On January 19, Spanish police arrested 14 Pakistani and Indian individuals purportedly belonging to the conservative Islamist movement Jamaat al-Tabligh (JaT) for allegedly planning to carry out suicide bomb attacks in Barcelona and other European cities. The incident has evolved into a high-profile counter-terrorism case with operational implications for European counter-terror operations and investigations. According to Spanish security sources, the suicide attacks were planned to occur in the run-up to the March 9 parliamentary elections and the March 11 anniversary of the Madrid commuter train bombings (abc.es, January 20; El Mundo, January 20). While details about the detainees’ association with the JaT remain outstanding, Spanish and U.S. intelligence officials emphasized that the terrorist cell had ties to Pakistan’s tribal areas (El Periodico, February 11; La Vanguardia, February 11). Significantly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared on February 11 that the Barcelona jihadist cell "appears to have ties to Baitullah Mehsud’s network in Waziristan, which is linked to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda" (El Periodico, February 11). Mehsud is the amir of the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan and is accused by Islamabad and Washington of arranging the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (El Pais, January 24).
Spanish security sources believe that the cell was a highly specialized jihadi unit divided into three functional areas: a group focused on planning the attacks, an explosives group and a suicide group composed of three members from Pakistan (El Pais, January 20). In addition, there were two spiritual leaders whose role was to provide rigorous religious indoctrination to the suicide bombers. The ideological leader of the cell was Maroof Ahmed Mirza, originally from Punjab and a legal Spanish resident; the majority of the Pakistanis had Spanish work permits. At the time of their arrest, cell members had in their possession four temporizers, small amounts of nitrocellulose, 1.1 lbs of lead pellets, mobile phones, laptops and CDs. The temporizers appear to have been designed for remote detonation of the suicide bombers. According to the High Court’s indictments of 10 of the cell members, their target was likely Barcelona’s Metro system (La Vanguardia, February 11). Spanish intelligence officials believe that the suspects could be affiliated with a group of five Pakistanis arrested in Catalonia in 2004 for planning to bomb various buildings in Barcelona (La Vanguardia, January 20). Maroof Ahmed Mirza was reportedly a member of the 2004 group but was released due to lack of credible evidence; after his release he allegedly formed the JaT cell planning the 2008 suicide bombings (abc.es, January 20; El Pais, January 20).
The source of all information pertaining to the cell’s activities, objectives and relationship to Mehsud is a French secret agent, codenamed F1, who infiltrated the cell as one of the suicide bombers. F1 has since become a protected witness for the prosecution (La Vanguardia, January 26; El Periodico, February 2; El Pais, January 26). Considered credible by Spain’s High Court, F1 testified that the cell received direct orders from Mehsud and that the cell was to carry out a wave of terrorist attacks in Germany, France and the UK if Mehsud’s demand for Spain to withdraw from Afghanistan was not met. Based on F1’s urgent alerts to the Spanish intelligence service Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI) regarding the imminence of suicide bombing attacks and his knowledge of the existence of a large amount of bomb-making materials, the CNI ended surveillance and alerted the Guardia Civil to arrest all suspects in January 19’s "Operacion Cantata" (El Mundo, January 20; El Pais, January 20). To date, several suspects believed to have additional bomb-making material remain at large (La Vanguardia, January 27). Although the amount of explosive material discovered was insufficient for the type of attacks allegedly being planned, Spanish security officials confirm that the group was close to obtaining more explosives and are searching for more than 220 lbs of explosives that they believe came to Spain via France (La Vanguardia, January 26).
The Jamaat al-Tabligh was founded in India in the 1920s and does not appear on the UN or U.S. lists of designated terrorist groups; with millions of members worldwide, it is customarily described as an Islamic reform and missionary movement that preaches peace and seeks to convert Muslims who have strayed from the original teachings of the Quran (neuevodigital.com, January 22; abc.es, February 3). Despite the group’s purported apolitical and peaceful character, the JaT appears to have become a critical ideological and spiritual platform for jihadis planning on carrying out terrorist attacks and, in some cases, indirectly influencing radicalism, especially in Spain (El Pais, January 29). According to Spanish media, Western intelligence services view the JaT as a vehicle through which extremists can leave their country without suspicion to travel to Europe, for example, to plan terrorist attacks. However, Pakistan’s intelligence service refutes this allegation, indicating that the JaT is not a threat to security (abc.es, February 3). Initial declarations from various Spanish government officials created some confusion in the public about the imminence of the attack, the reliability of the information and the identity of the perpetrators, but Spanish security services were nevertheless convinced that a group of individuals were planning a bombing in Barcelona and felt compelled to act (El Periodico, January 23). Moreover, based on agent F1’s testimony, Spain took early action to alert the UK, France and Germany about the possibility of the cell’s involvement in follow-up attacks across Europe (El Periodico, January 30). These countries continue to investigate possible connections between the Barcelona cell and jihadist networks in their own countries (El Pais, February 3).