, June 3; El Mundo, June 22, 2006). State security officials are particularly concerned with two Moroccan Islamist groups, which in the last year have been preaching radicalized messages in their sermons: al-Adl wal-Ihsane and HUT. Both groups have been detected in dozens of mosques and oratory sites, and officials worry that their sermons will have an impact in radicalizing young Muslims. HUT proves to be a useful case study of a group that denounces radicalization but in practice proselytizes subversion—many of their statements are anti-government. HUT came to the attention of security agents in 2003 in the town of Salt, when they discovered a concentration of jihadis who espoused al-Qaeda’s ideology. According to Moroccan specialist Abdala Rami, HUT divides its international territories into wilayas (provinces), of which Spain pertains to the European province [1].

Catalonian Jihadi Models

The predominant Catalonian “jihadi model” follows a similar pattern to that observed in Madrid, Valencia and Andalusia (La Vanguardia, June 3). According to this jihadi model, radical Sunni terrorist groups (such as al-Qaeda and AQIM) establish regional operational cells and networks for the purpose of recruiting jihadis and to support other terrorism activities, such as organizing criminal activities in support of terrorism financing. These Islamists tend to be predominately foreign-born, from North Africa or other parts of Europe, and undertake specific terrorism missions, such as the establishment of jihadi recruitment rings. These groups recruit recent immigrants to Spain. Spanish police sources believe that jihadis recruited in Catalonia are training in al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in Mali, Mauritania and Niger. According to a senior official of the Guardia Civil, al-Qaeda’s new base in the Sahel represents a threat to Spanish interests (El Pais, February 11).

An emerging characteristic of the jihadi model is that of informal, Salafi-inspired groups that are not formally linked to any one terrorist organization. Rather, these individuals tend to organize themselves around a commonly shared ideology of global jihad, one in which the religion of Islam is molded to serve their violent objectives. At times, small groups of “independently” inspired radical Muslims appear in villages and towns throughout Spain, especially in agricultural areas, to troll for recruits. Spanish terrorism expert Dr. Javier Jordan calls this phenomenon “grassroots jihadist networks,” which are groups that are not formally linked to al-Qaeda but share its ideology. These individuals tend not to come from overseas, but operate exclusively within Spain; some are converts, hence the concern about home-grown terrorists. These groups recruit young Muslims into jihad after they have settled in Spain, as opposed to relying on foreign jihadis (El Periodico, September 9, 2006) [2].

The presence of a multitude of Maghrebi Islamist groups operating in Catalonia demonstrates the appeal that the Salafi agenda has with the North African immigrant community, especially with Moroccans. While these distinct terrorist groups and Islamist political parties are not formally associated with one another, they all share al-Qaeda’s message of global jihad and preach the five commandments in mosques and other prayer sites. Groups such as AQIM ask their believers to not only sacrifice their lives for the jihad, but to proselytize; security officials worry that these Salafi messages are already radicalizing Muslims in Catalonia, as well as in other regions of Spain. AQIM, for example, recently urged the Moroccan government to clean the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla of impurities (this follows Ayman al-Zawahiri’s December 2006 proclamation that al-Qaeda should liberate them) (El Pais, May 21; El Pais, July 27, 2006). This type of rhetoric certainly appeals to Muslims all over Spain to coalesce and become one active body of jihadis striving to fight infidels.


Catalonia is emblematic of other regions of Spain, notably the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Alicante and Castille, wherein grassroots jihadi communities (as in a systems-of-systems model) exist, operate and become stronger. AQIM’s new name and mission of international jihad will appeal to an increased number of Muslims (foreign and Spanish citizens) in grassroots communities desiring a vehicle through which to legitimize their political, religious and social grievances. The appeal of Islamist ideologies (espoused by various political parties and other Islamist entities) has the potential to marginalize in a significant way the already existing divergences between multi-ethnic and moderate Muslims who have lived in the Catalonia territory for decades and the militant Islamists now increasing their religious and social footprint in the region. A study by Islamic specialist Jordi Moreras on the Catalan town Ciutat Vella in 1999 documents the re-orientation of the main mosque and various sites of prayer to Pakistani influences (such as imams of Pakistani origin). What is noteworthy about this study is that the congregations tend to be fundamentally Maghrebi. Counter-terrorism experts should consider exploring the ethno-cultural dynamics and their subtle overt and non-overt manifestation as a way of mapping the developments in Catalonian Islam.

Terrorism experts concur that Barcelona is a possible target for terrorist groups. Based on a study of recent al-Qaeda threats and attacks perpetrated by jihadis, the country’s high-speed train (AVE), the national high court in Madrid and many tall, singular buildings in Barcelona are probable targets. Several Interpol reports also mention this possibility (La Vanguardia, May 9). The absence of threat information from terrorists complicates counter-terrorism efforts. According to Spanish police sources, the difficulty in recruiting moles to penetrate Islamist cells makes it extremely difficult to conduct surveillance and implement other counter-terrorism measures. Sources note that one of the main problems is the scarcity of speakers of key Islamist languages—Arabic, Berber and Urdi. Another factor is the lack of a deep understanding of the cultural variables that characterize distinct ethnic Muslim communities. Without collaboration from the Muslim community, security agents will remain challenged in not only preventing terrorist operations from occurring, but in engaging in predictive intelligence operations such as identifying the members of terrorist groups and their networks.


1. HUT is principally active in Barcelona and its surroundings Its leaders tend to be Libyan and its militants Moroccan. For an in-depth assessment of HUT, please refer to, “Movimientos Musulmanes y Prevencion del Yihadismo en Espana Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Javier Jordan and Sol Tarres, Jihad Monitor Occasional Paper No 9, April 21, 2007.

2. Fernando Reinares and Javier Jordan have conducted extensive sociological work on studying the profiles of Spanish jihadis.