The August 17 terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, in which a total of 15 people were killed by militants pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS), came as a surprise to some observers. Prior to these events, there had not been an attack in Spain during the recent wave of ISIS-linked terrorism in Europe, and additionally the country has experienced relatively low levels of radicalization. Only about 200 people have traveled from Spain to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, compared to more than 1,500 from France, 1,000 from the United Kingdom, 900 from Germany, 600 from Belgium, and 300 from Austria.

More careful analysis indicates that Spain was not an unlikely target. First, as a general point, no Western country should be considered immune to the terrorist threat. Attacks have been planned and executed in countries such as Sweden and, just last week, Finland—none of which are known as hotbeds of jihadism. ISIS instructs its operatives and exhorts its sympathizers to strike wherever they are located. There is undeniably a hierarchy of attack targets, but any attack in any country serves the group’s cause.

In this hierarchy, Spain might not rank as high as France or the United Kingdom, but is hardly forgotten. Although Spain’s military role in the anti-ISIS coalition is limited (it provides logistical support and training to NATO and Iraqi forces), its influence in North Africa has drawn the ire of the global jihadist movement. Spain’s Islamic heritage, moreover, makes it a perennial target, and is no merely symbolic factor for organizations, such as ISIS, whose primary political goal is to restore the historical Islamic caliphate to its original borders. References to al Andalus, the Muslim kingdom in Spain that ended in 1492, are omnipresent in the propaganda not only of ISIS but of virtually every jihadist group (particularly those in North Africa) that desires to reconquer lost Muslim land.

Spain’s Islamic heritage makes it a perennial target for jihadists.

Finally, although Spain has seen less jihadist radicalization than countries in central and northern Europe, it has recently experienced a spike. Since 2013, Spanish police have arrested approximately 200 people for terrorism-related matters, one of the highest numbers in Europe. This high number, however, is due not only to an increase in radicalization but also to the Spanish counterterrorism apparatus’s extensive legal powers and vast expertise—a byproduct of decades of fighting Basque terrorism and, after the 2004 Madrid bombing, hunting down al Qaeda-linked clusters. (The same is true in Catalonia, where the Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police force, has developed remarkable counterterrorism capabilities.)

If an attack on Spain is unsurprising, so too is the fact that the terrorists came from and chose to target Catalonia. A series of studies by the political scientists Fernando Reinares and Carola García-Calvo have demonstrated that Catalonia has seen disproportionately high levels of jihadist radicalization compared to other areas of Spain, with the exception of Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in Moroccan territory. Tellingly, these studies found that four in every ten individuals arrested in Spain for links to Syrian and Iraqi jihadist groups lived in Catalonia, despite the region accounting for only 16 percent of immigrants to Spain from Muslim-majority countries. Some of the most sophisticated plots and networks—albeit by Spain’s comparatively low standards—have also been uncovered in Catalonia.

A woman hugs an officer from the Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra in Barcelona, August 2017.
Susana Vera / Reuters

What makes Catalonia particularly prone to producing jihadists? No one factor explains it. Some have suggested social marginalization. A 2007 U.S. State Department cable, for instance, stated that Catalan Muslims “live on the edges of Spanish society, they do not speak the language, they are often unemployed, and they have very few places to practice their religion with dignity.… Individually, these circumstances would provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment; taken together, the threat is clear.” This assessment, although arguably overly pessimistic, does capture some problems that plague the local Muslim community and may contribute to radicalization. Yet they are hardly unique to Catalonia, one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. To the contrary, Muslims living in Spanish regions like Andalusia suffer from equal if not greater degrees of socioeconomic deprivation and exclusion yet have not been radicalized to the same extent.

Catalonia’s situation may be better explained by the extensiveness of the region’s Salafist scene. Over the last twenty years, authorities have monitored the growth of some 60-70 Salafist mosques, spread throughout an area that the Mossos d’Esquadra refers to as the Salafi corridor. This designation relates to the area stretching from the southern cities of Reus and Tarragona, the traditional heart of Catalan Salafism, to the northwestern corner of Lleida, and extending all the way to small cities near the French border in the province of Girona. The Salafi corridor comprises an informal network of mosques (in many cases little more than garages or abandoned structures), usually located in small and mid-size towns that resemble Ripoll, where most of the Barcelona attackers hailed from. These towns are home to large communities of mostly Moroccan agricultural laborers, and over the years Salafist organizations there have grown in size and influence thanks to the activism of their leaders and their access to foreign funds from Arab Gulf countries, and Kuwait in particular. 

The brand of Salafism preached in most Catalan mosques is quietist, espousing highly conservative but nonviolent views. Yet Spanish and Catalan authorities have always treated this network with the utmost suspicion. A 2011 memorandum by Spain’s National Center for Intelligence (CNI) stated that “the consequences of the funding of Salafist mosques by foreign countries] are seen in the negative attitudes towards integration, such as the growth of ghettoes and parallel societies, Islamic tribunals and police forces operating outside the law, lack of schooling for girls, forced marriages and so on.”

A well developed Salafist scene helps explain the disproportionately high levels of radicalization in Catalonia.

The connection between Catalan Salafist networks and violence, moreover, is hardly occasional. There have been a handful of cases resembling that of the Barcelona attackers, in which young men, who previously attended Salafist mosques or had fallen under the spell of Salafist imams, traveled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups or planned attacks in Catalonia. Generally it can be said that although the local Salafist scene in Catalonia is not directly engaged in violent activities, its rhetoric provides an ideologically conducive environment, a “mood music,” that leads some young Catalan Muslims to take the next step and embrace violence to further their extremist worldview. This well developed Salafist scene helps explain the disproportionately high levels of radicalization in Catalonia more so than any other concurrent factor.

Despite apparent gaps in detecting the Ripoll cell, which operated freely for months, Spanish and Catalan counterterrorism apparatuses remain better prepared to face the jihadist threat than some of their counterparts throughout Europe. Yet lack of resources and difficulty in internal and external information sharing are issues of concern. Spain, moreover, has been slow to implement an aggressive radicalization prevention strategy and enter into trust-based partnerships with large cross-sections of its Muslim community. Hopefully recent attacks will not be a source of further political tensions, particularly as they precede the October 1 Catalan independence referendum by just a few weeks. Rather, the recent attacks should serve as an opportunity to sharpen both Spanish and Catalan counterterrorism efforts. 

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  • LORENZO VIDINO is the Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, and he runs the program on terrorism at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
  • More By Lorenzo Vidino