International Terrorism - Elcano Royal Institute empty_context Copyright (c), 2002-2018 Fundación Real Instituto Elcano Lotus Web Content Management <![CDATA[ Made-to-measure Qur’anic quotations: the incomplete verses of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb ]]> 2019-06-20T12:03:51Z

More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.

Original version in Spanish: Literalidad coránica a medida: las aleyas incompletas de al-Qaeda en el Magreb Islámico


More than half the Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in its propaganda are faithful reproductions of the text but incomplete or truncated.


A digitalised corpus comprising more than 200 official documents released by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)– and 2017 enables an evidence-based answer to be given to the question of how religious its rhetoric really is. Moreover, by systematically collating all the Qur’anic quotes that have been recorded –more than 1,200– it emerges that, although the organisation never alters or modifies the Qur’an, enabling all accusations of the sacred texts being manipulated to be definitively rejected, there is a notable use of tailor-made quotation. Despite being unrestricted in terms of both time and space, on more than half of the occasions when AQIM has quoted the Qur’an in its propaganda over the course of the last 14 years – 52.42% of the total – it has done so using incomplete or shortened quotations.


The literal and decontextualised interpretation made of Islam’s sacred texts by the various terrorist organisations adhering to jihadist Salafism is well known, but to what extent is their rhetoric purely religious? Moreover, with the goal of discrediting and undermining the legitimacy of such organisations, it is still argued with a certain frequency that they manipulate and distort religious doctrine. Can such an assertion be verified? If so, bearing in mind the consensual nature regarding the sacredness of the main sources of revelation, it would be relatively simple to devise strategies aimed at exploiting such distortions.

By systematically mapping the more than 1,200 Qur’anic quotations used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) between 2004 –when it still styled itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in its French acronym)–1 and 2017, this analysis seeks to throw light on some aspects linked to the use of the sacred texts by the terrorist organisation. To this end an extensive monolingual, diachronic and digitalised corpus has been created covering a total of 203 official records released by the group.2 Among these there are 179 audiovisual recordings (more than 65 hours of audio and video), 20 text documents including magazines, books, articles and essays (approximately 800 pages of text) and the complete transcripts of four interviews given by prominent members of the organisation (see Figure 1). The dataset that has been compiled includes all the official audiovisual recordings3 published by the terrorist organisation in the aforementioned timeframe, as well as other official written documents whose content has been judged to be relevant by the author.4 Brief communications, used mainly to claim authorship of successful terrorist operations, panegyrics, opinion articles and other secondary content published on platforms such as Ifriqīyā al-Muslima were not included in the dataset.

Figure 1. Annual distribution of the material used to create the corpus of Qur’anic quotations found in AQIM propaganda, 2004-17
Year Audios and videos Magazines Books and essays Interviews
2004 1 2 - -
2005 1 3 - -
2006 2 3 - -
2007 12 - 1 -
2008 10 - - 1
2009 12 - 1 -
2010 16 - - -
2011 15 - - 1
2012 11 - 2 1
2013 12 - 1 -
2014 10 - - -
2015 21 (37) - 2 -
2016 14 - 2 1
2017 10 (26) - 3 -

Notes: (1) the difference in the number of documents for 2015 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘غزوة أحد في القرآن ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi; (2) the difference in the number of documents for 2017 arises from the inclusion in brackets of all the documents associated with the ‘شرح كتاب الصيام من بلوغ المرام ’ series, a collection of lessons delivered by Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi.

Specialised corpuses, such as the one used here, focus on a particular variety or register of language, in this case the jihadist Salafist rhetoric of AQIM. Up until now, the few attempts to analyse jihadist Salafist rhetoric using a quantitative approach have run up against an obstacle that is difficult to overcome, namely the technical challenges inherent in Arabic. Such attempts are outnumbered by various qualitative studies and analyses, mainly since languages other than Arabic started to appear in Islamic State propaganda. However, without wanting to delve too deeply into the debate, Arabic continues to be not only the language used in the bulk of jihadist propaganda but also, of course, the cornerstone on which all ideological and doctrinal debate in this current of thought is founded and erected.

The majority of studies aiming to analyse jihadist rhetoric or narrative, in one way or another, do so on the basis of publications such as Dābiq, Rumiyah and Inspire. These publications, although they have greater impact in the West, have a specific target audience, and this, while they adhere the basic principles of jihadist Salafist ideology, determines their nature and conditions the language used. Moreover, the translations of documents composed in Arabic, including those translated in-houseby the terrorist organisations themselves, show a greater degree of bias given that the process of translating jihadist propaganda is not systematic.

Meanwhile, there are a significant number of studies that use different perspectives to focus on the operations and relations of the militants –mainly munāṣirūn, ‘fanboys’ and official propaganda platforms– on such social media as Twitter and Facebook. This type of research –such as that conducted by J.M. Berger and Charlie Winter, among others–5 has cast light on the way the propaganda dissemination apparatus and the broadcasting of its message on social media works, as well as the number of militants active on the Internet and the central subject matter of each individualised audiovisual product. The present analysis, on the other hand, uses a quantitative approach to focus mainly on the way AQIM uses the Qur’an.

When AQIM quotes the Qur’an

Offering an evidence-based answer to the question of how religious jihadist rhetoric is represents a genuine challenge. The corpus assembled for this analysis is made up of more than 810,000 words; it has been codified in such a way as to enable all the Qur’anic quotations to be extracted from the text for their subsequent classification, focusing on any criteria that are specified. Thus, exactly 1,219 Qur’anic quotations are found in the 203 documents that have been included, but 932 if only those quotations extracted from documents published before the organisation started issuing its publications under the current AQIM name are considered. Although it may not be the most exact way of performing the calculation, these 1,219 quotations account for a total of 27,367 words, or 3.37% of the total corpus. Although they do not form part of the present analysis, if quotations of Hadiths –accounting for 7,014 words of the total corpus– are added to the calculation, a total of 34,381 words would be obtained. Thus, 4.24% of the total AQIM discourse consists entirely of quotations from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the two main sources of revelation and the fundamental core of Islam.

Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Figure 2. Graphic representation of the purely religious discourse compared to the total (%)
Source: compiled by the author.

That said, the purely religious discourse cannot be reduced solely to the Qur’anic quotations. Although Qur’anic quotations are sometimes introduced to convey a certain patina of religiosity to the discourse in order to justify a particular act or stance, depending on the document, it is normal for the Qur’anic quotations to be accompanied by a contextualised religious explanation. This exercise, which sometimes takes the form of exegesis and is sometimes simply didactic or clarificatory, constitutes a fundamental element of AQIM communication. Using the coding system described above, heat maps such as the one shown below were created to represent the relative weight of the group’s strictly religious discourse in the most faithful way possible.

Figure 3. Heat map of a document from the corpus created with MAXQDA software
Note: the Qur’anic quotations are shown in green; their contextualisation or exegesis in the AQIM propaganda is shown in blue. Source: compiled by the author.

The outcome of mapping all the documents in the corpus offers disparate results depending on the type of document in question, but they confirm that AQIM’s strictly religious discourse does indeed account for a significant fraction of the total. The results fluctuate between 2% and 4% on average for those documents aimed at publicising military capabilities –for example the bulk of the ‘ظلال السيوف ’ series– and more than 50% for documents of a doctrinal or ideological nature. Reducing it all purely to figures and percentages, AQIM quotes the Qur’an once every 665 words, which is to say once in slightly more than every page of running text, and although the distribution is quite some way from being uniform, each mapped document has an average of six Qur’anic quotations.

AQIM’s incomplete āyāt

One fact emerges in a particularly striking way after conducting an exhaustive comparison of all the Qur’anic quotations employed by AQIM in its media output.6 More than half the Qur’anic quotations to which AQIM refers in the mapped documents are partial or incomplete quotations, accounting for 52.42% of the total. Using systematic comparison of the sample of the 1,219 Qur’anic quotations assembled in the corpus with the Qur’an it emerges that 639 quotations are incomplete. This does not mean that the content of the quotations was manipulated (taḥrīf), just that the quotation, whether it was from a single āyah or a set, is incomplete.

As seen in Figure 4, which shows the distribution of the mapped Qur’anic quotations by year, the tendency to cite incomplete āyātconstitutes the norm, with 64.07% being the highest percentage of incomplete quotations used, in 2004, and 35.96% the lowest, in 2010. It should also be noted that the percentage of incomplete quotations fell below 50% of the total in only three years: 2007, 2010 and 2016.

Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Figure 4. Annual distribution of the Qur’anic quotations in AQIM’s discourse, 2004-17
Source: compiled by the author.

Reciting incomplete āyāt or verses of the Qur’an is a habitual practice in Islam. Given that the prohibition of this practice does not find support either in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah, the basic principle accepted by the various schools of jurisprudence suggests that it is permitted to quote incomplete āyāt on condition that the meaning is complete. Many āyāt, especially the longest ones such as Qur’an 2:282 –the longest in the Qur’an– encompass various complete and independent ideas and meanings; it is not uncommon therefore to come across incomplete quotations. Indeed, this practice receives a certain amount of support, for example in the following Hadith:

‘Abdullah ibn Masa’ud recalled: the Messenger of Allah, , said: “Whoever recites a letter from the Book of Allah will receive one good deed as ten good deeds like it. I do not say that Alif-Lām-Mīm7 is one letter, but rather Alif is a letter, Lām is a letter and Mīm is a letter”.’ Hadith classified as ṣaḥīḥ, or authentic, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2910.8

Moreover, the debate about how and to what extent the Qur’an should be quoted, whether in the context of prayer or simply as an authoritative argument in rhetoric, is covered by the hermeneutic Islamic literature, as the following extract demonstrates:

‘As far as reading the Qur’an is concerned, apart from the obligatory prayers, according to Abu Hanifa, it should start with at least one āyah, even if it is short. Ibn Abbas is of the same opinion. He said: “recite what you can of the Qur’an, because nothing in the Qur’an is insignificant”. On the other hand, Abu Yussuf said: “recitation should be no less than a long āyah, such as the Throne Verse [Qur’an 02:255], or at least three short verses, because less than this would go against custom and would not demonstrate how miraculous the Qur’an is”.’9

The Qur’an, which can literally be translated as ‘recitation’, is a complex book and it is of primordial importance to understand its nature. It is not a chronological compilation designed to tell a story, as might be said of the book of Genesis, and therefore it should not be viewed as a sequential narrative. Its verses, or āyāt, are not standard either in length or in meter and according to Muslim tradition the start and end of each one do not relate to the arbitrary decision of men but the dictation of God. Thus, as a general rule, each verse –and sometimes a set of verses– deals with a particular subject; dividing them therefore may lead to the modification of the global meaning and limit or distort the context of the literal revelation.

Responding to whether it is permitted to split a verse into various parts, the erudite Saudi Salafist Muhammad Salah Al-Munajjid (born in Aleppo) stated that it was possible unless it should lead to an inappropriate meaning, but stipulated that it would be preferable to complete the quotation.10 The ulema,11 currently in prison in Saudi Arabia, based his response on the fact that the earliest generations of believers viewed reciting a complete Surah as mustaḥab,12 without stopping, so that it would be appropriate to extend the practice to the āyāt too. He based his conclusion on the following hadith:

‘Jabir ibn Abdullah recalled: we proceeded in the company of the Messenger of Allah, , for the battle of Dhat ar-Riqa. One of the Muslims killed the wife of one of the unbelievers. He (the husband of the woman killed) took an oath saying: “I shall not rest in peace until I kill one of the companions of Muhammad”. He went out following the footsteps of the Prophet, . The Prophet, , encamped at a certain place. He said: “Who will keep watch on us?”. A person from the Muhājirūn and another from the Anṣār responded. He said: “Go to the mouth of the mountain-pass”. When they went to the mouth of the mountain-pass, the man from the Muhājirūn lay down while the man from the Anṣār stood praying. The man (enemy) came to them. When he saw the person he realised that he was the watchman of the Muslims. He shot him with an arrow and hit the target. But he(took the arrow out and) threw it away. He (the enemy) then shot three arrows. Then he (the Muslim) bowed and prostrated and awoke his companion. When he (the enemy) perceived that they (the Muslims) had become aware of his presence, he ran away. When the man from the Muhājirūn saw the (man from the Anṣār) bleeding, he asked him: “Glory be to Allah! Why did you not wake me up the first time when he shot at you?”. He replied: “I was busy reciting a chapter of the Qur’an. I did not like to leave it”.’ Hadith classified as ḥasan, Sunan Abu Dawud.13

Moreover, in his work Al-Itqān fī ʻUlūm al-Qurʼān, considered a fundamental linguistic and stylistic tool for understanding the meanings of the Qur’an, Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, delving into the correct pronunciation when it came to reciting the Qur’an, referred to the work of Uthman al-Dani, a linguist and exegete from Al-Andalus. The latter quoted a Hadith of al-Hakim,14 who put into the mouth of Zayd ibn Thabit, scribe of the Prophet according to tradition and one of the Anṣār, the following words: ‘The Qur’an was revealed in order to be recited in full’.15

The biased and tendentious use that is made of religion by the jihadist Salafist organisations is well known and, while it is not the aim of this paper to delve into the exegesis of the sacred texts, it does seek to open the way to the construction of counternarratives. Unlike other groups, such as imams, TV preachers, etc., AQIM –like other terrorist organisations– is totally unrestricted in terms of time and space when it comes to creating its message; instead it has the tools needed to design its communication strategy and the content of its message as it sees fit. It does not broadcast live and therefore is not subjected to scrutiny or debate with third parties in real time. Yet even without restrictions when it comes to conveying its message, it chooses to use partial quotations on more than half the occasions when it invokes the Qur’an.

The two verses most frequently used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:36, provide an example of the above phenomenon. There is no particular controversy surrounding these āyāt and there is a broad consensus (ijmāʿ) about their meaning at the core of the Ummah. Verse 217 of the Surah of the Cow is the most used by AQIM: 22 times in all according to the data extracted from the corpus, all of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below does not appear in any of the 22 quotations used by AQIM in the documents from which the corpus is compiled. Moreover, without going into the matter in detail, it is worth mentioning that āyah 36 of the Surah of Repentance [Qur’an 09:36], a verse that in the opinion of several mufassirūn abrogates Qur’an 02:217 and whose content restricts the possibilities of fighting the infidels during the sacred months only to occasions when the Muslims are attacked first, appears on just three occasions in the AQIM discourse, none of them unedited.

[Qur’an 02:217]: ‘They will question thee concerning the holy month, and fighting in it. Say: “Fighting in it is a heinous thing, but to bar from God’s way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people from it – that is more heinous in God’s sight; and persecution is more heinous than slaying”. They will not cease to fight with you, till they turn you from your religion, if they are able; and whosoever of you turns from his religion, and dies disbelieving – their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever.’16

Verse 39 of the Al-Anfāl Surah (The Spoils of War) is the second most-used verse by AQIM, quoted 21 times in all according to the corpus data, 19 of them in an incomplete way. The underlined section of the translation shown below forms part of the only two complete quotations of this verse that are to be found in the corpus.

[Qur’an 08:39]: ‘Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely; then if they give over, surely God sees the things they do.’17

Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Figure 5. Illustration of the various formats of the incomplete quotations of the two verses most used by AQIM, Qur’an 02:217 and Qur’an 08:39
Source: compiled by the author.

By means of a systematic collation of the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM over a 14-year period it may be stated that they do not resort to manipulating the Qur’an or altering its content (taḥrīf) at any time. What have been noted however, albeit only on a handful of occasions, are unintentional errors, failures to observe conventions –mainly in the pronunciation of certain terms, in breach of the rules of the tajwid18 and minor ellipses, all them errors that are common in oral discourse.

However, as became clear at the start of this section, such a systematic comparison does enable a figure to be placed on the number of incomplete quotations; and this, for an organisation that finds the raison d’être for its activities, according to its own interpretation, in the word of God, is undeniably high. It adheres strictly to the text in a literal sense, but in a made-to-measure way. This finding, combined with the manifold possibilities inherent in a contextualised study of each Qur’anic quotation and the way their use develops over time, represents a significant step enabling more in-depth study to be conducted into the religious discourse emanating from jihadist Salafism.


Despite the growing institutional interest in the development of counternarrative tools and the consequent academic steps that have been made in the same direction, the rewards that have been reaped, in light of the militant mobilisation witnessed in recent years, cannot be described as anything other than insufficient. Part of the problem consists in the fact that, in order to create effective counternarratives, it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of the jihadist Salafist narrative, and this is a field in which, although there are numerous qualitative studies, quantitative or mixed-approach research has barely been conducted, particularly if we confine ourselves to Arabic as the main language for conveying the jihadist Salafist message.

Systematising the analysis of religious discourse by employing automated tools not only enables irrefutable data to be obtained, it should also facilitate the creation of counternarrative strategies and tools of greater efficacy as well as making it possible to finetune those that already exist. The use of analytical techniques based on empirical data makes it possible to produce a reliable picture of the reality of the discourse, contextualise the findings and, consequently, provide a much more precise study of the evolution of various organisations’ narrative over a particular period of time.

This analysis, by means of data extracted from a monolingual, diachronic corpus that is representative of the AQIM discourse –thereby ensuring the consistency of the results obtained– enables the notion that the organisation manipulates or alters the content of the Qur’an to be categorically dismissed. This is simply and plainly false; we may be able to agree that the extremely strict interpretations that are embraced are biased, unjustified, decontextualised and lack the approval of the majority of Muslims, but on no occasion do they breach the limits of exegesis historically accepted by the bulk of Sunni Islam. They flirt with the boundaries of the rules, as it were, but remain within the rules. It goes without saying that the conclusions drawn here cannot necessarily be extrapolated to other jihadist organisations, although they prepare the ground for future comparative studies.

Secondly, and this undoubtedly constitutes the most important conclusion of this study, it has been found that more than half the Qur’anic quotations used by AQIM in its propaganda output during the period under review are incomplete. As mentioned, the biased reading and use that jihadist organisations make of religion is well known, favouring certain passages over the rest, thereby distorting the overall significance of the revealed message. Apart from the overrepresentation of certain verses compared to others and the reliance on the most belligerent form of exegesis, however, one aspect stands out after quantitatively analysing how AQIM quotes the Qur’an and comparing the results with the original source. The terrorist organisation quotes the Qur’an rigorously, but in an incomplete way, shortening more than half the Qur’anic quotations it uses, obviously in a way that suits its agenda: the quotations are faithful, but made-to-measure.

Future contextualised analysis of the way these incomplete quotations are used, as well as research into how their use changes over time, will undoubtedly serve to continue not only in the further acquisition of in-depth knowledge of the religious discourse of jihadist Salafism, but also in making progress towards the creation of new counternarrative strategies and the refinement of those that already exist.

Sergio Altuna Galán
Associate Analyst, Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism Programme, Elcano Royal Institute | @wellesbien

1 The year 2004 was chosen as the starting point of the dataset precisely to rule out the possibility of the absorption of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat involving substantial changes in the use of Qur’anic quotations. The same tear also represents the start of Abdelmalek Droukdel’s time as the head of the organisation, which, in January 2007, having merged with al-Qaeda, came to be known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but still under his leadership.

2 A corpus can be defined as a database, an extensive collection of authentic texts that have been compiled and digitalised following a specific set of criteria enabling it to be used as a representative sample of a linguistic reality. See T. McEnery, R. Xiao & Y. Tono (2006), Corpus-Based Language Studies. An Advanced Resource Book, Routledge, London & New York.

3 All the audiovisual documents published by the Media Committee of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (اللجنة الاعلامية للجماعة السلفية للدعوة والقتال ), the Media Committee of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (اللجنة الاعلامية لتنظيم القاعدة ببلاد النغرب الإسلامي ) and the al-Andalus Foundation.

4 The written documents whose inclusion in the corpus has been judged as relevant are all those official documents that include a minimal ideological and doctrinal component.

5 See J.M. Berger & J. Morgan (2015), The ISIS Twitter Census Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter, The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, The Brookings Institution; and C. Winter (2015), The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy, Quilliam International.

6 For the purposes of comparing data, the author used the materials made available through the Qur’an Digitalisation project run by the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

7 [Qur’an 02:01].

8 2910 سنن الترمذي، كتاب فضائل القرآن، حديث رقم

9 المحيط البرهاني في الفقه النعماني، كتاب الطهارات - الصلاة، ص. 298. دار الكتب العلمية 2004

10 Islam Q&A, رقم السؤال 206946 .

11 It would be more correct to use ʿAlīm, but in English it is acceptable to use ulema in the singular.

12 Recommended, favoured.

13 سنن أبي داود، كتاب الطهارة، حديث 198

14 Abu Abd-Allah Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah al-Hakim al-Nishapuri, the Persian ulema and respected compiler of Hadiths.

15 جلال الدين السيوطي، الإتقان في علوم القرآن، ص. 129.

16 [Qur’an 02:217]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

17 [Qur’an 08:39]. Translation from Arthur John Arberry.

18 Rules governing the recitation of the Qur’an, or tilāwa.

<![CDATA[ Jihadists who left Spain for Syria as foreign terrorist fighters but have returned ]]> 2019-05-20T02:18:11Z

Around one fifth of the 230 to 235 jihadists who between 2012 and 2018 travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) have already returned. 

Around one fifth of the 230 to 235 jihadists who between 2012 and 2018 travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) have already returned. There are currently 40 to 50 of these returnees. Most of them travelled initially with the purpose of joining the ranks of Islamic State –also known as ISIL or ISIS– or, to a lesser extent, organisations related to al-Qaeda. But some travelled in order to settle within territories where these jihadist organisations had either managed to temporarily impose their control or at least to establish a notable and influential presence.

"Not all returnees received training in the use of weapons and explosives or engaged in acts of violence and terrorism"

However, not all returnees received training in the use of weapons and explosives or engaged in acts of violence and terrorism while they were in Syria and Iraq. That is the case, for example, of several among the approximately 30 women who were part of the FTF contingent who left Spain for these two Middle-Eastern countries –around 13% of the total– but have returned. There are, for instance, women who came back, even as widows and with young children, after leaving Spain for reasons having to do more with their marital status or their early age than with a militant commitment.

However, among the Jihadist FTFs from Spain, there are men like Abdeluahid Sadik Mohamed who did not prove capable of dealing psychologically with the situation in which they found themselves immersed and returned. But there are also those who, like Ahmed Samsam, returned only to go back again onto the battlefield; and those who, like Benaissa Laghmouchi Baghdadi, returned to help send more FTFs recruited in Spain; or even those who, like Abdeljail Ait El Kaid, returned with the purpose of participating in the preparation and execution of attacks, including attacks on Spanish soil.

Some 20 of these returnees are now in prison, but only half of them are held in Spanish penitentiaries, where six were already serving sentences by the end of 2018, including all four of those mentioned above. The rest are imprisoned in Morocco, which is unsurprising because a majority of FTFs from Spain were Moroccan nationals. Moreover, only a few returnees imprisoned in Spain were arrested within the country. Most were apprehended in Turkey –the usual transit country for jihadists entering or exiting Syria–, but a few in Belgium, Bulgaria or Poland and then handed over to the Spanish authorities thanks to international arrest warrants.

Criminalisation is the first response in Spain to the phenomenon of returnees, given that they have committed crimes as defined by the national Criminal Code. Crimes such as, for instance, travelling to a foreign territory controlled by a terrorist organisation and settling in a foreign territory to receive training or to collaborate with a terrorist organisation. Yet enforcement of the law can be modulated according to the characteristics of returnees and the circumstances under which they originally departed, as in the case of women who returned to Spain with children in need of very special attention.

"Since 2016, an intervention programme has been underway in Spanish prisons with the purpose of distancing radicalised prisoners from extremism"

Furthermore, the incrimination of returnees, usually involving incarceration, does not exclude rehabilitation. Since 2016, an intervention programme has been underway in Spanish prisons with the purpose of distancing radicalised prisoners from extremism and bringing them closer to democratic values so that, once freed, they pose no danger to society. These radicalised inmates include returning FTFs who nevertheless remain adhered to the attitudes and beliefs of Salafi Jihadism. The problem is that more than half of the returnees who initially travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq are not in prison.

Indeed, some 20 to 30 of these returnees remain at large. This typically occurs when, even though security forces or intelligence services are aware of the trajectory of such individuals, investigation into their activity fails to produce sufficient incriminating evidence. Such a situation implies a potential danger because returnees who maintain their jihadist ideas are likely to pose a terrorist threat in the short or medium term. It is known that the participation of foreign-fighter returnees tends to make the planning and preparation of attacks within western societies more effective and lethal.

Terrorists of these characteristics were among those making up the Jihadist network behind the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings. In any case, only around 10 of the returnees still at large are thought to be within Spain’s national territory. Some 10 to 20 more are now located outside Spain, mainly –though not exclusively– in Morocco. This suggests the extent to which the Spanish authorities can manage the problem of returned FTFs taking into account the phenomenon’s international dimension, highlighting the importance of counterterrorism cooperation with other countries, in this case especially with Morocco.

Concerning its domestic dimension, the basic challenge is applying the law in an individualised and appropriate manner to foreign-fighter returnees whose offences can be proved. This must be done while, on the one hand, developing initiatives aimed at facilitating the de-radicalisation and social integration of returned FTFs who are imprisoned in Spain, and, on the other, continuing to track returnees who remain at large in the country but for whose criminal offences there is as yet insufficient evidence, and improving the state’s ability to detect potential FTFs before they leave or, indeed, disrupt them in transit.

Fernando Reinares
Director of the Programme on Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute | @F_Reinares

<![CDATA[ Moroccans and the second generation among Jihadists in Spain ]]> 2018-06-27T01:12:45Z

A large majority of Jihadists in Spain are either Moroccans or descendants of Moroccans. But it is more likely for someone of Moroccan origin to become involved in terrorist activities if living in Spain than if living in Morocco.

Original version in Spanish: Marroquíes y segundas generaciones entre los yihadistas en España


A large majority of Jihadists in Spain are either Moroccans or descendants of Moroccans. But it is more likely for someone of Moroccan origin to become involved in terrorist activities if living in Spain than if living in Morocco.


Global Jihadism in Spain is no longer a threat that comes fundamentally from abroad and is mainly related to foreigners. The nationality and country of birth of the Jihadists who were arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 reveal that the phenomenon’s autochthonous component is of similar importance to the foreign one. The latter is essentially made up of individuals born in Morocco and particularly in the geographical and historical region of the Rif. The autochthonous component primarily comprises individuals born in the Spanish North-African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, as well as in Catalonia. But six of every 10 individuals studied belong to the second-generation cohort. To speak today of Jihadists in Spain is primarily to refer to individuals with Moroccan nationality or descent, implying that there is a problem in Morocco that is projected into Spain and therefore requires adequate and appropriate bilateral cooperation. But it is more likely for someone with Moroccan origin to become involved in terrorist activities if residing in Spain than if living in Morocco. And this suggests that there is a problem inside Spain with respect to the accommodation of these second generations and therefore effective radicalisation prevention is of the essence.


Some 233 Jihadists were arrested in Spain over the period 2013-2017, while another eight –from the cell that carried out the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils on August of 2017– died in the country during the period. A large majority (89.6%) of these 241 Jihadists were male and two-thirds (68.1%) were aged between 18 and 38 at the time of their arrest. But the other most common socio-demographic characteristics are national origin and immigrant ancestry. To shed more light on these latter two variables –what are their nationalities, countries of birth and the specific areas of origin of their immigrant ancestors? To what degree are they first- or second-generation immigrants, or individuals with no immigrant ancestry? And what does the evidence reveal about global Jihadism in Spain?– we have analysed data previously gathered in the Elcano Database on Jihadists in Spain (EDBJS).1 Our primary sources have included court proceedings and other legally available judicial documents, as well as hearings of the Audiencia Nacional (National Court), along with police reports and communiqués from the Ministry of the Interior. Om occasion we make use of interviews with police experts and, less frequently, on media sources.

Nationality and country of birth

Nearly half of the Jihadists who were arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 were of Moroccan nationality, precisely 46% (Figure 1). By contrast, 37.9% of the total had Spanish citizenship. The remaining 16.1% included individuals from 19 different nationalities (other than Moroccan or Spanish), eight of which were other European nationalities, while two were from other Maghreb countries; but five others were Latin American, two others from the Middle East and two from Asia.2 On the other hand, 53% of the Jihadists who are the subject of our study were born in Morocco and 29.5% in Spain. The remaining 17.5% were individuals born in 20 other countries, along with another two from other Middle-Eastern countries (in addition to those already mentioned).3

Figure 1. Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017, by country of nationality and country of birth (%)

Country Country of nationality Country of birth
Morocco 46.0 53.0
Spain 37.9 29.5
Tunisia 2.5 2.6
Pakistan 2.1 2.1
Algeria 2.1 2.6
France 1.2 1.7
Syria 0.4 1.3
Others 7.8 7.2
Total (235) (234)
Missing data: 6 7
Source: EDBJS.

The percentage of Jihadists in Spain with nationalities other than Moroccan or Spanish comes close to that of those born outside Morocco or Spain: 16.1% and 17.5%, respectively. But that of those with Moroccan nationality remains less than seven percentage points below the 53% corresponding to individuals born in Morocco. In the same way, those with Spanish nationality are some eight percentage points above the 29.5% born in Spain. These small but significant disparities stem from the fact that 12 of the Jihadists who were born in Morocco acquired Spanish nationality over the course of their lives (another acquired Danish nationality and an additional one Dutch nationality).

Nearly all the Jihadists with Moroccan nationality were born in Morocco, as is the case for some of those with Spanish nationality (Figure 2). To adequately understand why such a large majority of those born in Morocco did not have Spanish nationality, it should be considered, as done below, whether they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Furthermore, it must also be borne in mind that Moroccan nationality is formally un-renounceable, and that there is no dual nationality treaty between Morocco and Spain.4 Nearly all the Jihadists with Moroccan citizenship were born in Morocco, as is the case for some of those with Spanish nationality (Figure 2). To adequately understand why such a large majority of those born in Morocco did not have Spanish nationality, it should be considered, as done below, whether they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Furthermore, it must also be borne in mind that Moroccan nationality is formally un-renounceable, and that there is no dual nationality treaty between Morocco and Spain.5

Figure 2. Jihadists arrested or diad in Spain between 2013 and 2017, by country of birth, for different nationalities (%)
Country of birth Nationalities  
Moroccan Spanish Other Total
Morocco 99.1 15.0 4.7 52.4
Spain 0.9 85.0 29.9
Others 95.3 17.7
Total (108) (80) (43) (231)

Note: two individuals born in Morocco did not have Moroccan or Spanish nationality, but rather Danish and Dutch.
Source: EDBJS.

Among the Jihadists in this study who were born in Morocco, some expressly renounced the possibility of acquiring Spanish nationality, even when they legally met the necessary requirements. This was the case with Ayoub Motchou, a Moroccan born in 1994 in Kenitra, arrested at the age of 21 after a rapid process of online radicalisation and convicted in 2017 for terrorist indoctrination.6 Motchou lived in Figueras and Llança, both localities in the Catalan province of Gerona, with his parents and siblings ever since he was a child. But he declined to petition for Spanish nationality (in contrast to what the rest of his family did). Everything suggests that the personal option of this individual –who had a criminal record for violent robbery and illegal drug trafficking– was shaped by the animosity he held towards his host society.7

Both Moroccan and Spanish nationals have significantly increased their presence among the Jihadists operating in Spain since the middle of the last decade –just as those born in either Morocco or Spain have also increased.8 The decisive irruption of Jihadists either born in Morocco or holding Moroccan nationality became clear from the identified members of the 2004 Madrid bombing network. Although the number of Jihadists related in one way or another to this network could be higher, we can speak with sufficient certainty about 25 of its members, all of whom were foreigners, of which 21 had Moroccan nationality and were born in Morocco, similarly to the individual who was then deputy to al-Qaeda’s external operations commander, who was in contact with the key members of the network from al-Qaeda’s base in Pakistan.9

The recent increase among Jihadists in Spain of Moroccan nationals or Moroccan-born individuals has been somewhat less pronounced than that of those with Spanish nationality or born in Spain. According to the figures of Jihadists now convicted or died in Spain during the five-year period from 2013 to 2017, the Moroccan percentages were 10 points higher than in the preceding period of 2004 to 2012, both in terms of country of nationality and country of birth (Figure 3). The figures for Spain as a country of nationality or birth increased four-fold and six-fold, respectively, during 2013-2017, compared with the preceding 2004-2012 period. Differences in the distribution of Jihadists in Spain by country of nationality and birth are remarkable when comparing the two periods with the earlier one from 1996 to 2003.10

Figure 3. Jihadists convicted or died in Spain, by country of nationality and country of birth, for different periods (%)
Country 1996-2003 2004-2012 2013-2017
Nationality Birth Nationality Birth Nationality Birth
Morocco 3.3 6.7 40.7 42.6 50.0 52.4
Spain 30.0 3.3 9.3 5.6 39.0 35.4
Algeria 46.7 46.7 18.5 18.6 1.2 1.2
Tunisia 1.2 1.2
Pakistan 3.3 3.3 25.9 27.8
France 3.7 3.7
Syria 16.7 40.0
Others 5.6 5.4 4.9 6.1
Total (28) (30) (50) (54) (82) (82)
Missing data 0 2 0 4 1 1
Source: EDBJS.

Altogether, the data on nationality and country of birth clarify what the two primary components of global Jihadism in Spain are today. On the one hand, there is the foreign component, which is basically Moroccan. On the other hand, there is the homegrown, Spanish component. The latter shows, first, that we are not witnessing a phenomenon emanating almost exclusively from abroad, as was the case from the initial penetration of global Jihadism in Spain during the first half of the 1990s and up until the Muslim communities in Spain began to feel themselves affected (as did other Muslim communities in Western Europe) by the Jihadist mobilisation that began in 2012 with the unleashing of the civil war in Syria.

On the other hand, it is not surprising that the foreign component (which still constitutes the majority) is essentially Moroccan. This is largely explained by demographic factors, stemming primarily from the migratory flows to Spain from its closest neighbour to the south that is also an Islamic country, namely Morocco. In 2015 67.9% of the foreigners residing in Spain who came from majority Muslim countries were of Moroccan nationality and 67.7% had been born in Morocco.11But along with this demographic factor, Morocco is also a country where there is a popular culture with particular, concrete religious beliefs concerning marabout Islam and its legendary warrior-saints who sacrificed themselves and are now venerated in mausoleums. Arguably, the marabout Islam embedded in popular culture made it possible for some sectors of the population, particularly among the young, to become especially receptive to Islamist and bellicose interpretations of both jihad and the practice of martyrdom.12

But along with this demographic factor, Morocco is also a country where there is a popular culture with particular, concrete religious beliefs concerning marabout Islam and its legendary warrior-saints who sacrificed themselves and are now venerated in mausoleums. Arguably, the marabout Islam embedded in popular culture made it possible for some sectors of the population, particularly among the young, to become especially receptive to Islamist and bellicose interpretations of both jihad and the practice of martyrdom.13 At that time, approximately a decade before the beginning of the current wave of Jihadist mobilisation, six of every 10 individuals included in this study who had been born in Morocco were between 15 and 40 years old, half of them between 15 and 30, and a third between 15 and 25 years of age.14 In other words, they were at very important, even decisive stages in their respective life cycles or individual trajectories of political socialisation.

Given the considerable level of social acceptance enjoyed by global Jihadism in Morocco, it is not surprising that the country has been the scene of some lethal Jihadist attacks (such as those in Casablanca in May 2003 and those perpetrated there again in March and April 2007, and in Marrakesh in April 2011).15 According to data provided by the Moroccan authorities, from 2002 to 2017, 174 terrorist cells were disbanded, 60 of which were linked to Jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq.16 By October 2017 more than 1,660 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) –nearly 50 per million inhabitants– had left Morocco to travel to these conflict zones to join Jihadist organisations such as Sham al-Andalus (of particular interest from a Spanish perspective, because of its name), but principally the so-called Islamic State (IS).17

Foreign and autochthonous components

In addition to determining (as in the previous section) the current foreign and autochthonous components of global Jihadism in Spain, according to the nationality and country of birth of the Jihadists arrested or died in the country between 2013 and 2017, there are further questions that arise: from exactly where in Morocco and Spain do the individuals making up these two components of the phenomenon come from? What is the specific origin of the basically Moroccan component, in terms of birthplace location among those born in Morocco? What is it that can be deduced in this regard from the existing data? What is the specific origin of the Spanish component, according to the geography of birthplace among those born in Spain? How should the available evidence in this regard be interpreted?

Starting with the Jihadists arrested (or died) in Spain who were born in Morocco, that is to say, the essentially foreign component of global Jihadist terrorism in Spain, no less than half come from the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima region (Figure 4). In smaller proportions (always according to the total number of cases that it has so far been possible to tabulate), they were also born in the Eastern region and in the Rabat-Sale-Kenitra area. The remainder (up to one fifth of the sub-group) were born in seven other Moroccan regions (but with only very minor percentages in all these cases). In general, those born in Morocco come from the regions from which the largest part of the Moroccan migration to Spain has occurred over the last decades.18

Figure 4. Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 who were born in Morocco, by region of birth (%)
Moroccan region of birth

Moroccan-born Jihadists

Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima 53.1
Rabat-Sale-Kenitra 15.6
Oriental 10.9
Casablanca-Settat 4.7
Fez-Meknes 4.7
Marrakech-Safi 4.7
Others 6.3
Total (64)
Missing data: 60  
Source: EDBJS.

The areas from which majority of the Moroccan-born Jihadists included in our study come from are provinces and prefectures located, for the most part, along the Rif, a vast mountainous range in northern Morocco adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea and extending from the cities of Tangier and Tetouan to the Moulouya river valley near the border with Algeria. Although a distinctive geographical and historical region, the area does not correspond to any single administrative entity within Morocco. However, the Rif overlaps broad portions of the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima, Fez-Meknes and Oriental regions. This allows us to estimate that at least six of every 10 Moroccan-born Jihadists in Spain come from places located in the Rif, mainly, although not exclusively, from areas within the province of Tetouan, the prefecture of Tangier-Assilah and the province of Nador.

Among the peoples of the Rif –mainly Arab and Berber populations who use vernacular languages to different degrees, depending on the area– there is a widespread contemporary tradition of rebellion. First, against the Spanish colonial presence and, later, even against the Alaouite monarchy.19 Peoples of the Rif also have in common that they inhabit rugged spaces which are among the most underprivileged in Morocco. Generalised poverty and a lack of state-provided public goods have stimulated illicit trafficking networks and allowed Islamist (and in particular Salafist) movements to take root.20 This cultural and political background, associated with a tradition of violent insurgency and its particular socioeconomic circumstances, has meant that among the immigrants in Western Europe from the Rif region –and even more so among their descendants, or second generations– a higher incidence of violent radicalisation and terrorist involvement has been seen since the birth of global Jihadism, than among those from other regions of Morocco.21

With respect to the individuals making up the autochthonous component of global Jihadism in Spain, i.e., Jihadists born in the country, nearly three-quarters come from the Spanish enclaves (or Autonomous Cities) of Ceuta and Melilla, both located precisely in the same Rif environment in relation to the foreign, essentially Moroccan component (Figure 5). A considerably higher percentage of the Spain-born Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 came from Ceuta (44.4%) rather than from Melilla (28.6%).22 Catalonia is the birthplace of 14.3% of this same component of Jihadists born on Spanish territory. None of the other seven Spanish Autonomous Communities (regions) where some of the Jihadists were born show significant percentages. Aside from Ceuta and Melilla, only the provinces of Barcelona and Gerona register statistically significant figures.[23]

Figure 5. Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 who were born in Spain, by Autonomous Community, Autonomous City or province of birth (%)
Autonomous Community, Autonomous City or Province of birth Spanish-born Jihadists in Spain
Total by Autonomous Communities or Cities Total by Provinces or Autonomous Cities
Ceuta 44.4 44.4
Melilla 28.6 28.6
Catalonia 14.3  
       Barcelona   7.9
       Gerona   4.8
       Tarragona   1.6
Andalusia 3.2  
      Cadiz   1.6
      Huelva   1.6
Madrid 3.2 3.2
Castilla La Mancha 1.6  
      Ciudad Real   1.6
Galicia 1.6  
      La Coruña   1.6
Murcia 1.6 1.6
Basque Country    
      Guipúzcoa 1.6 1.6
Total (63) (63)
Missing data: 6


Source: EDBJS.

In both Ceuta and Melilla there are neighbourhoods –especially Príncipe Alfonso in the former and Cañada de Hidum in the latter– where particular conditions of spatial segregation and social marginalisation have fostered the penetration over the last two or three decades of Islamic fundamentalist currents (including Salafism in general and Salafist Jihadism in particular) among the population of nearly exclusively Moroccan origin living there.24 The lack of urban infrastructures, the sub-standard housing (chabolismo), unemployment, illiteracy and delinquency are all symptoms of the effective absence of state authority. This is further made evident by the incapacity of Spain’s security forces to fulfil their duties due to the hostility and even aggressiveness with which they are received by the inhabitants who tend to perceive the situation in which they live as discriminatory.

On the other hand, it is known that, at the end of 2013, nearly 40% of the (then) more than 800 Moroccan Jihadists who had travelled to Syria as foreign terrorist fighters came from places located in the Moroccan regions surrounding Ceuta and Melilla.25 Four of the six trans-border Jihadist networks that were the targets of eight of the 11 anti-terrorist operations jointly undertaken by the Spanish police agencies and their Moroccan counterparts, operated in these cities. Three of the networks operated from Melilla and two from Ceuta, but another of the networks was present in both Autonomous Cities simultaneously.26

Catalonia has been an area of developing Jihadist activity. There has been Jihadist activity there since the mid-1990s with an active presence in the region –well before the beginning of the current wave of global Jihadism– of individuals and cells linked to organisations like al-Qaeda, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) from Algeria, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) and even Therik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).27 Following the 11-M and 3/11 attacks in Madrid, the centre-stage of global Jihadism in Spain shifted from Madrid and its metropolitan area to Catalonia, especially to the province of Barcelona. Between 2004 and 2012, 40% of the Jihadists who were arrested or died in Spain resided in Catalonia, as did 36.4% of those who were detained or died in Spain between 2013 and 15 April 2018.28

Four of every 10 Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 to 2017 lived in Catalonia. This is an overrepresentation compared with the no more than 27% of Muslims (or individuals originally from majority-Muslim countries) in Spain who live in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia.29 Such an overrepresentation of individuals residing in Catalonia among Jihadists in Spain correlates with the much higher Salafist presence in Catalonia compared with the rest of Spain. In 2016 one third of the 256 Islamic centres and places of worship in Catalonia were controlled by Salafists, more than twice as many as in 2006.30 A corollary of all this are the several attacks intended for the city of Barcelona which were foiled by the National Police, the Civil Guard or the regional police (Mossos) in their preparatory or planning stages, along with those successfully perpetrated in that city and in Cambrils, in the province of Tarragona, in August 2017, by members of a Jihadist cell formed in the locality of Ripoll in the province of Gerona, and aligned with IS.31

Immigrants and the second generation

There is no linear correspondence between the nationality or country of birth of the individuals considered in our study and their migration background or lack thereof. Limiting data treatment of Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 to those who were resident in the country (all but 17)32 37.3% were first-generation immigrants while 56.8% belong to the so-called second generation (Figure 6)33 (Figura 6). With very few exceptions34 these second-generation individuals are descendants of immigrants who arrived from majority Muslim countries, mainly though not exclusively Morocco. It should be clarified that this second generation is made up of individuals born and raised –meaning the latter also include those educated up to the legally obligatory age– in the host country (in this case, Spain) to which their parents migrated.

Figure 6. Jihadists arrested or dead in Spain between 2013 and 2017, who were residents in Spain, by migration background (%)
Migration background

Resident in Spain

Second generation 56.8
First-generation immigrants 37.3
No immigrant ancestors 5.9
Total (185)
Missing data: 39  
Not residents in Spain: 17  
Source: EDBJS.

Second-generation Jihadists are significantly overrepresented among the total number of individuals considered in our study, particularly if comparing their percentage share with the approximately 25.5% corresponding to the descendants of Muslim immigrants among the total population with Muslim cultural or family origins coming from majority Muslim countries and resident in Spanish territory.35 In Spain, the Muslim population still predominantly comprises first-generation immigrants.36The weight of the second-generation cohort among the total Jihadists in Spain (detained or died between 2013 and 2017) not only reveals that individuals belonging to this cohort are the majority but also that it is now well over more than twice as large as the weight that the social segment has within Spain’s Muslim population or population from majority Muslim countries established in Spain.

