Spain has not suffered a jihadi attack since the Madrid train bombings in 2004, but authorities have been dealing with a growing threat from Islamist related activity.
At least 13 people were killed and over a hundred others wounded after a van ploughed through pedestrians in the Spanish city of Barcelona on Thursday afternoon. The attacker targeted the popular Las Ramblas area of the Catalonian capital, a location popular with tourists, driving a white van down the largely pedestrianised area before crashing and fleeing the vehicle. A manhunt for the attacker is underway.
Another incident, believed to be connected to the attack in Las Ramblas, saw Spanish police kill five suspected terrorists in an operation in the coastal town of Cambrils, 62 miles south-west of Barcelona. The suspects, reportedly wearing explosive belts, had been involved in a similar attack involving a vehicle following events in Barcelona, before being killed after a shoot-out with the police.
ISIS' self-styled news agency, Amaq, has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, saying that the "operation" was carried out by "soldiers of the Islamic State," responding to the group's calls for attacking coalition states. Spain has played a relatively minor role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Questions have been raised following previous attacks about the veracity of ISIS claims for such attacks and the difficulty in ascertaining the exact nature of the group's involvement, whether the attack was inspired or coordinated by ISIS. As of yet, ISIS communication channels have not provided any further details on the identities of the attackers.
Changing Profile of Violence
While Spain has been a regular victim of terrorism from the Basque separatist groups, such as ETA, the last Islamist attack in the country was the co-ordinated al-Qaeda Madrid train bombings in 2004 in which 192 people were killed and over 2,000 wounded. Prior to the Madrid bombings, al-Qaeda operatives in Spain had reportedly been involved with sending fighters to conflict zones in Bosnia and Afghanistan for weapons and explosives training.
Barcelona in particular has been cited by experts as a particularly active breeding ground for Islamists in Spain, with a number of high profile plots thwarted in recent years. In January 2008, a large cell, comprised of 12 Pakistani and two Indian nationals, was dismantled in Barcelona over an alleged Islamist plot to carry out a series of suicide bombings targeting the city's public transport system. The plot was described as being "very close" to "full technical capacity."
A study by Fernando Reinares, an expert on extremism in Spain, says that between 2013 and 2016, 178 Salafi-jihadi figures were arrested in Spain under terrorism charges. He found that almost a quarter of these had been radicalised in Barcelona, while 12 per cent were residents in the North African Spanish enclave city of Melilla, from where one of the detainees of the Barcelona attack originated. Madrid and Ceuta were also cited as prominent jihadi hubs. Such clusters were found to coincide with the presence of 'radicalising agents' and strong networks, suggesting that involvement in Spanish extremist violence was contingent on "social interactions through which individuals learn about ideas justifying terrorism."
Tactically, the ramming method employed by the attackers in Barcelona echo the similarly destructive approach employed in recent terror attacks in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, and London, where large vehicles are driven at speed into areas with dense pedestrian traffic. Ramming attacks have emerged as a popular, low-tech, high-impact technique employed by extremists in urban areas in Western cities to inflict maximum damage, requiring little expertise, preparation, and precision.
In a report published in July 2017, the Spanish Interior Ministry indicated that special measures had been instituted to provide enhanced security for crowded spaces, symbolic buildings, and places of worship.
A Rising Threat
The Barcelona attack comes after a number of foiled jihadi operations. In June, Spanish security forces dismantled an ISIS cell on the island of Mallorca following a string of raids carried out across Europe. The Spanish National Police said the investigation into the cell began in 2015 after a website with several terrorist propaganda videos was discovered. Spanish authorities raised the national security state of alert to level four in 2015, indicating a high likelihood of attacks, which was initiated after a spate of international terrorist attacks committed by ISIS. Under the heightened security level there has been a greater mobilisation of security personnel, including restrictions on police leave, and a heightened state of response from the country's armed forces.
Coordinated raids across Spain, Belgium, and Germany in September 2016 saw three suspects taken into Spanish custody – two in Barcelona and one in Spain's North African enclave of Melilla. Those arrested were suspected of using social media platforms to propagate ISIS propaganda, with officials indicating one of the Facebook pages operated by the group had over 30,000 followers.
In June 2017, police in Madrid arrested a 32-year-old Moroccan man described as being "highly radicalised" and in possession of large collections of Islamist propaganda, including advice for suicide bombers. A statement by the Spanish Interior Ministry indicated that the man was a suspected member of ISIS engaged in recruitment activity in Spain and was in communications with group members in Syria and Iraq.
An ISIS propaganda video released in January 2016 featured a French-speaking militant praising attacks that had been carried out in Europe and warned of future attacks, singling out Spain. Specific threats to the Andalusian cities of Toledo and Cordoba were issued, saying that Spain would "pay dearly" for ending Muslim rule in the 15th century.
Despite distinguishing its own Caliphate project as being a continuation of a tradition based on the prophetic methodology, ISIS has frequently lamented the downfall of caliphates in countries like Spain as being part of a grand strategy designed to denigrate Muslims. This notion of reviving the bygone Islamic empire, in spite of fundamental disagreements about its basis and conduct, is a key pillar in the ISIS narrative, which frames the group's actions as being a stand against centuries of tyranny, oppression, and occupation.
Spain plays a unqiue role in ISIS' European-focused propaganda, with an expansionistic focus on reclaiming al-Andalus as a part of its territory. The jihadi group attempts to cultivate a nostalgic aim of reclaiming Islamic control over the Western-most province, but ignores the history of pluralism and religious tolerance that characterised Muslim rule.