The Roots of the Barcelona Attack

In Catalonia, Salafist Terror Is No Surprise

A man mourns near a memorial on Las Ramblas, the site of the August 17 terrorist attack, Barcelona, August 2017. Susana Vera / Reuters

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

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