In Spain (as in other Western countries in general, and other Western European countries in particular) these second generation individuals belong to cohorts of the population which, with very diverse levels of education and occupational status, have been especially vulnerable to violent radicalisation and terrorist recruitment since the middle of the last decade and particularly in the context of the current global wave of Jihadist mobilisation.37 As such, the countries most affected by this current Jihadist mobilisation are those whose Muslim populations are comprised predominantly of second-generation immigrants, as shown by the number of foreign terrorist fighters who have deployed from Western Europe to the conflict zones of Syria and Iraq since 2012.38

Like so many other teenagers and young people of the second generation with Muslim backgrounds in Western European societies, those who live in Spain are often poised on a complicated and delicate balance between cultures that makes them vulnerable to identity tensions.39 Their affinities to the country where they were born or grew up are limited, but nor do they identify with the country of their parents. These adolescents and youths in a situation of diaspora –presented with a model of socialisation based on family and place of worship as the institutions of reference for Muslim communities in a Western Europe in crisis– are easily and frequently exposed to Jihadist propaganda on the Internet and social media, often through radicalisation and recruitment agents, who offer them a single solution to their identity conflicts –a solution which is not the only one available but rather the most extreme: to violently affirm their Muslim identity–.40

One case that illustrates this phenomenon well is that of a 24-year-old woman born in the city of Granollers, in the province of Barcelona. Her mother and father, both naturalised Spaniards, emigrated from Morocco and settled in Catalonia. The young woman was apprehended in November 2015 along with two Moroccan young men involved in the same Jihadist recruiting network, just as she was about to leave Spain to join the self-styled Islamic State (IS). A cousin of the arrested woman, also a second-generation Spaniard of Moroccan descent, later provided interesting information shedding light on what had occurred when she made the following reflection: ‘I consider my cousin to be a victim, perhaps because she did not yet have her own personality or perhaps because she suffered from a lack of identity that all of us have experienced and overcome’.41

Granollers is precisely one of the Catalan localities that –together with the city of Barcelona, and Ripoll, in the province of Gerona– must be considered (if to a lesser degree) along with Ceuta and Melilla as the cradle of at least half of the Jihadists included in our study who were residents in Spain and belong to the second generation born in Spanish territory (Figure 7). But four of every 10 of these individuals were born in Morocco. In contrast, a large majority of the Jihadists who are first-generation immigrants were born in Morocco, along with a small but significant number born in Tunisia. As might be expected, all the individuals without any immigration background were born inside Spain.

Figure 7. Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 who were residents in Spain, by county of birth and country of nationality, for migration background (%)
Country First generation immigrants Second generation Non-immigrant background Total
Birth Nationality Birth Nationality Birth Nationality Birth Nationality
Morocco 72.6 65.2 39.6 33.3 49.5 43.2
Spain 11.6 50.0 55.2 100.0 100.0 34.4 41.6
Tunisia 8.7 8.7 3.2 3.2
Pakistan 2.9 2.9 1.9 1.9 2.2 2.2
Algeria 1.4 1.4 1.9 1.9 1.6 1.6
France 1.4 0.5
Syria 2.9 1.4 0.9 1.6 0.5
Others 10.1 8.8 5.7 7.7 7.0 7.7
Total (69) (69) (106) (105) (11) (11) (186) (185)
Source: EDBJS.

Five of every 10 of the individuals included in our study and who belonged to the second generation were Spanish nationals, while three of 10 were Moroccan citizens. Moroccan nationals also constitute the large majority of first-generation immigrants among Jihadists in Spain, although one in 10 of them acquired Spanish nationality (and a similar proportion are Tunisian nationals). Among individuals arrested (or who died) in Spain as a result of their participation in Jihadist terrorist activities during the five years from 2013 to 2017, all of those without immigrant ancestors had Spanish citizenship.

Interestingly, adding the percentage of Jihadists belonging to the social segment of the second generation (the above-mentioned 56.8%) to that of the individuals with no immigration background (5.9%), it can be estimated that 62.7% of the Jihadists arrested or died in Spain from 2013 to 2017 were part of what is strictly speaking homegrown Jihadism. This clearly reveals the blooming of a homegrown Jihadism in Spain, which has occurred at the same time as the current global wave of Jihadist mobilisation has unfolded since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and that has echoed with particular intensity across the Muslim communities in Western European countries.42

Nevertheless, of the total Jihadists arrested (or died) in Spain between 2013 and 2017, 73.4% are of Moroccan origin. This figure includes the 46% of all Jihadists in the study that have Moroccan nationality, the 2.9% with Spanish nationality but who were born in Morocco (and then emigrated to Spain before becoming naturalised), as well as the 24.5% with Spanish nationality who are descendants of Moroccans.43 That percentage of jihadists having a Moroccan origin is consistent with the fact previously alluded to that nearly seven out of every 10 residents in Spain who are from countries with predominantly Muslim societies either have Moroccan nationality or were born in Morocco.

The frequent participation of individuals of Moroccan nationality or origin in terrorist acts perpetrated in different countries of Western Europe since 2014 –the year that IS proclaimed a caliphate (which three years later already lacked a significant territorial base)– has generated interpretations (in part already outlined in the first section of this analysis) that transcend mere demographics.44 But according to the data we have been able to gather, the likelihood for someone of Moroccan origin (either an immigrant or the descendant of one) to have been involved in jihadist terrorist activities appears to be considerably higher if residing in Spain than if living in Morocco (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Individuals arrested for Jihadist activities or for being foreign terrorist fighters, per 100,000 inhabitants in Morocco versus per 100,000 residents of Moroccan origin in Spain
  Per 100,000 inhabitants in Morocco Per 100,000 residents of Moroccan origin in Spain
Arrested for jihadist terrorist activities (2015-2017) 2.1 15.6
Jihadist foreign terrorist fighters (to October 2017) 4.8 17.7
Source: the authors based on data retrieved for both rates from the EDBJS; World Bank, World Bank Open Data. Morocco, last accessed 28/II/2018; Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE). Estadística del Padrón Continuo a 1 de enero de 2015; and Observatorio Andalusí (2016), Estudio demográfico de la población musulmana. Explotación estadística del censo de ciudadanos musulmanes en España referido a fecha 31/12/2015, Unión de Comunidades Islámicas de España, Madrid. For the rate of those arrested for Jihadist terrorism: EDBJS and the Central Bureau of Moroccan Judicial Investigations (BCIJ), via the Agence de Presse Africaine, 11/XII/2017. For the rate of foreign terrorist fighters: EDBJS and Richard Barrett (2017), Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees, The Soufan Group, New York.

From our calculations, based on data corresponding to the 2015-2017, it has been seven times more likely for an individual born in Morocco or of Moroccan descent to be arrested for activities related to Jihadist terrorism if living in Spain than if residing in Morocco. We can also estimate, now based on data from 2012-2017, that it has been four times more likely that an individual born in Morocco or of Moroccan descent to become a foreign terrorist fighter if residing in Spain than if living in Morocco. This indicator makes it clear that the Jihadist mobilisation of individuals of Moroccan origin but resident in Spain is fed not only by the influences favouring violent radicalisation and terrorist recruitment from Morocco, but also by, to an even larger extent, dynamics unfolding within Spain and, specifically, affecting the accommodation of second-generation individuals.


Global Jihadism in Spain is no longer a phenomenon essentially related with foreigners. The autochthonous component has become, since the unprecedented globalist Jihadist mobilisation that began in 2012, close in magnitude to the foreign one. The latter is essentially made up of individuals born in Morocco and particularly from the Rif region. For its part, the autochthonous component largely comprises individuals born in Spain’s North-African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, as well as, though to a lesser extent, in Catalonia. Nevertheless, to speak of Jihadists in Spain today is to speak of Moroccans and second-generation individuals, a third of which are Moroccan nationals. Seven of every 10 Jihadists arrested or died in Spain between 2013 and 2017 are, in short, of Moroccan origin.

This predominance of Moroccans (or their descendants) among Jihadists in Spain shows that, despite a blooming homegrown dimension of global Jihadism in the Spanish case, this phenomenon –inherent to which is a terrorist threat– to a good extent still projects itself onto Spain from its neighbouring Morocco. The Alaouite Kingdom is not the only focus of the Jihadist phenomenon that projects itself over Spain from Islamic countries, but it is the one from which derive a large majority of the Muslim population resident in Spanish territory, a population within which violent radicalisation and terrorist recruitment processes take place. These are radicalisation and recruitment processes such as those that led to the creation of the cell whose members carried out the August 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils and to the establishment of the network whose members perpetrated the Madrid train bombings more than a decade earlier in March 2004.

But comparing Spain with Morocco, it turns out that it is easier for someone with Moroccan origin to become involved in Jihadist terrorist activities if residing in Spain than if living in Morocco, suggesting that the common problem between the two countries has an endogenous character for the latter. The fact that, among the Jihadists in our study, the majority are individuals who, irrespective of their Spanish or Moroccan nationality, were born or raised in Spain, suggests that there are problems with the accommodation of these second-generation individuals in Spain’s society –difficulties that are frequently associated to identity conflicts that create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by Jihadist organisations–. Both the extraordinary overrepresentation of individuals belonging to the second generation and the recent blooming of homegrown Jihadism in Spain point to a growing trend.

Morocco and Spain share a problem that requires the maintenance of close antiterrorist cooperation in intelligence, police and judicial terms. But this should also complement the effective implementation in Spain by the relevant authorities, but in cooperation with civil society entities (such as Muslim communities of Moroccan origin settled in Spain), of measures to prevent violent radicalisation. Measures should be adopted in areas ranging from social assistance to education and labour insertion, especially through local action that takes into account the specificities of different contexts. And, seeking the public interest, they must be coordinated at different levels of government in a highly decentralised state such as Spain within the framework of the existing National Strategic Plan for the Fight against Violent Radicalisation (PEN-LCRV), established in 2015.

Fernando Reinares
Director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Programme on Global Terrorism
| @f_reinares

Carola García-Calvo
Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute’s Programme on Global Terrorism
| @carolagc13

1 The authors would like to express their gratitude to Álvaro Vicente, Research Assistant at the Elcano Royal Institute’s Global Terrorism Programme, for his outstanding work maintaining the EDBJS and for his help with the statistical treatment of the data upon which this analysis is based.

2 These other nationalities, distinct from Moroccan and Spanish, include French, Danish, Dutch, Belgian, Bulgarian, Italian, Portuguese, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Mexican, Argentine, Brazilian, Chilean and Paraguayan. One of the individuals had two nationalities –Irish and Algerian– and another had both Algerian and French.

3 To the countries mentioned in the previous footnote must be added Jordan and Palestine.

4 For the purposes of this analysis, to avoid confusion, those individuals who have acquired Spanish nationality are accounted for as only Spanish unless they have a second nationality which is mutually recognised by both of the countries concerned.

5 Nevertheless, according to official figures from the Estadística del Padrón Continuo a 1 de enero de 2015, prepared by Spain’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 22% of the residents in Spain who were born in Morocco held Spanish nationality.

6 Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 3/2017’.

7 This hostility stemmed at least in part from the police actions taken against him for his activities as a common delinquent, according to the information obtained during the hearings of Sumario 5/2016, held in the ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Cuarta, Sala de Vistas 4, calle Génova, Madrid, 7/II/2017’.

8 To the detriment of the percentage share of Jihadists convicted or died in Spain from 1996 to 2003 who were either nationals of, or born in, Algeria, Syria and Pakistan. It should also be noted that the considerable percentage of individuals with Spanish nationality during this same period correspond to naturalised Spanish citizens of Syrian and, to a lesser degree, Moroccan origin. See Fernando Reinares & Carola García-Calvo (2013), ‘Los yihadistas en España: perfil sociodemográfico de condenados por actividades terroristas o muertos en acto de terrorismo suicida entre 1996 y 2012’, DT, nr 11/2013, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid, p. 8-10.

9 Fernando Reinares (2014), ¡Matadlos! Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España, Galaxia Gutenberg, Barcelona, p. 119-123 and 129-138.

10 Reinares & García-Calvo (2013), op. cit., p. 8-10.

11 The calculations are based on the population that has as its country of either birth or nationality one of the 51 countries in which, according the The World Factbook, Islam is the majority religion. According to the Estadística del Padrón Continuo a 1 de enero de 2015 of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE), 1,106,348 individuals reside in Spain who were either born in, or are nationals of, 28 of these 51 countries.

12 Mohammed Maarouf (2013), “Suicide bombing: the cultural foundations of Morocco’s new version of martyrdom”, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 25, nº 1, pp. 1-33.

13 In March 2004 a Pew Global Attitudes Survey revealed that 40% of adult Moroccans (making up a representative sample of the Moroccan population, if still disproportionately urban) expressed their support for suicide attacks in defence of Islam, even if perpetrated in their own country. The figure fell to 13% in a further survey conducted in June 2005, although with the Iraq war underway, 56% still saw such terrorist actions against Westerners in Iraq as justified (while the previous years it had been 66%). In May 2003 49% of Moroccans aged 18 or older expressed either very much or at least a fair amount of confidence in Osama bin Laden, although the level of positive attitudes towards al-Qaeda’s leader fell to 26% in 2005. Pew Research Center (2005), Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics, Pew Research Center, Washington, p. 2, 6, 27, 28, 29, 37 and 38.


15 Jack Kalpakian (2014), ‘Comparing the 2003 and 2007 incidents in Casablanca’, p. 498-518 in Bruce Hoffman & Fernando Reinares (Eds.), The Evolution of the Global Terrorism Threat. From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death, Columbia University Press, New York; and Scott Stewart (2011), ‘Dispatch: terrorist attack in Morocco’, Stratfor Worldview, 28/IV/2011.

16 Information provided by the Bureau central d’investigation judiciaire (BCIJ), the Moroccan counter-terrorism agency, and gathered by Moroccan World News on 21/X/2017.

17 Ibid.; see also Richard Barret (2017), Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees, Soufan Group, New York, p. 13 y 25; and also the data provided by the Jihadist Foreign Fighters Monitor of The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. According to a public opinion poll undertaken in 2015 in Morocco, only 8% of those surveyed (Moroccan adults) had a positive opinion about the Islamic State. See The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (2015), Arab Opinion Index 2015, The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, p. 36.

18 Bernabé López García & Mohamed Berriane (Dirs.) (2004), Atlas de la inmigración marroquí en España 2004, Observatorio Permanente de la Inmigración, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, p. 128-130, 143-146, 154-158 and 174-176.

19 David S. Wooldman (1968), Rebels in the Rif: Abd El Krim and the Rif Rebellion, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California; María Rosa de Madariaga (2005), El barranco del lobo. Las guerras de Marruecos, Alianza, Madrid; also by the same autor (2009), Abd-el-Krim El Jatabi: la lucha por la independencia, Alianza, Madrid; and David Alvarado (2007), Rif: de Abdelkrim a los indignados de Alhucemas, Catarata, Madrid.

20 Leela Jacinto (2016), ‘Morocco’s outlaw country is the heartland of global terrorism’, Foreign Policy, 7/IV/2016.

21 Ibid.


23 In the case of the province of Barcelona, these individuals were born in the city of Barcelona, in Granollers and in Sant Boi de Llobregrat. In the case of the province of Gerona, they were born in the municipality of Ripoll.

24 Javier Jordán & Humberto Trujillo (2016), ‘Entornos favorables al reclutamiento yihadista. El barrio Príncipe Alfonso (Ceuta)’, Athena Intelligence Journal, vol. 1, nr 1, p. 22-24; Luis de la Corte (2015), ‘¿Enclaves yihadistas? Un estudio sobre la presencia y el riesgo extremistas en Ceuta y Melilla’, Revista de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional, vol. 1, nr 2, p. 1-34.

25 That is, Tangier-Tetouan–Al Hoceima, and the Eastern region. Based on information provided to one of the authors by senior officials from Morocco’s Direction générale de la sûreté nationale (DGSN) during a Spain-Morocco police seminar on the common challenge of terrorism, held in Cordoba on 27/XI/2013.

