Spain’s Operation Suez Reveals al-Qaeda Support Rings in Europe

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 45

Two recent counter-terrorism developments in Spain highlight how Spanish officials are trying to confront the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. In the first incident, the attorney general attached to the Spanish Federal Court announced in mid-November that the court is seeking prison sentences—totaling 270,885 years—for the 29 Islamists involved in the March 11, 2003 (known as 11-M) terrorist attacks in Madrid, whose trials begin in February 2007. As part of the proceedings against the accused, the attorney general released a 2003 document prepared by Spain’s intelligence agency, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), that had warned of Islamist terrorist attacks in Spain [1]. The second development concerns the Spanish National Police’s arrest of four North African Muslims for their involvement in providing material support for an “Islamist terrorist organization,” namely al-Qaeda.

As part of the first counter-terrorism development, a recently released intelligence study prepared by the CNI in 2003—portions of which were already released in the 2005 11-M proceedings—warned that Spain was at considerable risk of an Islamist terrorist attack. In its report, CNI analysts point out that repeated references in various Arab communication venues—particularly in al-Jazeera—about Spain’s counter-terrorism operations against Islamist cells have provoked “in radical Islam the perception that Spain was persecuting Islam.” At the same time, the analysts underscored the increased presence of radical Islamists in Spain, composed primarily of Maghrebi Islamists, in the wake of the Casablanca terrorist attacks in May 2003. On November 7, 2003, the CNI warned the Ministry of Interior that Allekema Lamari, who was involved in planning the 11-M attacks and who later committed suicide in the Leganes apartment complex in Madrid, was planning a “large attack in Spain.” That same day, Abu Muhammad al-Ablaj, al-Qaeda’s propaganda leader, declared that there would be a “violent attack in one of the six Western countries” outside of the United States (El Pais, November 7). In the summer of 2005, the commission investigating the 11-M attacks released portions of the CNI report, stating that Spanish authorities had failed to understand the nature and extent of radical Islamists in the country (Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005; La Razon, June 8, 2005). The November 7 release of the CNI report as part of the attorney general’s proceedings is, of course, fueling intense political controversy between the Popular Party (in power at the time of the 11-M attacks) and the current PSOE government.

Evidenced by Spain’s continuing arrests of Islamists and the breakup of jihadi networks throughout Spain, the country remains a target for al-Qaeda “loyalists” keen on supporting jihad in Iraq and Spain. The recent revelations of the CNI report detailing the nature and depth of the jihadi threat to Spain should serve as further reminder that the individuals and groups operating in Spain are culturally and ideologically more radicalized than they were years ago.

The second counter-terrorism development was Operation Suez. On November 7, agents of the Spanish National Police in Madrid arrested four men because of their involvement in a document falsification ring that had, as its primary mission, the objective of providing documentation cover to “mujahideen” leaving Iraq and trying to enter Spain and other European countries. According to the National Police, the ring had been operating for at least two years. Interestingly, one of the arrestees, Nasreddine Bousbaa, an Algerian, had already been imprisoned for having contact with the organizers of the 11-M terrorist attacks in Madrid, but was later released in February 2005. Police also arrested Sayyer Beder Mejader, an Egyptian. Judge Juan del Olmo has ordered imprisonment for Bousbaa and Mejader due to their involvement in a criminal gang and for providing false documentation to “mujahideen” (El Mundo, November 7, 9; Europa Press, November 7, 8, 10). The Spanish Federal Court ordered the other two accomplices, Nouredine Yenadi and Abdelkader Amara, both Algerian, to pay a small fine and then to be freed. Spanish officials have not identified nor suggested that these individuals belong to the Salafi Islamist group GSPC, which has established cells throughout Spain to support al-Qaeda’s jihadi operations in Iraq. In light of the recent official alliance between al-Qaeda and the GSPC, it is also possible that the GSPC has ongoing operations in the rest of Europe.

The ring that Operation Suez discovered illustrates the extent to which al-Qaeda satellite support rings have established themselves in Europe. This cell went undetected for two years despite Bousbaa’s previous arrest. The arrests lend more credence to pronouncements by Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, who has led high-level inquiries into al-Qaeda in Spain, and by Pierre de Bousquet, the head of France’s domestic security service, several months ago that implied that foreign fighters in Iraq are already returning to Europe to re-establish or establish new networks to support terrorist operations in Europe. The painstaking work of detecting and dismantling radical Islamist cells will continue to challenge the Spanish intelligence and investigative agencies in the coming months.


1. A full copy of the 11-M proceedings and charges against the 29 accused can be found at: