Spain’s 9/11: The Moroccan Connection

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 13

Following the March 11 attacks in Madrid, the nature of the Islamist threat to Spain has become a sensitive matter for all Spaniards, including Spain’s Muslims. As evidence emerges indicating that foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaeda committed the attacks, many within Spain’s North African community are now uncomfortably aware of the fact that a large number of the terrorists who entered Spain were from Morocco.

It appears that the main threat to Spanish security comes from various militant Islamist groups in North Africa and the Middle East aligned with al-Qaeda. Spain, and potentially Portugal, has emerged as a new base of operations for transnational terrorism. The bombings in Casablanca in May 2003, coupled with the violence from Islamic militants in Algeria and Mauritania, demonstrate the growing importance of Northwest Africa to militant Islamist groups that espouse al-Qaeda’s philosophy.

Fourteen of the 18 people provisionally charged in connection with the March 11 attacks are Moroccans. Six out of the seven bombing suspects found dead in a Madrid flat in April in an apparent mass suicide after police surrounded them, also were Moroccan. Among the suspects is “Mohamed the Egyptian” (Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed). According to Spanish authorities, Ahmed recruited a man called “the Tunisian” (Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet) at a Madrid mosque. Police in Milan, Italy, arrested Ahmed on June 7 for his involvement in the attacks: he is believed to have supplied the explosives expertise and Spain has begun extradition proceedings.

In its annual strategic survey, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) states that al-Qaeda “is thought to be providing planning, logistical advice, material and financing to smaller groups in Saudi Arabia and Morocco…” IISS interprets the Madrid train bombings as evidence that al-Qaeda has “fully reconstituted, set its sights firmly on the U.S. and its closest Western allies in Europe, and established a new and effective modus operandi”. [1] This assessment seems to be born out by the fact that prior to March 11, al-Qaeda had warned Spain of its involvement with the “Crusader” army of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. While al-Qaeda operatives may not have actually carried out the Madrid bombings, the attacks appear to indicate a growing network of al-Qaeda affiliates in Northwest Africa.

Information which has emerged following March 11 attacks almost certainly points to a connection between those arrested in Spain and militant Islamist groups in Morocco with ties to al-Qaeda. According to French private investigator Jean-Charles Brisard, Jamal Zougam, one of the Moroccans suspected of helping to plant bombs on the trains, allegedly met with Mohamed Fizazi, spiritual leader of the Moroccan extremist group as-Salafiya al-Jihadiya. Moroccan security services identified the perpetrators of the May 2003 Casablanca bombings as Moroccan members of as-Salafiya al-Jihadiya. Furthermore, in a 700-page indictment, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon identified Zougam as a follower of Imad Yarkas, alleged leader of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network in Spain. Yarkas is currently jailed in Spain on charges stemming from the September 11, 2001 attacks. [2]

French Islamic expert Olivier Roy of the French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) likened the growing threat in Morocco to militant Islamic radicalism in Algeria. Roy believes that the Moroccan attacks were influenced by outside agitators acting in Morocco as part of a wider international Jihad movement. Morocco represents a target-rich environment for al-Qaeda-supported groups, and many radicals view the Moroccan regime as an apostate government, ripe for takeover by extremist organizations. Abu Seif al-Islam, a senior leader of the Salafi movement in Morocco, stated in May 2003 that the time has come to “globalize the Jihad.” His movement is considered sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. “Morocco is at the heart of the conflict because it is impossible to target the ‘Crusaders’ in their homes and to exclude Morocco…Muslims must mobilize to free themselves from the yoke of apostate regimes subject to America,” naming Morocco as a candidate for “liberation.” [3]

A Different Homegrown Terrorism

Although most Spaniards and other Europeans perceive Northwest Africa to be far removed from terrorist activity in the Middle East, Salafi groups have operated in Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco for many years. These groups, particularly the various Moroccan and Algerian militant Islamist ones, can potentially reach out to “compatriots” in Spain to carry out attacks in that country as well as direct them to other European countries. Naturally a network of this kind is extremely difficult for Spanish and other security services to detect.

According to Spanish intelligence services, at least one known, fully operational al-Qaeda-style commando unit existed in Spain and had successfully recruited Spanish volunteers for carrying out terrorist attacks. The head of the cell, Sarhane Ben Addelmajid Fakhet, “the Tunisian,” may have met with a senior al-Qaeda operative Amer Azizi in Europe. Fakhet, whom Spanish investigators say had no criminal record, reached out to a core of North African immigrants like himself who lived in Spain, and was able “to draw on their knowledge and materials acquired locally to assemble explosives and detonators.” Fakhet was among seven people who blew themselves up in the Leganes apartment on April 3.

Judge Garzon recently concluded an eight-year probe into Islamic extremist activity in Spain. The report names fifteen suspected militants accused of helping to plan the September 11 terrorist attacks – the results will form the basis for formal charges and trials for these individuals. Garzon names Yarkas, Zougam, and others in his report. Yarkas, according to Spanish news reports, is described as the leader of an al-Qaeda “sleeper cell” in Spain. According to the report, a significant amount of the planning for 9/11 took place in Spain.