26In June 2013, during one of the joint counter-terrorism operations, namely Operation Cesto, eight Spaniards were arrested in Ceuta for belonging to a Jihadist network whose Moroccan members were located in nearby Fnideq (also known in Spanish as Castillejos). They were radicalising and recruiting young people to fight in Syria as foreign terrorist fighters; see ‘Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Instrucción N.º 2, Sumario 1/2014’; ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 23/2015’; and ‘Tribunal Supremo, Sala de lo Penal, Sentencia 693/2016 de 27/VII/2016’. Another network, also devoted to the radicalisation and recruitment of Jihadists of Maghrebi origin (resident mainly in Morocco but also in other European countries) as foreign terrorist fighters (first to fight in Mali and then in Syria), was also the target of a joint counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Operation Azteca, in March 2014. The members of the network operated from Melilla and the locality of Al-Arouit, near Nador; see ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Juzgado Central de Instrucción núm. 3, Sumario 7/2014’; ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Tercera, Sentencia 3/2018’. During Operation Jáver in May 2014, six members of a network mainly devoted to the recruitment and sending of foreign terrorist fighters to the north of Mali were arrested in Melilla. Members of the cell also organised indoctrination and training seminars in the nearby Moroccan localities of Farhana and Nador. See ‘Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Instrucción núm. 4, Sumario 4/2015’; and ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Tercera, Sentencia 17/2017’. Finally, as a result of Operation Kibera in the summer of 2015, two young Spanish women were arrested in Melilla when, in route to Syria and Iraq, they tried to cross the border into Morocco. The leaders of the Jihadist network that had recruited them were located in Morocco, from where they engaged in recruiting adolescents and women like them in the cities of Melilla and Ceuta; see ‘Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Menores, Sentencia 1/2015’; ‘Audiencia Nacional, Juzgado Central de Menores, Sentencia 12/2015’; and ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 3/2015’.

27 Fernando Reinares & Carola García-Calvo (2015), ‘Cataluña y la evolución del terrorismo yihadista en España’, Comentario Elcano, nr 28/2015, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid. Among the other documents and publications on this issue, see also ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, Sentencia 7/1996’; ‘Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección primera, Sentencia 6/2007’; and Reinares (2014), op. cit., p. 30-32 y 215-225.

28 Reinares & García-Calvo (2013), op. cit., p. 16; and EDBJS, from a total of 99 Jihadists convicted or died in Spain between 1/I/2013 and 15/IV/2017.

29 EDBJS; and Observatorio Andalusí (2016), Estudio demográfico de la población musulmana. Explotación estadística del censo de ciudadanos musulmanes en España referido a fecha 31/12/2015, Unión de Comunidades Islámicas de España, Madrid.

30 Rebeca Carranco (2016), ‘Los salafistas controlan una de cada tres mezquitas en Cataluña, El País, 18/VI/2016.

31 Fernando Reinares y Carola García-Calvo (2018), ‘Un análisis de los atentados terroristas en Barcelona y Cambrils, ARI, nº 12/2018, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid.

32 Precisely, as many as a 92.9%. The rest were residents of Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg.

33 Two individuals belong to the third generation. They are both minors, one from Ceuta and the other from Melilla, who were arrested in August and December 2014, respectively, during the first two phases of Operation Kibera.

34 There are only four exceptions, corresponding to individuals whose parents came to Spain from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.

35 To estimate the weight of this percentage of descendants we have used data from the Observatorio Andalusí, Estudio demográfico de la población musulmana. Explotación estadística del censo de ciudadanos musulmanes en España referido a fecha 31/12/2015, op. cit.

36 Observatorio Andalusí, Estudio demográfico de la población musulmana. Explotación estadística del censo de ciudadanos musulmanes en España referido a fecha 31/12/2015, op. cit.; and Jordi Moreras (2018), ‘Spain’, p. 628-644 in Oliver Scharbroot (Ed.), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, Brill, Boston. Moroccan immigration in Spain is one of the oldest and largest; however, the most significant flows of Moroccan emigrants to Spain took place beginning in 2000. The number of Moroccans registered as residents grew from 173,000 in January 2000 to 746,000 in January 2010. From 2009, due to the economic crisis, another change has been observed in the migration cycle between Morocco and Spain: the decline in immigration from Morocco eventually made the net flow negative in 2011. See Colectivo IOÉ (2012), ‘Crisis e inmigración marroquí en España, 2007-2011’, Madrid.

37 Angel Rabasa & Cheryl Benard (2015), Eurojihad. Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe, Cambridge University Press, New York, ch. 5; and Peter R. Neumann (2016), Radicalized. New Jihadists and the Threat to the West, I.B. Tauris, London, ch. 4 and 5.

38 Fernando Reinares (2017), ‘Jihadist mobilization, undemocratic Salafism, and terrorist threat in the European Union’, Georgetown Security Studies Review, Special Issue, p. 70-76.

39 Illustrations of this can be found in Chapter III of the study by Mónica Díaz López and Elisa Lillo on one Madrid neighbourhood, titled Los hijos de la inmigración magrebí en San Cristóbal de los Ángeles (Ayuntamiento de Madrid, Madrid, 2014). See also Jordi Moreras (2015), ‘¿Por qué unos jóvenes se radicalizan y otros no?’, Notes Internacionals, nr 123, CIDOB, Barcelona.

40 Peter K. Waldmann (2010), ‘Radicalisation in the diaspora: why Muslims in the West attack their host countries’, WP, nº 9/2010, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid; and Jordi Moreras (2015), op. cit.

41 ‘Detenen tres presumptes jihadistes a Barcelona i Granollers’, TV3, 28/XI/2015.

42 Petter Nesser (2015), Islamist Terrorism in Europe, Hurst and Company, London, ch. 9; and Reinares (2017), op. cit.

43 Nine out of every 10 of the Jihadists born in Spain came from Ceuta and Melilla, which because of their geographic proximity to Morocco have Spanish-Muslim populations with originating in Morocco. One of every 10 was born in Barcelona, Gerona and Ciudad Real to Moroccan parents.

44 Leela Jacinto (2016), op. cit.; Ellen Chapin (2017), Beyond the Caliphate. Islamic State Activity Outside the Group’s Defined Wilayat. Morocco, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point; and Sarah Feuer & David Pollock (2018), ‘Terrorism in Europe: the Moroccan connection’, Policy Watch, nr 2852, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

<![CDATA[ Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn: a propaganda analysis of al-Qaeda’s project for the Sahel ]]> 2018-06-01T11:27:59Z

The lessons that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has learnt after years of activity in the Sahel have crystallised in the creation of JNIM. This paper analyses its propaganda to shed light on this new alliance and its relationship with the regional organisational structure.

Original version in Spanish: Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn: análisis del proyecto de al-Qaeda para el Sahel a través de su propaganda


The lessons that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has learnt after years of activity in the Sahel have crystallised in the creation of Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn, or JNIM. This paper analyses JNIM propaganda to shed light on this new alliance and its relationship with the regional organisational structure of AQIM.


Through an analysis of its official propaganda, this paper undertakes an analysis of Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn (JNIM), a new alliance made up of groups loyal to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel region. With this movement, AQIM not only seeks to extend the reach of its influence in the Sahel and West Africa, but also to establish a secure refuge far from Algeria. Among the four thematic categories into which, for the moment, the audiovisual production of this group can be divided, the battle theme is dominant, leaving the ideological terrain to AQIM. Furthermore, the creation of JNIM allows the regional structure of AQIM to project –propagandistically– levels of violence that would otherwise be impossible currently. The presence of foreign actors in the region, including Spain, has increased significantly in recent years and both the rhetoric used by the organisation in its communiques and the terrorist actions carried out during its first year of existence make clear that this contingent of foreigners is a priority objective.


On 2 March 2017 a number of publications were posted on the messaging application Telegram on accounts linked to al-Qaeda, informing of an important imminent announcement. ‘One banner, one group, one Emir’,1 an enormously attractive slogan, preceded an image no less impactful: five of the most wanted terrorist leaders in the entire Sahara-Sahelian region were meeting in the same room to announce the creation of a new jihadist coalition loyal to al-Qaeda, Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn, (Support Group for Islam and for Muslims, JNIM in its Arabic initials). Identically dressed, in a scene stripped of nearly all objects that might distract attention –save for a computer and a flag (a variant of rāyatu at-tawḥīd, often erroneously called the flag of the Islamic State)– their image and their message clearly projected a central overriding idea of unity, a message which permeates the group’s media production at all its levels. Considering the sociodemographic characteristics of the region, the composition of this top leadership is significant in that it attempts to transmit a message of integration, plurality and equality within the community of the faithful, and it makes clear the importance of ethnic diversity among the group’s executive leadership.

From left to right in the original video can be seen:

  • Amadou Diallo (alias Amadou Koufa), a Fulani originally from Mopti, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, a majority-Fulani group made up mainly of former MUYAO militants and affiliated to Anṣār ad-Dīn.
  • Djamel Okacha (alias Yahya Abu al-Hummam), an Algerian Arab with nearly 20 years of jihad experience, mostly in Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, and appointed Emir of the Saharan Region of AQIM in 2012, after serving as commander of Katībatu-l-Furqān.
  • Iyadh Ag Ghali (alias Abu-l-Fadhel), a Tuareg of the Ifoghas tribe, leader of Anṣār ad-Dīn and Emir of JNIM since its creation.
  • Muhammad Ould Nouini (alias Hassan al-Ansari), an Arab from Tilemsi in Mali, co-founder of al-Murābiṭūn with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and right-hand man of the latter until his death on 14 February 2018.2
  • Abderrahman al-Sanhaji (alias Abderrahman al-Maghrebi), a Moroccan of Berber origin and cadi of the Sahara Region of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In contrast with AQIM –which to this day is a group comprising mainly North Africans, with Algerians occupying the most important posts–, JNIM tries to distance itself from the existing tribal contexts in the geographical areas in which it operates. Nevertheless, the new alliance not only encourages the presence of Fulanis, Tuaregs, Bambaras, Sahelian and North African Arabs, muhājirūn,3 etc, but it also points to the equal and homogenous nature of its enemies (the Malian armed forces, the Mauritanian government, France and its neocolonialist policies…), establishing in this way a narrative thread by way of constant ‘us versus them’ comparisons, treating these enemies all as racists, usurpers, enemies of Muslims and, ultimately, dehumanising them, as is typical of jihadist propaganda.

The foundation of JNIM, unity for the sake of a lasting project for the Sahel

AQIM has long had ambitions for a project in the Sahel. Conscious of the limitations posed by the North Africa scenario (at least until the beginning of the revolutions linked to what in the West is known as the Arab Spring), the large surface areas, the porous borders and the weaknesses of states in the Saharo-Sahelian belt all made this arc of instability an area of great attraction for the development of AQIM activities. As a result, the organisation has always been highly interested in the region. Fully aware of the difficulties facing its activities on the Algerian front and emphasising the capacity to adapt, which the global jihadist movement has historically proved to have, in 2008, not long after swearing loyalty to al-Qaeda, AQIM established one of its most important brigades in the Sahel region, the Katība Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād.

A reading of the ‘Timbuktu letters’ gives an idea of the discrepancies already then existing at the heart of the organisation on how to manage the Sahelian project. The letters are the original correspondence between the shūrā (the consultative council) of AQIM and its affiliates in Mali, discovered by Associated Press in Timbuktu once French intervention put an end to the project of building a form of Islamic state in the north of the country between 2012 and 2013.4,5 In a letter addressed to Belmokhtar, reprimanding him for his indiscipline, the top AQIM leadership argued that ‘the large number of (jihadist) organisations is the healthy result of a correct decision that will continue to bear fruit; do not think that a region as large as France and Belgium combined is too small for four or five jihadist organisations: there is room for these and more’.

From the same documents it can be surmised that Belmokhtar, nevertheless, preferred a more autonomous and decentralised structure that cut through the intermediate links in the line of communication with the organisation leadership, without having to pass through the regional branch of al-Qaeda in the Sahel. As it was, on a number of occasions he side-stepped the shūrā of AQIM to communicate directly with al-Qaeda Central to explain that, in his opinion, ‘they are giving orders (on how to act in) a region where none of them have lived and that none of them know’. Iyadh Ag Ghali, in a more recent interview published in the magazine al-Masrā,6 confirmed that the new alliance put an end to a long period of setbacks among a good part of the jihadist militants in the region when he claimed that ‘the union (of these groups) did not occur earlier due to particular problems and other circumstances’, stressing that, knowing the difficulties in the particular case of al-Murābiṭūn and his return to the al-Qaeda network, with ‘tolerance in the face of difference and with an exchange of points of view, everything is possible’.7

With extensive knowledge of the terrain and with years of activity in the region already behind him, in 2012 Belmokhtar was defending the idea of establishing a new branch of al-Qaeda in the Sahel following the model of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which itself ended up forming an autonomous branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2009 after abandoning its severely weakened project for Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Abdelmalek Drukdel, the Emir of AQIM, after having undergone the experience of controlling territory in the north of Mali, appeared to have modified his earlier ideas and was now more inclined to build a project based on the model of al-Qaeda of the Land of Two Rivers (the Islamic State of Iraq, as of mid-2006) and by fusing the different groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda in the region.8 Now, analysing the events with a certain sense of perspective, it seems that the strategy that finally won was a combination of both.

Although JNIM swore loyalty to the AQIM Emir, and then, following the logic of the organisation, reconfirmed the oath to Ayman al-Zawahiri and to the mullah Haibatullah, the current leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and second in line of succession (after Akthar Mansur) to the Mullah Omar (to whom Bin Laden himself swore an oath of allegiance earlier on), the JNIM project began as a single organisation dependent on AQIM but with sufficient independence to self-manage on a day-to-day basis. JNIM has a local leader, but many of its top members are close to the regional leadership and enjoy the confidence of its Emir. Most JNIM militants are from the region where they operate –principally Mali– but intermediate ranks and emerging figures from the Maghreb are still preponderant. All of this, no doubt, has a dual intention for the future: on the one hand, to keep the new organisation on track and to avoid repeating the defeats of the Islamic State; and, on the other hand, to secure a possible haven in case the AQIM leadership, pursued in Algeria, is forced to move its base of operations. The Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda has languished for some time without undertaking any successful, large-scale attack in Algeria, and the Algerian armed forces and security services have reduced their capacities to a historical minimum.9

In any event, disagreements over the project have not completely disappeared. In an interview with the magazine Inspire in August 2017, Drukdel claimed that ‘the Algerian front (the historical headquarters of the AQIM leadership) has been bogged down for some time in a long war and suffers from the nearly complete absence of individuals willing to support the cause, either domestically or internationally. Meanwhile other fronts in Tunisia, Libya, the Sahel and the Sahara are experiencing a jihadist awakening without precedents’.10 Nevertheless, although the new organisation renewed its oath of direct allegiance to Drukdel in its foundational communique, the Emir of AQIM seems to have wanted to avoid any mention of the new coalition during this long, 17-page interview… What is more, noticeable inconsistencies are evident in the various congratulatory messages sent after the creation of the new entity. JNIM introduces itself as ‘the union of three jihadist groups in Mali: Anṣār ad-Dīnal-Murābiṭūn and the Sahara branch of AQIM’,11 while Drukdel, in a self-congratulatory AQIM video sent after the creation of JNIM, mentions ‘the union of four jihadist factions in the Sahel and Sahara’.12 Al Qaeda Central, for its part, directly congratulated Abdelmalek Drukdel for the union of ‘our brothers from the different jihadist groups in Mali’,13 and in this way acknowledged for him a fundamental role in the fusion of the different groups.

