Emerging Terrorist Trends in Spain’s Moroccan Communities

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 9

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, traveled through Andalucia.

Recent counter-terrorism operations in Spain have spotlighted an increasing presence of Salafi-Islamists and al-Qaeda “loyalists” in Andalucia and, more alarmingly, in the Spanish autonomous communities of Ceuta and Melilla (located on the northern coast of Morocco). Since the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, Spanish security services have arrested dozens of GSPC-/GICM-affiliated members and al-Qaeda sympathizers in Ceuta, Melilla and Andalucia. There are no proven links between Islamist activities in the enclaves to the known al-Qaeda associated terrorists and Salafi-Islamists in Andalucia and the enclaves. The proximity of Ceuta and Melilla to Andalucia, however, coupled with the “Maghreb-Andalucia” clandestine immigration pipeline, increases the risk of terrorist infiltration.

Cultural and Historic Setting

Historically, Ceuta and Melilla are multicultural cities in which Christians, Muslims, Jews and other ethnic groups live together. The majority of Muslims in the two enclaves consider themselves to be Spanish citizens. There are, however, segments of the population that have vocalized their allegiance to the King of Morocco. In 2002, the Counsel of the Moroccan government called for a “mobilization” to free the “occupied territories of Ceuta and Melilla” (https://www.gees.org, January 24), and the Moroccan Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) called for a public march to “free Ceuta and Melilla” (El Mundo, July 18, 2002; February 8, 2002). The issue of Ceuta and Melilla—in terms of its political, religious and socio-economic relationship to Morocco—will remain a challenge in Spain’s domestic policy and in its bilateral relations with Morocco.

Melilla’s Muslim population is 40 percent of the total population (65,488 as of 2005) and is mainly of Moroccan origin. The city has 14 mosques. The most important religious organization is the Islamic Commission of Melilla (CIM), which is very active in promoting the religious, social and political rights of its imams and Muslim members. The Badr Islamic Association, which engages in religious instruction of Muslim children in Melilla, was formed in the early 1990s by Mustafa Aberchan, leader of the Coalition for Melilla (CpM). Of note, the Badr Islamic Association disassociated itself from the CIM (El Mundo, October 24, 2001). Another organization, the CpM, a cross-section of Muslims, attempted to separate women from men in the municipal pools in 2003, prompting the Melillan government to warn the group against “sectarian” activities.

In Ceuta, there are approximately 25,000 Muslims and 12 mosques. Reportedly, the most radical is the Barella in the Radou quarter. In terms of organizations, there is the Islamic Community of Al Bujari de Ceuta.

To date, there is a relative absence of radical Islamic groups in Ceuta and Melilla. The few “fundamentalists” who exist are more inclined to incite the youth to adopt a political rather than religious agenda (https://www.bladi.net). The burning of a tomb of a Muslim spiritual leader in Melilla in 2005, however, combined with other recent developments—including the appearance of pro-Osama bin Laden slogans in a Jewish cemetery, a Christian church and a synagogue—are worrisome. Some sources believe that the Badr Islamic Association was responsible for these actions and elements of the Muslim population are increasingly supporting this group. Abdelkader Mohamed Ali, the spokesman for Badr, denied the allegations, calling the attacks “repugnant” and “a barbarian act inappropriate for a Muslim” (El Mundo, October 24, 2005).

Counter-Terrorism Activities in Melilla, Ceuta and Andalucia

The profile of Melilla, Ceuta and Andalucia, as “hosts” to Islamist terrorist activities, demonstrates the degree to which various terrorist groups have penetrated mainstream Spanish cities and populations. Several significant counter-terrorism operations in 2005 (resulting in the arrest of approximately 85 individuals) netted an al-Qaeda cell with a nucleus in Andalucia, as well as GSPC members dispersed throughout southern Spain (El Mundo, December 20, 2005). Of significance, Spanish police arrested a Moroccan national, Bahbah El H. (last name not available) in Nerja, Malaga, who had formerly been the imam of a mosque in Ceuta (https://www.canalsur.es, December 12, 2005; El Pueblo de Ceuta, December 20, 2005). It is also important to note that the “first Spanish Taliban,” Hamed Abderrahaman Ahmed, was from Ceuta. He spent two years at Guantanamo Bay on suspicions of being an “enemy combatant” allied to al-Qaeda (El Mundo, February 17, 2002).