The connection between some of the September 11 al-Qaeda members and Spain is well documented, but it is noteworthy to recapitulate that Mohammed Atta traveled to Spain twice, in July 2001, attempting to visit members of Islamist cells. Moreover, Atta was not the only al-Qaeda terrorist who visited Spain in preparation for a mission in the U.S. Ahmed Ressam, who planned to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport, visited Alicante and Castellon, two Spanish provinces with large Algerian migrant colonies. Spanish police believe that Ressam met two other Salafist Algerians later arrested on terrorist charges. [4]

According to Spanish terrorism expert Josep Ramoneda, the raids in Madrid indicate a loose underground network among Spain’s North African population of about 3,000 people, including terrorists, collaborators, and sympathizers who could provide non-tactical assistance. Radicals may find a natural cover among the well-known Moroccan and Algerian migrant communities found in Andalusia and along the Mediterranean coast from Marbella to Barcelona (Alicante, Castellon, Tarragona, and others).

With approximately 600,000 Muslims out of a total population of 40 million (1.5%), young North African immigrants may well feel politically, socially, religiously estranged in Spanish society. [5] Their sense of alienation, language barriers, and cultural differences may lead them to more radical elements within the North African diaspora as a means of integration and political/ideological expression. Following the Madrid attacks, the large Moroccan immigrant community in Spain feared reprisals against their families, businesses and places of worship. Islamic leaders in Spain quickly denounced the bombings, even though the finger of blame had initially been pointed at Basque separatists (ETA). According to Mohamad Saleh, secretary of the Islamic center and mosque in Madrid, the number of prayer times has been reduced and entrance to regular visitors is restricted. Of the 500,000 Muslims in Madrid, between 1,500 and 2,000 faithful pray at that mosque on Fridays.

Spanish Government Anti-Terrorist Actions

Taking steps to re-orient Spain’s security policy against the Islamic militants operating inside the country, Spanish intelligence services allegedly prepared a lethal threat analysis of Islamic fundamentalism for the western world in 2001. The report emphasized that North African Islamist organizations – especially two Moroccan groups – are a danger to the Spanish State security services. [6]

Despite such apparent advanced awareness of the threat, Spanish security agents were still caught off guard by the events of March 11. Several of the terrorists involved in planning those attacks were living in a house in Chinchon, 25 miles outside of Madrid. Many of the neighbors reported their concern over suspicious activities and asked the police to investigate. According to press reports, the police admitted that ‘about 50 Islamists had disappeared” in the months prior to March and that “only 150 officers had been working on the Islamist terrorist threat” before March 11. In addition, some of the bombers were caught on phone taps, but due to a lack of Arabic translators, the tapes were not transcribed until several months later.

The new interior minister, Jose Antonio Alonso, suggested a possible solution to the quandary set by the fact that many of the informal radical networks in Spain operate in and through mosques. Without wishing to impinge upon religious freedoms, Alonso suggested that authorities consider establishing a mandatory registry of clergy members and places of worship for all religions, and monitor all sermons. The Ministry of Justice currently has a register of religious groups, which lists 235 Muslim communities, but “has not idea of the number of mosques in Spain or of those preaching in them” according to the Spanish daily El Pais. Fakhet (the Tunisian) himself was the imam of a small mosque in a basement of a central Madrid building. Spanish Law enforcement officials, who have identified 300 “potentially dangerous” Islamic militants in Spain, support monitoring the mosques.

Mansur Escudero, secretary general of the Islamic Commission of Spain, said, “Terrorism is not born in the mosques, it is born out of hate and resentment”. However, Mustafa Mirabat, head of the Association of Moroccan Immigrant Workers, which will report to the government on the proliferation of what he called “garage-based mosques,” stated that, “all mosques in Spain should be transparent, and some mosques are used by extremists to incite violence…only when they know that they are watched they moderate their tone.” He added, “you need a degree to teach at a university, but right now anyone can enter a mosque and preach whatever they like.” He added that roughly 200 unlisted prayer sites had sprouted throughout the country. He also noted that radicals in Spain must seek money from Saudi Arabia, which backs a “more rigorous Islamic message” that clashes with the values of most of Spain’s Muslims. [7]

In May, Morocco and Spain signed an agreement to reinforce joint efforts in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration. Under the deal, a Spanish judge will be based in Rabat and a Moroccan judge in Madrid to expedite judicial procedures involving both countries. A commission also will be set up to boost joint campaigns against terrorism and organized crime. Separately, a delegation from NATO is working to forge closer military and political ties with Morocco, along with Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia, which the alliance views as potential hotbeds of Islamic extremism. The practical impact of these initiatives, however, is still unclear.


1. Al-Qaeda may have access to 18,000 ‘potential operatives’, says think-Tank, Financial Times, By Mark Huband and David Buchan, 26 May 2004.

2. Police Identify 6 Moroccans Suspected in Madrid Attacks,, 17 March 2004; Globalize Jihad says Salafi Leader,, 18 May 2003.

4. Bin Laden’s Terror Networks in Europe, Mackenzie Institute “Occasional Paper” by Emerson Vermaat., 26 May 2002.

5. European cities house some 15 million Muslims, many of whom are citizens of their own countries of residence.

6. Spain Says Islamists Uniquely Lethal,

7. Spain Asked to Regulate Mosques,