One significant fact is that other than the congratulatory video mentioned above, AQIM has made no mention since its inception of any of its activities in the Sahel via JNIM. On the other hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned several times the Sahel in his speeches; he even devoted a video almost exclusively to the return of France to the region, encouraging the peoples of the Maghreb and the Sahel to rise up against the invader.14 Furthermore, in the more than 10 official videos released during its first year of existence, JNIM barely makes reference to the main AQIM leaders, with the exception of Abu-l-Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi and Abdelhamid Abu Zayd; and while other figures linked to the global jihad do appear, they are leaders with no direct connection to the Sahelian cause, like Uthman Dukov, Abu Basir al-Wuhayshi, Abu-l-Bara’a al-Samrawi and Omar Ould Hamaha, among others.

As if this were not enough, the role of Belmokhtar within the organisation is also unknown. He was present, through his right-hand man, in the foundational communique and he is a key figure for understanding how Jihadist Salafism has laid down roots in the southern Sahara and northern Sahel. Yet nearly nothing is known of him, including what his current functions are in the new alliance. On the other hand, he does not appear to like the organisation’s hierarchical restrictions, and his historical disagreements with the top AQIM leadership since the creation of Katība Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād are well-known –the break with AQIM and the creation of al-Mulathamūn, the subsequent fusion with MUYAO to create al-Murābiṭūn, the return to the AQIM network, the carrying-out of operations without the consent of the AQIM leadership, and others– but his current location and role in JNIM (if he has any) are unknown.

JNIM propaganda

Just as AQIM employs al-Andalus Media as its principal organ for broadcasting propaganda, the organisation has also provided JNIM with its own media brand, az-Zallāqa. The latter’s meaning also has a link to Spain: the term refers to how slippery the ground was with the blood shed when the Almoravid troops of Ibn Tashufin defeated the Christian army of Alfonso VI at the Battle of Sagrajas (in Badajoz province, Spain) in 1086.15 Similarly to how AQIM named its media wing al-Andalus Media ‘to remind Muslims in general and the inhabitants of the Islamic Maghreb in particular that their history is closely linked to that of al Andalus, and that their duty is to wage jihad in the name of Allah until the last strip of illegitimately usurped Islamic land is recovered’,16 JNIM is also deeply wrapped up in the idea of reconquering the Iberian peninsula. Therefore, a study of the audiovisual productions of both groups shows how direct the transfer of technical knowledge between AQIM and its new Sahelian faction is. This has been evident since the first videos released by az-Zallāqa: the headers and bumpers that open and close the productions and the typefaces used by both groups are very similar.

In fact, limiting the analysis to only the AQIM videos devoted to the Sahara, the similarities are such that it can be concluded that the same team is producing both sets of videos. Comparing the most recent JNIM productions, such as ‘ردع الطغاة 1 و2,’17 with the latest videos produced by the Saharan Region of AQIM, such as ‘من عمق الصحراء 1 و2,’18 it is immediately clear that there is a nearly perfect overlap between them, in both the arguments presented and the sequence of the narrative. They both include images of training camps and drilling, displays of military muscle, exhortations and the planning of terrorist operations, both wide-angle and close-up views of terrorist attacka and elegies to martyrs fallen in battle. The type and manner of shots taken, and the technical elements employed (the use of drones, body-cameras and landscapes), are also nearly identical between the two groups of productions.

An analysis of the official audiovisual productions of JNIM between 2 January 2017 and 31 March 201819 reveals that four main narratives or thematic areas are portrayed: war/jihad, victimisation and dehumanising the enemy, ʿaqīda and minhaj, and the handling of hostages. Of the 13 documents analysed, seven were devoted to warlike topics and the thread of their narratives focused on successful terrorist operations, calls to armed uprising against the crusading French invader or against apostate governments, the glorification of martyrdom, etc. They were based on the same frameworks and perspectives that have previously been used by al-Qaeda and its satellite organisations. An important point on the belligerent narrative is that, despite the inclusion in the documents analysed of explicit violence, they attempt to differentiate themselves from other jihadist groups in the region by not including scenes of brutality, sadism, torture, decapitations and other aberrations often present in the communications of groups within the orbit of the Islamist State. In the interview mentioned above of Iyadh Ag Ghali by al-Masrā, the Emir of JNIM made clear the organisation’s military policy: ‘expanding geographically as much as possible, undermining our enemy by attacking him wherever he may be, inciting the people to do the same and protecting them, and securing popular support’.

Given the new group’s well-known promoters, it does not appear to feel the need to stray too much into the strictly ideological; during its first year of existence, JNIM only devoted two videos to ideological issues. Still, the group’s first audiovisual production clearly establishes that its priorities are to pursue ‘jihad in the name of Allah, beginning with the commitment of the faithful to the principles of ahl as-sunna wa-l-jamā’a, especially with regard to the application of takfīr, and abandoning the path of innovation (الإرجاء) and extremism (الغلو)’.20 Furthermore, in a document entirely devoted to the elections in Mali, Abderrahman al-Sanhaji elaborated on the concept of monotheism (tawḥīd al-ūlūhiya), condemning the elections in the following terms: ‘Democracy is in itself a religion, a religion contrary to Islam, and the parliament is a polytheistic shura’.21

On the other hand, as described at the beginning of this paper (although not as its core narrative), the concept of unity is an idea that permeates all of JNIM’s audiovisual production; the well-known aḥādīth –‘There is mercy in unity and punishment in division’22 and ‘Allah’s Hand is over the jamā’a’23 are repeated in many documents, not only to stress the importance of the progress made but also to leave the door open to other factions –for instance, the group of Abu Walid As-Sahrawi, which broke away from al-Murābiṭūn in 2015 and is now loyal to the Islamic State– to unite with the project in the future. In the same way, although only one of the videos is primarily devoted to this topic, the dehumanisation and demonisation of the enemy is a recurrent sub-theme. The West in general and France in particular –presented as an ‘occupying force corrupting our religion, and its collaborators and agents, pillagers of our wealth and our goods’–24 is the target of most of the threats, followed by the governments in the region –especially Mali’s– and the FCG5S,25 in that order, as the most quoted targets in the group’s audiovisual productions.

As regards the G5-Sahel and its Joint Force, its presence in JNIM’s discourse has been growing although surprisingly the force did not begin to attract the group’s attention until the end of 2017. Mentions of the G5-Sahel, ‘a still-born project for which France has had to beg from the UN, the US and the Gulf states to cover, without success, the €450 million of its budget’,26 have been growing both in frequency and in significance while JNIM’s references to MINUSMA,27 one of the group’s main targets of attack, have declined slightly. In any case, Drukdel makes it clear that his policy of attacking the enemy further afield has not changed much, although some nuance has been added over time: ‘the line separating the near and the far enemy is no longer clear; in some Arab countries (sic) the near enemy is America due to its notable presence. Ayman al-Zawahiri (sic) has already clarified that to fight the distant enemy, and not the proximate one (sic) is to ignore twice the reality that the far enemy only acts through the near enemy’, and he also defends the results achieved by al-Qaeda during the past year, reminding his colleagues that to ‘keep working and exercising pressure on the (far) enemy could undermine the enemy’s alliances, as when Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq once its capital had been attacked’.28

Dealing with hostages is also a recurring theme in JNIM’s audiovisual productions: three entire videos treat the issue. Nevertheless, the kidnapping industry is characteristic of AQIM and one of the pillars that turned it into the economically most prosperous branch of al-Qaeda in 2012.29 Between 2003 and 2011 AQIM (known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat until 2006) kidnapped a total of 57 people (54 of them from the West). The group currently has five hostages of different nationalities (Romanian, Colombian, French, Australian and Swiss) and, in addition to demanding ransom, it uses this type of production to intimidate the West in an attempt to dissuade any private investment or cooperation project in the region. In the words of one of the video’s narrators, ‘many do not understand why the mujahidin take civilians hostage; we as Muslims should guide ourselves by the sharia and not by the international laws created by apostates’,30 supporting his actions with the following quote from the Quran: ‘So when you meet those who disbelieve strike their necks, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favour afterwards or ransom until the war lays down its burdens. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them, but [He ordered armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others. And those who are killed in the cause of Allah – never will He waste their deeds’.31

To lend their arguments greater legitimacy and to ground their narrative in a kind of retributive justice, the same video includes quotes from the medieval theologist Ibn Taymiyya and images of prisoners at Guantánamo. In the same way, in case there remained the slightest doubt, they also use a fragment from a speech by al-Zawahiri (inspired by an earlier quote by Osama bin Laden) that makes it clear that the current trend to kidnap Westerners will not change: ‘security is a common good; when we are safe you will be safe and if we can live in peace the same will be true for you. If (on the contrary) you attack us and kill us, we will also attack and kill you; this is the correct equation’.

Figure 1. Major narrative categories in the audiovisual production of AQIM and JNIM (03/2017 - 03/2018)

A comparison of the audiovisual productions of AQIM and JNIM since the latter’s creation reveals the complementary nature of the narratives in the productions of the two groups. JNIM concentrates on productions with a warlike thematic content, while AQIM continues to have a greater responsibility for ideology. However, setting aside the audiovisual documents published by AQIM (14 out of the total 20) that are a series of lectures on Islamic jurisprudence based on Bulūgh al-Marām and delivered by Abu-l-Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi (who died in 2015),32 AQIM has only published a total of six original audiovisual documents, half of those released in 2016.

It is essential for the jihadist movement to generate a large number of publications; a reduction in the rate of publication, together with the increasing similarity of the two groups, seems to suggest that for the moment AQIM and JNIM are sharing media resources. The limitations on the ground that restrict the possibility of successful terrorist operations in the Maghreb –due in large part to the action of the Algerian and Tunisian security forces– together with the restructuring currently affecting the Libyan groups in their orbit after they suffered significant desertions in 2015, have put the main responsibility for maintaining high levels of violence on JNIM. It goes without saying that although the groups making up the new alliance have been cooperating with each other since at least 2012, the JNIM project is only one year old and its role within AQIM will continue to evolve, adapting itself to circumstances in the future.

Quotes from the Quran in JNIM propaganda, a call to jihad, independent of the daʿwa

To complete the analysis of JNIM’s media production, to consolidate the data shown in Figure 1 above and to shed some more light on this new alliance, it might be useful to make a quantitative analysis of the Quranic citations employed by JNIM. In order to determine the theme of the verse –or group of verses– used in each citation, and with the aim of maintaining as much homogeneity as possible, we have used the exegetic text Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm by Ibn Kathir, a respected and erudite Sunni historian. In the same way, and although there is no consensus on how to determine which suwar (or chapters) are from the Meccan period and which from the Medinan, for practical purposes we have relied on the traditional division between Meccan and Medinan suwar established by Theodor Nöldeke.33

The verses from the Meccan period (which date from 610-622) were revealed in a polytheistic context and their themes are different from those of the Medinan period (622-632). As shown in Figure 2, Medinan āyāt (or verses) are overrepresented in JNIM propaganda in comparison with the Meccan ones, which are shorter and generally more poetic and include the majority of verses related to the reaffirmation of the faith and the adoration of God. Medinan suwar, on the other hand, were revealed once the construction and expansion of a proto-Islamic State became a fundamental issue; as such they have more normative content regulating innumerable aspects of the life of the faithful, including in war and jihad.

Figure 2. Thematic content of Quranic citations employed by JNIM (03/2017 - 03/2018)

From a total sample of 13 audiovisual documents and 78 official communiques –mostly short texts celebrating successful operations–,34 55 Quranic citations have been identified (38 from the Medinan period and 17 from the Meccan). As shown in Figure 2, and consistent with the different narrative categories of JNIM audiovisual productions mentioned above, most of the Quranic citations used by JNIM (22) have some relation to war and jihad. Although this may appear to be the usual among Salafist-Jihadist groups, it is not. In 2012 a study of more than 2,000 fundamentalist texts dating from 1998 to 2011 and originating in groups in the Middle East and North Africa concluded that most of the Quranic citations used by these groups were not the most warlike but rather those whose themes were victimisation, dishonour and divine punishment.35 The same study claimed that most of the citations could be divided into three categories: (1) calls to action; (2) affirmations of faith; and (3) imperatives for battle. For practical purposes (given the limited nature of our sample), it has been considered useful to add the additional category of demonisation of the enemy.

JNIM dedicates no small number of Quranic citations to support its vision of the Western presence in the Sahel –neocolonialist, oppressive, corrupt, exploitative, impoverishing…– and to legitimise its actions. Nevertheless, the most cited Quranic verse in its propaganda –repeated three times– has nothing to do with war, although it does with the enemy: ‘O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people’.36 It is also worth mentioning that of the six citations which are repeated at least once –Quran 03:28, 05:51, 08:30, 08:36, 21:107 and 47:04– only one comes from a Meccan sūra.

Another interesting aspect of the use of the Quran in JNIM communications is that the āyāt of sūra ‘The Repentance’ –among the most cited by extremist jihadists as its content focuses on the wrath of God–37 is not even among the most cited by the group. In the study sample, citations from the suwar ‘The Spoils of War’ are the most frequently used (11 citations), followed by those extracted from ‘The Table Spread’ (eight citations) and ‘The family of ‘Imrān’ (five citations).


It is true that the sample analysed here covers a relatively short period of time. As a result, we will no doubt need to wait and see how the organisation evolves. However, it does seem clear that it is not in a daʿwa phase, at least as far as its Internet propaganda diffusion is concerned. This should not be surprising: Internet penetration in the Sahara-Sahelian region is still limited and the group’s communications through its propaganda not only seek specific objectives but are also directed at a different audience, either Western or Arabised. Obviously, this does not mean that the group will not engage in proselytising and recruiting activities on the ground, employing a different strategy and applying different tools. Conscious of the region’s linguistic heterogeneity and of the status of Arabic within it, JNIM has made significant efforts to translate its publications into French, thus amplifying its global impact.

From the analysis undertaken in this paper, it is clear that JNIM is subordinate to the designs of AQIM; the new alliance inherited at birth a good number of the military and technical capacities of the regional body, but at least for the time being it has been relegated to the background when it comes to broadcasting ideology. The introduction of nuances to the Islam of West Africa and the Sahel –a strategy that could significantly increase its attractiveness– is conspicuously absent, constrained by the Salafist doctrine of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, although the presence of local militants is noticeable in the group’s audiovisual productions, the preponderance of North Africans in the middling ranks –emerging figures and AQIM leaders in the JNIM’s top brass– guarantees that it will not distort the regional brand. However, while this helps secure loyalty to the leadership and ensures maximum impact in certain areas like the north of Mali, it also limits its potential for rooting itself in other areas.

Under siege in Algeria and practically reduced to survival mode there, AQIM has managed to reformulate its strategy –trying to put an end to the disagreements of the past– within a scenario of enormous potential to develop its activities. In a context in which the Islamic State loses attractiveness, AQIM –through its different factions and ideologically-sympathetic branches, already the predominant group in the region– has been able to position itself perfectly to incorporate the groups disenchanted after the collapse of the caliphate and integrate them into its structure when the possibility presents itself. In this way AQIM ensures a larger and better structure in a region to which it would not in the least be unreasonable it considers moving its leadership headquarters if it is unable to reverse the situation in Algeria.

Furthermore, as explained throughout this paper, through their many successful terrorist operations, the existence of JNIM helps to mitigate in some way the decline of the military power of the leadership of al-Qaeda in North Africa. During the new entity’s first year in existence, the media production of both groups (AQIM and JNIM) has been complementary and consistent: a complete product that helps to prevent the failures of the regional leadership structure from becoming widely known. This trend could change in the future, although it does not appear that the importance of JNIM will decline in the short term; rather, if anything, it will increase.