According to Spanish Minister of the Interior Jose Antonio Alonso, the al-Qaeda network was broken into three command cells: a “command and control” decision-making cell, a cell that recruited mujahideen for Iraq and one devoted to falsifying documents. Alonso also noted that the network maintained “contacts with the nucleus of al-Qaeda in Iraq” (https://www.canalsur.es, December 12, 2005). The most important al-Qaeda leader to travel through Andalucia is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, who lived in Granada for two years (El Mundo, November 23, 2005). During that time, Nasar maintained contact with various al-Qaeda linked personalities, including Mohamed Bahaiah, the presumed courier of the terror network in Europe.

The Spanish Guardia Civil (a Spanish police force with both military and civilian functions) noted in an internal memo that “support cells for Islamist terrorists” exist in Ceuta and Melilla, in addition to other Spanish cities. Moreover, the report notes ties between these cities and some of the Islamists detained after the terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003, and that the imams of several mosques (not identified) are radicalizing the Muslim community. The same report reflects a conviction by Spanish security officials that both autonomous cities are being utilized by individuals associated with “violent Islamism” (La Razon Digital, May 15, 2004).

As a result of the increasing presence of Islamists in the enclaves and Andalucia, Spanish security authorities have deployed counter-terrorism agents to Ceuta, Melilla and other cities in southern Spain. As part of their activities, they have stepped up efforts to identify Islamic extremists among the thousands of Spanish Muslims who attend mosques in the two enclaves and Andalucia. According to press reports, the Spanish security services have monitored all of the mosques in Ceuta and Melilla and “analyzed the number of Muslims who attended them, as well as the profile of each of the adherents” (El Mundo, November 24, 2001; El Pueblo de Ceuta, December 20, 2005).

In Ceuta, the Ministry of Interior specifically investigated those mosques that are “sponsored” by Morocco and reported its findings in a special intelligence report (El Mundo, November 24, 2001). Security officers noted that 200 and 500 Muslims attend the Benzu and Pasaje Recreo mosques respectively. The ideological orientation of the mosques’ imams was recorded as well. The report notes that the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs office in Tetuan, Ceuta pays the salaries of the imams and that these community leaders owe their loyalty to the Moroccan king, whom they recognize as the most senior religious authority. The report notes that the same situation exists with most imams in Melilla.

In Andalucia, there are approximately 100 known mosques and around 250,000 Muslims. Major cities such as Granada and other towns have unwittingly hosted terrorists tied to 9/11 and Salafi-Islamists linked to terrorist activities in Spain. Due to the increase of Muslim immigrants flowing into Andalucia, unregistered prayer sites have multiplied (https://www.abc.es, February 26). According to the Ministry of Justice, there are only 36 registered Islamic entities while the Islamic Council estimates that there are 74 groups with (mostly make-shift) prayer sites (El Pais, January 15).

Spanish security officials continue to worry that members of al-Qaeda will take advantage of the clandestine immigration pipeline route by inserting terrorists to make their way to either the enclaves or to the Spanish mainland. To this regard, the Directorate General of National police recently advertised 357 posts for anti-terrorist officers to monitor potential Islamists in areas where the presence of Muslim immigrants is well known, such as Melilla, Ceuta, Granada, Malaga and Alicante.

Trends in Ceuta and Melilla

According to a document from the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI, Spain’s intelligence agency), intelligence officials are worried about the increase in the Muslim populations in the autonomous cities. The fear is that the burgeoning Muslim population (which in 15 years could become the majority), coupled with the suspected presence of militant Islamists, will, in due course, morph into a very serious threat to national security (El Pais, September 12, 2005; El Telegrama Melill, September 13, 2005; https://www.lejournal-hebdo.com, April 7).

Moreover, census information from the CNI and the Spanish Army predict that Ceuta and Melilla’s Muslim population will become the majority in about 13 years (https://www.madridhabitable.org, December 9, 2005). In addition to the demographic trend, another one to closely watch is the appeal of Muslim political parties in both autonomous cities: in Ceuta, for example, there are only 25 Muslim representatives in the Assembly but they are organizing to win more seats in the autonomous elections of 2007. It remains to be seen whether the rise of Muslim political consciousness will interface with radical Islamism to create yet more potential terrorist threats.