Al Qaeda's Creeping Reconquista

The Madrid bombings had been counting down for years.

The Madrid bombings had been counting down for years.  The attacks call attention to the European Islamist terror network which has only gotten stronger with the Iraq war.

That the Madrid bombings toppled a government which supported the U.S. in Iraq was not an accident.  Spurred by the carnage of "11-M," Spaniards took to the polls and handed the terrorists a victory.  They conceded that their policies towards the wider world would be shaped by acts of terror.  To think that a country can avoid the wrath of Al-Qaeda simply by keeping a low profile is disingenuous at best, deadly at worst.  Al-Qaeda is pledged to an all out global jihad, waged until the world is completely subordinated to their brand of Islam.  Keeping one's head down and consigning security to an assumed quid pro quo with Al-Qaeda is to invite disaster. 

Al-Qaeda has an extensive presence in Spain dating from well before 9/11. Spain in particular is set firmly in Al-Qaeda's crosshairs because Al-Qaeda sees Spain, or al Andalus, as historically Muslim territory.  Muslims held Spain from the 8th century until they were vanquished by the reconquista in 1492. For this reason the fatwas and proclamations of Al-Qaeda frequently include references to al Andalus alongside more prominent battle zones such as Kashmir and Palestine.  

As in Italy and France, Spain's proximity to North Africa has allowed a significant Muslim immigrant population, both legal and illegal, to take root.  These immigrants are mainly young men who find jobs as itinerant laborers in construction or agriculture and second generation citizens who find their upward mobility blocked.  These individuals have not wanted to or not been able to assimilate into their new countries.  Young, poor, and living on the margins of European societies, these young men are increasingly receptive to radical ideas propagated by imams or older members of the community with an Islamist bent.  These communities also provide cover and support for operatives arriving from abroad.

The Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center has compiled verifiable data on 212 individuals implicated in major terrorist attacks since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Within this data we have uncovered a significant Spanish presence.  11 of 212 operatives used Spain as a home base.  The majority were linked to Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, aka Abu Dahdah, a naturalized Spanish citizen of Syrian origin.  Arrested in 2001, Yarkas was the alleged ringleader of the "Abu Dahdah Cell," a Spanish fundraising and recruiting cell.  Yarkas, who lived in a Madrid suburb, is alleged to be bin Laden's point man in Spain.  Abu Dahdah's passport was found in the home of Abu Qatada, a London imam described as Al-Qaeda's spiritual emissary to Europe.  Investigators believe Yarkas was Abu Qatada's operational counterpart.  Two of the Moroccans held in connection with the Madrid attacks, Mohammed Shawi (or Chaoui) and Jamal Zougam, were reportedly known to authorities.  In early 2001, Shawi's name was picked up through monitoring one of Abu Dahdah's phone calls.  Prior to the Madrid bombings, Zougam was also noted by the Spanish government as a follower of Abu Dahdah. 

Besides the extensive role played by the Abu Dahdah cell, there are numerous other episodes that illustrate the prominent role played by Spain in Al-Qaeda's operations.  In June of 2001, Mohammed Bensakhria, aka "Meliani" was arrested in Alicante, in southeastern Spain.  Bensakhria, described at that time as "The Most Wanted Terrorist in Europe," was the leader of the "Meliani Cell," a group of Algerians who plotted to bomb the Strausborg Cathedral and Christmas Market.  In January and July of 2001, Mohammed Atta visited Spain, where he is believed to have met with Al-Qaeda leadership and finalized plans for the attacks on New York and Washington.  Abu Dahdah set up the meeting.  When suspected Al-Qaeda operative Ghasoub al-Abrash Ghalyoun was caught in Spain in 2002, officials found videos of the World Trade Center which they described as "target spotting." 

Spanish officials are holding two men, Enrique Cerda Ibanez and Ahmed Ruksar, on suspicion of financing the 2002 bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, Tunisia.  In 2003 Spain-based al Jazeera cameraman Taysir Alluni was placed under investigation for allegedly using his journalism credentials to pass information between Al-Qaeda commanders in the Middle East and cells in Europe.  Perhaps presaging the attacks in Madrid, Spanish authorities have spent the past weeks rounding up large numbers of North Africans suspected of ties to Islamist terrorist groups.

While ETA may still be the culprit, an Al-Qaeda- ETA connection is still a remote possibility. Luis Jose Galan Gonzalez, held in the investigation into the Abu Dahdah cell, is a convert to Islam who was a member of ETA before he cast his lot with Islamist terrorists.  The explosive used in the Madrid attacks was a type favored by ETA in the past, and it is not inconceivable that Islamist radicals may have acquired the explosives through liaison with radical or splinter ETA entities. 

The attacks in Spain also have disturbing connections to a wider European trend.  Jamal Zougam, the Moroccan held in connection with the attacks, had ties to Ansar Al-Islam, the Kurdish group situated in Northern Iraq.  During last year authorities in Europe uncovered massive Ansar al Islam recruiting operations in Britain, Italy, Germany, Norway and Spain.  Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the shadowy leader of Al-Ansar, focused his efforts on recruiting converts to Islam and developing sleeper cells.