Just as in other countries in the region, the presence of Spain in the Sahelian zone –a consequence, among other things, of the increase in the level of the terrorist threat– has risen significantly in recent years. Following the directions of the regional leadership, JNIM has not only named its media branch in clear reference to a significant historical battle in which the Christian Reconquest was halted, if only temporarily, in the first interview by Iyadh Ag Ghali as the organisation’s first Emir, he referred to Ibn Tashufin as one of the figures to emulate. Bearing in mind his antecedents, both the messenger and the message are credible. The reasons adduced here, together with the group’s historical demands as to al-Andalus, make Spain a very appealing and legitimate target for the organisation.

Sergio Altuna Galán
Research Associate in the Elcano Royal Institute’s Global Terrorism Programme
 | @wellesbien

1 The slogan is from a JNIM propaganda poster before publishing its foundational communique (2/III/2017). This and other original documents cited in this paper are part of the author’s personal files and are available on request.

2 (بيان تبنّ للغزوة المباركة على السفارة الفرنسية ومبنى هيئة الاركان البوركيني), 4/III/2018.

3 In this context, individuals from other regions who have travelled to fight, emulating, according to their interpretation, the Hegira of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina.

6 Weekly magazine of Anṣār al-Sharī’a in Yemen (AQAP).

7 Magazine al-Masrā #45, 3/IV/2017.

8 M. Guidère (2014), The Timbuktu Letters: New Insights about AQIM, Res Militaris, p. 25.

9 M. Bachir & A. Kharief (2018), ‘ANALYSIS: the slow death of al-Qaeda in Algeria’, 1/II/2018, Middle East Eye.

10 Inspire#17 (عمليات حرف مسار القطارات إنسباير العدد), 13/VIII/2017.

11 Foundational video of JNIM (إعلان جماعة نصرة الإسلام و المسلمين), 2/III/2017.

12 From a video published by al-Andalus Media, the propaganda organ of AQIM, congratulating itself on the creation of JNIM (تهنئة و مباركة…إندماج مجاهدي الصحراء), 14/III/2017.

13 Communique of the top leadership of al-Qaeda congratulating itself for the creation of JNIM (تأييد ومباركة لجماعة نصرة الإسلام والمسلمين), 19/III/2017.

14 Video published by As-Saḥāb (فرنسا قد عادت يا أحفاد الاسود), 6/III/2018.

15 The triliteral root in Arabic (زَلَّقَ) means to slip or slide.

16 Published by al-Fajr Media, one of the three propaganda organs of al-Qaeda at the time, 4/X/2009.

17 Az-Zallāqa, 26/V/2017 and 21/III/2018 respectively.

18 Al-Andalus Media, 6/I/2016 and 15/II/2016 respectively.

19 Thirteen audio and video documents published by the official propaganda organs of JNIM, az-Zallāqa and al-‘Izza, of approximately two and a half hours in total duration.

20 (إعلان جماعة نصرة الإسلام و المسلمين), 2/III/2017, Az-Zallāqa.

21 (كلمة أبي عبد الرحمن الصّنهاجي حول الإنتخابات), 18/II/2017, Az-Zallāqa.

22 (الجماعة رحمة والفرقة عذاب), author’s translation.

23 (يد الله مع الجماعة), author’s translation.

24 (و من أنذر فقد أعذر), 18/II/2017, Az-Zallāqa.

25 Joint Force of the G5-Sahel.

26 (كلمة للشيخ يحيى أبي الهمام), 17/III/2017, Az-Zallāqa.

27 United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali.

28 Inspire#17 (عمليات حرف مسار القطارات إنسباير العدد), 13/VIII/2017.

29 Y.J. Fanusie & A. Entz, (2017), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Financial Assessment, Terror Finance Briefing Book, Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

30 (المعادلة الصحيحة), 2/VII/2017, Az-Zallāqa.

31 Quran 47:04.

32 (بيان بخصوص إستشهاد الشيخ أبي الحسن رشيد البليدي), 25/XII/2015, al-Andalus Media.

33 T. Nöldeke (2013), The History of the Qurʾān, English translation by Wolfgang Behn.

34 The total amount of propaganda output of the group from its creation on 2/III/2017 until 31/III/2018.

35 J.R. Halverson, R.B. Furlow & S.R. Corman (2012), How Islamist Extremists Quote the Quran, Report nr 1202, Center for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University.

36 Quran, 05:51.

37 Halverson et al. (2012), op. cit.

<![CDATA[ ‘There is no life without jihad and no jihad without hijrah’: the jihadist mobilisation of women in Spain, 2014-16 ]]> 2017-04-17T12:54:02Z

This analysis looks at the women who are recruited to join Islamic State in Spain: who they are, how they were radicalised and what their motivations and functions are within the groups, cells and networks in which they ultimately become involved.

Original version in Spanish: “No hay vida sin yihad y no hay yihad sin hégira”: la movilización yihadista de mujeres en España, 2014-2016


This analysis looks at the women who are recruited to join Islamic State in Spain: who they are, how they were radicalised and what their motivations and functions are within the groups, cells and networks in which they ultimately become involved.


The incorporation of women into the ranks of jihadist organisations in Spain has taken place within the context of the current mobilisation linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of Islamic State as the leading organisation in the field, coinciding too with the emergence of jihadism of a home-grown character in Spain. Featuring their own distinct characteristics and patterns of radicalisation, such women share with their male counterparts both the goals of the global jihad and the means of securing it, taking a highly active role in promoting the caliphate, albeit at some remove for the time being from the front line of combat. This new development in jihadist mobilisation should not, however, be overlooked when it comes to addressing this type of terrorism.


The rise of the Islamic State terrorist organisation as the new vanguard of the global jihadist movement and the establishment of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014 represented a turning point in the evolution of global terrorism. It was the advent of a third phase in the evolution of this phenomenon, characterised by a struggle for hegemony over jihadism between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.1

In terms of jihadist mobilisation, the proclamation of the caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a speech he delivered at a mosque in Mosul in June 2014 represented the realisation of a project that had hitherto seemed almost utopian, aspired to but never attained by al-Qaeda, whether under the leadership of Osama bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Muslims were thus urged by al-Baghdadi’s explicit call to undertake the migration, or hijrah, to the caliphate, as reported in the third issue of the magazine Dabiq, published at around the same time, with one of its articles claiming that ‘there is no life without jihad and there is no jihad without hijrah’ and moreover that ‘this life of jihad is not possible until you pack and move to the Khilafah [caliphate]’,2 thereby freeing oneself from the slavery of working for infidels. This, along with the popularity the new organisation accrued thanks to the victories it notched up on the ground, was the spur for thousands of young people –male and female, hailing from over 180 countries– to make the journey to join Islamic State’s ranks and take part in the consolidation and expansion of a project with global scope.

It was a call that had an unprecedented impact on Western Europe: of the 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) thought to have travelled to the Middle East to join the terrorist organisations active in the region, principally Islamic State, 5,000 hail from Western European countries. No previous jihadist mobilisation, whether linked to such important conflicts for the Muslim world as the conflicts in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s or the war in Iraq in the 2000s, had had such a wide repercussion among young European Muslims. The number of people mobilised for the conflict in Syria and Iraq between 2011 and 2016 is some five times the combined number of individuals who travelled to the aforementioned combat zones.3 We are therefore confronted by a mobilisation of unprecedented size, and for the first time it also contains a significant female contingent. Around 10% of the foreign terrorist fighters alluded to above, some 550, are women.4

In the Spanish case, according to the latest official figures, of the 208 individuals with Spanish nationality and/or residence in Spain that have decided to travel to the caliphate since 2013, some 10% (21) are female. But in addition another 23 women have been arrested and arraigned before the Audiencia Nacional within Spanish territory for their involvement in terrorist activities linked to Islamic State. This contrasts with the fact that prior to 2014 no woman had been prosecuted in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism. Nor had any significant arrest been made prior to that date. It is only in the current climate that women have become involved in terrorist activities of a jihadist nature within Spain’s borders.

This paper aims to offer a sketch of a phenomenon that is as yet empirically unexplored, namely female jihadist mobilisation in Spain. While it is not possible to provide a typical profile for these women, it is possible to point out the features that define and differentiate them, from a sociodemographic perspective, from their male counterparts. Various equally important aspects of their radicalisation processes, and the motives that led them to become actively involved in supporting Islamic State, will also be scrutinised. Lastly, the functions they have discharged within the cells, groups and networks (CGNs) to which they belong will be explored.

With regard to this latter point, there is a good deal of debate surrounding the role that these young Western women linked to Islamic State may play in the future, in light of the territory that has been lost in the Middle East. It may be that this change of circumstances sees women taking on tasks in the West that are highly restricted for them on the ground, such as the planning and carrying out of attacks. Alarm bells have been ringing in Europe in this respect since the arrest in Paris in early September 2016 of three radicalised women who, according to the French authorities, were preparing ‘an imminent act of violence’. It is to this debate that the present ARI, on the basis of the Spanish experience, seeks to provide input. It is an important issue when it comes to establishing the response to jihadist terrorism –which is constantly evolving and becoming increasingly complex– in Western Europe, something that inevitably also needs to be addressed from the gender standpoint.

On an individual level of analysis, the present study is based on the information gathered from the 23 women who have been arrested and arraigned before the Audiencia Nacional for activities related to Islamic State between 2014 and 2016. It was drawn up using data provided by the Elcano Royal Institute’s Global Terrorism Programme, contained in the Elcano Database of Jihadists in Spain (Spanish acronym: BDEYE), which gathers information about individuals arrested in Spain for terrorist activities of a jihadist nature derived from legally accessible court papers, attendance at public hearings, open sources and interviews with police experts. While the domain remains a small one, and the results should therefore be interpreted with caution, the author believes that enough empirical evidence is available to give a preliminary account of this new phenomenon, something that neither the state security apparatus nor society as a whole can afford to overlook.5

A home-grown phenomenon featuring young women free of family responsibilities

Between 2013 and 2016, a total of 158 people were arrested as part of various anti-terrorist operations against individuals, cells, groups and networks connected to Islamic State. Up to 14.6% of them were women, a more than significant percentage bearing in mind that until the emergence of Islamic State no women had been convicted for this type of crime in Spain.6 The first anti-terrorist operation in Spain that led to the arrest and subsequent prosecution of females took place in Ceuta, in August 2014, when a 14 year-old girl and a 19 year-old woman were detained by agents belonging to the National Police Force (CNP).7

Although youth is one of the most striking characteristics of the people arrested in Spain for activities related to Islamic State,8 in the case of women it emerges even more prominently. The average age of the women covered by this study is 24, seven years less than the average age of the men arrested for the same crimes: 31.3 years at the time of their arrest. Almost three quarters of the women (73.3%) were aged between 19 and 28 when arrested, and the age span with the greatest frequency was between 19 and 23 years old, accounting for almost half of the cases (47.8%), although below this two underage girls were arrested, the youngest being only 14. At the other extreme of the age spectrum, the eldest was 52. These data do not differ substantially from those of other Western European countries gathered in similar studies.9

Table 1. People arrested in Spain for activities related to Islamic State in 2013-16, classified by sex and age (%)

Another important variable for sketching the profile of women arrested in Spain for Islamic State-related criminal activities concerns their civil status, a variable where there are also notable differences between men and women. 45% of women were single at the time of their arrest, which is 16.6 percentage points higher than their male counterparts. By contrast, 61.4% of men were married, 36.4 percentage points greater than the women. There is also a percentage of widows (10%) –as opposed to zero widowers– who may be traced back directly to the case of two women who returned from the Syrian conflict after having lost their husbands, both foreign terrorist fighters.

In the context of this variable it is worth noting that, whereas 55.6% of the men had children at the time of their arrest, the majority of women (65%) did not have offspring. These results, taken together with those referring to age, are in keeping with Islamic State’s strategy of recruiting women whose identity is still in the process of being moulded, something that makes them particularly susceptible to adopting this extreme and rigorous vision of the Islamic creed. Moreover, they are related to other issues of a utilitarian nature, connected to the strategic need for these young women of childbearing age to settle in occupied territory, marry mujahedin and raise the next generation of jihadists.

Table 2. People arrested in Spain for activities related to Islamic State 2013-16, classified by sex and civil status (%)

Turning next to the nationality of the women arrested in Spain for connections to Islamic State, in more than six out of every 10 cases (60.9%) they were Spanish –more than half, 56.5%, were born in Spanish national territory– while three out of every 10 (34.8%) had Moroccan nationality –39.1% of them born in Morocco–. Of women with Spanish nationality, 65.2% were resident in Spain and the offspring of immigrants, born essentially in the autonomous cities of Melilla (36.2%) and Ceuta (27.4%). It is therefore a home-grown phenomenon, something that had already emerged in the current general context of jihadist terrorism in Spain. Another notable feature of the female contingent is that 13% are converts, lacking any manner of Muslim family, cultural or religious background, but who decided at a certain moment to adopt this faith as their own. It is a percentage similar to that observed among the men (11.1%).

Turning next to educational and occupational variables –and on the basis of the information available– it is evident that the women arrested in Spain were better educated than their male counterparts: none of the arrested women were illiterate or lacking any type of compulsory education, which is however the case with 8.8% of the male detainees. 87.5% of the women –compared with 25.7% of the men– had obtained secondary education, and 6.3% had completed higher education. In fact, according to the data available, 26.7% of the women were students at the time of their arrest, as opposed to 4.8% of the men, although this variable could be affected by the fact that the women are generally younger than the men. Another striking feature of the arrested women is the number who were unemployed, 33.3% of the total, 10 percentage points greater than the figure for unemployed men. In both cases, those in work were predominantly employed in the services sector.

Lastly, it is important to point out that at the time of their arrest for activities related to Islamic State none of the women had criminal records, whether for crimes related to terrorism or for ordinary infractions, something that by contrast is distinctly common among men, not only in Spain but elsewhere in Western Europe.10

Processes of radicalisation at the speed of the Internet

Among the women arrested and brought before the courts in Spain for Islamic State-related activities between 2014 and 2016 there is not a single case of self-radicalisation. All the women covered by this study acquired the ideology of jihadist salafism that led them to become involved in terrorist activities, whether in a physical or virtual setting, in the company of other women and under the guidance of a radicalisation agent, as shall become evident in what follows. In eight out of 10 cases this radicalisation process was endogenous in nature, in other words it took place at least in part within Spanish national territory, mainly the autonomous city of Ceuta for three out of 10 women (26.3%) and, for two out of 10, in the provinces of Barcelona (23.2%) and Madrid (19.2%).

The Internet has enabled women to insert themselves into radicalisation settings that would hitherto have been off-limits to them, thereby gaining access to jihadist propaganda. Thus, and in line with the campaign that Islamic State has explicitly run on social media to persuade women to partake in consolidating the project of the sharia-law governed ‘pseudo state’ in the Middle East, it is evident that women tend to become radicalised to a greater extent than men in an online setting. More than half of the women, 55.6%,thus became exclusively radicalised in this setting as opposed to 30.8% of men. By contrast, the women who became exclusively radicalised in an offline setting (16.7%) are 6.5 percentage points below the men who became radicalised in this way (23.1%). Although the predominant setting for women is exclusively virtual, for men it is the setting that combines online and physical encounters (46.2%), which is also the case for almost three out of 10  women (27.8%).

Table 3. People arrested in Spain for activities related to Islamic State in 2013-16, classified by sex and radicalisation setting (%)

In the case of the online setting, the places where women underwent their processes of violent radicalisation were as follows: social media, for nine out of 10 detainees (93.3%), followed by mobile messaging applications, used by eight out of 10 (80%) and finally, forums and blogs, used by two out of 10 (20%). None of these places is exclusive and normally they are combined with each other, each playing a different part within the process.

What usually happens with online radicalisation is that, after making initial contact through pages or profiles in social media, where recruiters are searching for potential targets, and as the relationship becomes stronger, the activity is channelled towards more private and secure settings such as chats installed on mobile devices, through which the young woman being radicalised receives all manner of jihadist audiovisual content, and takes part in conversations about the content, either individually or as part of a like-minded group. Sometimes, the groups created in messaging applications and social media pages tend to reproduce the segregation by sex that exists in the more conservative and rigorous Islamic settings, with only women being admitted.

A striking feature of the indoctrinators, or radicalisation agents, in the virtual setting referred to above is the influence exerted by people considered to be ‘peers’ of the arrested women. In other words, the relationship is not founded on a situation of hierarchical superiority, underpinned by the indoctrinators’ contacts, charisma or social position. This was the case for almost seven out of 10 women (66.7%). Foreign terrorist fighters were involved in four out of 10 cases (41.7%). Lastly activists –charismatic members with contacts within the organisation concerned– played the role of radicalisation agent in rather less than two out of 10 cases (16.7%).

A good example of a radicalisation process in an online setting, involving various platforms and the participation of various radicalisation agents, is that of a 24 year-old Moroccan woman resident in the province of Barcelona, who on a visit to the country of her birth with her child, while her husband was out of Spain for work reasons, started to visit various social media sites with jihadist content, to which she became ‘hooked’.11 On these platforms she came into contact with a foreign terrorist fighter of Syrian origin and his sister, who tried to radicalise her by means of constant messages endorsing the caliphate. As the process advanced, the young woman struck up a relationship with a second fighter, who in turn put her in contact with a military commander with whom she ended up getting engaged. She held simultaneous conversations via various messaging apps with Wahhabi sheiks living in various countries in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, whom she queried about a range of religious precepts. She also communicated with a husband and wife team of activists in Austria, who gave reasons supporting jihad and the decision of a woman to travel alone and unchaperoned to Syria. This was finally what she did, in the company of her three year-old child; the child was the offspring of her husband in Spain, from whom she was in the process of obtaining a divorce.12

As far as the radicalisation processes of women in an offline setting are concerned, these mainly took place in private homes –a highly common setting among jihadists in Spain before and after 2013– and in places of worship and Islamic cultural centres. In this case the activity between the two settings was sometimes complementary in the sense that, after making initial contact in the virtual world, a physical encounter took place between the women undergoing radicalisation and their agent or agents so that a stronger and more trusting relationship could be established, enabling the agents to increasingly influence the attitudes of the women on their path towards jihadist involvement.

The indoctrinators most frequently involved in face-to-face processes were people within the women’s close circles, such as family members (accounting for 42.9%) and friends (28.6%), in contrast to the situation among men, where activists were the most frequent agents of radicalisation. This also points to the more closed atmosphere in which the radicalisation of women takes place. It is again worth emphasising that one and the same person was sometimes exposed to the influence of various indoctrinators.

A highly pertinent case in this context is that of a 20 year-old woman from Ceuta who was arrested in Turkey on her way to the caliphate. She was influenced in the ideological trajectory that led her to undertake this journey by one of the two leaders of the first Islamic State-related jihadist cells to be dismantled in Spain, in the summer of 2013, who was a member of her family. He had also recruited and sent to Syria one of the young woman’s cousins, with whom she was very close. Another example of a mixed radicalisation in which the offline dimension played a determinant role is provided by the case of woman  from Ceuta who was arrested in the summer of 2014 on the Spanish-Moroccan border when planning an imminent journey to Syria. Once detained she told the authorities that she had changed her moderate views of Islam after a attending a mosque in Ceuta where the imam, who had travelled from Morocco to preach, ‘praised those who journeyed to Syria and Iraq, deeming them brave because they fought for Allah’.13

In any event, the enormous influence of the Internet and social media on young westerners ensures that propaganda reaches them rapidly, directly and in a language that resonates with them, resembling nothing so much as a marketing campaign tailor-made for its market. This has had a major bearing on the fact that violent radicalisation processes have become speeded up and conclude just a few months after starting. All the women in this study for whom information is available completed their radicalisation processes barely a year or even less from the time they began.

A better life in a project under construction

Before delving into the roles played by the women arrested in Spain for Islamic State-related activities between 2013 and 2016, it is worth enquiring about the motivations that led them to become involved in terrorist activities of a jihadist nature, in order to determine whether the women acted for the same reasons that impelled their male counterparts or whether, on the contrary, they involve another series of individual motives for pursuing a path towards violence.

While it is true that both men and women share the goals of Islamic State and the means for attaining them, the motives that disposed them to become actively committed to obtaining them are strikingly different. As far as the women are concerned, six out of 10 (61.5%) are more inclined to embark upon jihadism for reasons of an emotional or affective nature, including the promise of getting married to a fighter in the field, with whom they typically fall in love over the internet, or whose partner persuades the women to become involved with them. Such motivations are relevant to only one out of 10 of the men (11.1%), who tend to base themselves more on an ideological commitment to the principles and values of jihadist salafism or on instrumental reasons, such as acquiring status, a salary or attaining paradise (68.9%). Such incentives are the main cause for becoming involved for only 15.4% of the women. The data for the two kinds of motivation are therefore almost inverted when comparing sexes. Where the sexes coincide is in the fact that for both two out of 10  men (20%) and women (23.1%) existential and identity causes were the main driving factor in their terrorist involvement. The situations grouped under this heading include lacking a definite identity, a crisis caused by the loss of a loved one, a lack of inspiring life prospects and frustration.

Table 4. Main individual motivations for involvement in jihadist activities in Islamic State, classified by sex (%)

A striking example of those attracted by the promise of marriage and the prospect of a family by settling in the caliphate is provided by the case of a 22 year-old Spanish woman, arrested at the airport in Madrid en route to Turkey in October 2015. She had converted to Islam just a few months prior to the journey and had decided to take this step after establishing a sentimental online relationship with an individual from North Africa, whom she was going to marry once both of them reached Syria.14 Meanwhile, in the case of a young Moroccan women who was also arrested on her way to the caliphate in 2015 in the company of her son, there were two motivations: the promise of marrying an FTF of certain rank in the caliphate, ‘a real man’ in her own words, and that of seeing her expectations of a better life in Spain –which she had entered as an economic migrant– thwarted.15 Lastly, an illustration of ideological causes is provided by the case of a 19 year-old woman, also of Moroccan nationality, arrested in the province of Alicante in September 2015. In the mobile devices found at the time of her arrest the investigators discovered numerous photographs of armed women in combat mode. One in particular showed a woman dressed in a black niqab that covered her completely, carrying the Islamic State flag and overprinted with the text ‘Strong and the strength of my God. In favour of the Islamic State’.16

There is no jihad without hijrah

In terms of the way in which the women arrested and brought before the courts in Spain for connections to Islamic State became involved in Jihadist activities, it is striking that all of them did so in the company of others, and that they belonged to CGNs with a degree of structure and internal hierarchy. There are no cases therefore of women who adopted the postulates of Islamic State on their own and sought to act in their name. Thus all of them became involved with others and moreover had some kind of organisational link with the terrorist entity based in the Middle East, whether directly or through another member of the CGN to which they belonged.

As far as their position with the CGNs is concerned, and applying the concentric circle model17, which conveys the importance and degree of responsibility wielded by each, it is striking that only one of the 23 arrested women is located in the centre, where the CGN leaders and coordinators are situated along with other notable militants dedicated to tasks of indoctrination. The only detainee involved in the nucleus of a CGN devoted herself both to indoctrinating other young people and coordinating the activities of other recruiters in the same network. Six out of 10 detainees were located in the second circle, where a greater variety of activities is to be found; typically, they were involved in the apparatus used to transfer other militants of the same sex to Syria and Iraq. Lastly, three out of 10 detainees were located in the outer circle, having fundamentally been recruited to be sent to Syria and Iraq. In comparison to the women, their male counterparts tend to occupy a greater number of leadership roles –three out of 10 (28.4%)– while those located on the periphery represent less than half the women in this third circle, 17.5% less. The majority of men are to be found in the intermediate circle, accounting for 55.8% of the total.

A good example of the active but secondary role of women is provided by the Kibera network, where despite being in charge of recruiting and indoctrinating other women on Spanish soil, the women were on the receiving end of instructions from the network leaders: two men based in Morocco.18

Turning now to the individual roles played by each of these women, and bearing in mind that normally two or more tasks were undertaken simultaneously, almost eight out of 10 (77.3%) were willing to travel to the caliphate and involve themselves directly in its construction. That is to say, their intention was not so much to wage ‘jihad at home’ as to travel to the territory occupied by Islamic State in order to join the project of the caliphate under construction, but without getting involved in fighting.19 This also emerges from the fact that none of the women performed functions of an operational nature, nor had they been trained physically or in the use of weapons or explosives. In the case of the men, willingness to become involved as foreign terrorist fighters also predominated, provided they had not already been arrested before being able to achieve this goal, although the percentage is notably lower than among women (47.7%).

Other functions performed by the women arrested in Spain include recruiting and radicalising other women (accounting for 45.5%) and spreading propaganda over social media and the internet (22.7%). Also notable are those engaged in praising their terrorist organisation online (18.2%). All these tasks are also performed by a significant number of men, who encompass a wider range of roles, including operational, training, leadership and coordination duties.

Table 5. People arrested in Spain for Islamic State-related activities in 2013-16 involved in the company of others, classified by sex and the functions within the group, cell or network to which they were affiliated (%)

It should be noted however that in their various roles the women detained in Spain have made their firm commitment to Islamic State patently clear, publicly demonstrating their acceptance of violence as a form of achieving a political end and justifying the extreme measures the organisation inflicts on its enemies.20 For example, a 19 year-old woman arrested in Fuerteventura, born in Morocco but brought up in the Canary Islands, had publicly proclaimed –no less than twice– her loyalty to Islamic State on social media, glorifying the use of violence as a means of punishing the ‘infidels’ and ‘enemies of the caliphate’. Commenting on a video released by the terrorist organisation after the execution of a Jordanian pilot on 24 December 2014 in Syria she wrote: ‘every time I watch the video of Muad being executed and how he dances in the flames I kill myself laughing, although the first time I saw it I burst into tears, not out of compassion but out of fear of the flames of hell’.21


The mobilisation of women for the jihadist cause has emerged in Spain within the framework of the current mobilisation linked to the conflict in Syria and the appearance of the Islamic State terrorist organisation as the new vanguard of global terrorism. The women who have been arrested and arraigned before the Audiencia Nacional for jihadist activities tend to be young and free of family responsibilities, second-generation Spaniards born to Moroccan parents –born in Melilla or Ceuta– and predominantly therefore from Muslim backgrounds, although there is a significant number of converts. While none of the young women was illiterate, the majority had only managed to complete secondary education and were indeed occupied as students –with various degrees of success– at the time of their arrest. A third of them were unemployed. None of the women had criminal records for terrorist crimes or any other sort of infraction, and therefore at the time of embarking upon investigations they were unknown to the police and judicial authorities.

The radicalisation processes were endogenous –undertaken mainly in Ceuta, Barcelona and Madrid– and always took place in the company of others, in a predominantly online setting, resorting both to the internet and all manner of social media as well as messaging applications installed on mobile devices. They were guided in this process by a radicalisation agent, prominent among whom were other individuals, similar to the women themselves, or a foreign terrorist fighter supposedly operating on the battlefield.

In the Spanish case the involvement of women in Islamic State is mainly related to the promise of a life in the caliphate, of a foreign terrorist fighter whom they hope to marry, or to the frustration of not being able to lead a life in keeping with their expectations in their place of residence. It is, however, a complex process in which other factors of various kinds play a part. Thus the role of these women has focused on their willingness to participate in the jihadist project in the occupied territory, assimilating the doctrinal roles mentioned in the organisation’s texts, which continue to be highly conservative.

This does not entail that amid the decline of the caliphate in the Middle East their functions in the West will not evolve towards a more active role in the preparation and carrying out of attacks. The use of women in operational activities of a suicidal nature has proved to be a win-win strategy for the organisations, providing they are not arrested before achieving their goals: first it has been calculated that they are capable of causing up to four times as many victims as their male counterparts, given their greater ability to pass undetected,22 and secondly they attract much greater media coverage, owing both to their novelty (men are traditionally over-represented in terrorist organisations), and to the shock that is still felt upon seeing a woman commit violent acts, when they have traditionally and culturally been associated with peaceful values.23

Thus, amid the difficulties it faces on the ground, Islamic State may be contemplating a strategic switch to demonstrate its strength. It should not be forgotten that while life in the caliphate is subject to stringent measures of social control in terms of the behaviour that women must adhere to in all aspects of their lives, these do not apply with such rigour on European soil and it would be less serious to transgress them from a doctrinal perspective. By the same token, if their plans of undertaking hijrah to the caliphate are frustrated, or they return from the caliphate, the women in question could decide to wage jihad at home, heeding the calls of the former spokesperson for Islamic State, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, to attack their own Western countries of origin, published in the magazine Rumiyah at the end of 2016 and elsewhere.

All the foregoing means we must not underestimate the threat to security for countries such as Spain that could be posed by women recruited from the West into the global jihadist movement. This necessarily entails taking anti-terrorist measures and working on measures to prevent violent radicalisation, especially in the online setting, using the insights gained from gender analysis. De-radicalisation programmes also need to be designed that are tailored to their profiles and circumstances. Prisons and juvenile detention centres, places that have hitherto been removed from this issue and are now housing the first inmates convicted by the courts, will constitute a particularly sensitive environment.

Carola García-Calvo
Analyst in the Global Terrorism Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute
| @carolagc13

1 Fernando Reinares (2015), ‘Yihadismo global y amenaza terrorista: de al-Qaeda al Estado Islámico’, ARI nr 33/2015, Elcano Royal Institute, 1/VII/2015.

2 Dabiq, nr 3, summer 2014.

3 Thomas Hegghamer (2016), ‘The future of jihadism in Europe: a pessimistic view’, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 10, nr 6, quoting data from the Soufan Group.

4 Bibi van Ginkel & Eva Entenmann (Eds.) (2016), ‘The foreign fighter phenomenon in the European Union. Profiles, threats and policies’, ICCT Research Paper, April.

5 The author would like to express her gratitude at this point for the valuable comments of Fernando Reinares, director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Global Terrorism Programme, and the work of Álvaro Vicente, research assistant on the Programme, not only for their work in managing the BDEYE but also for their immeasurable help in drawing up this ARI.

6 See Fernando Reinares & Carola García-Calvo (2013), ‘Los yihadistas en España: perfil sociodemográfico de condenados por actividades terroristas o muertos en acto de terrorismo suicida entre 1996 y 2012’, Working Document, nr 11/2013, Elcano Royal Institute, 26/VI/2013.

7 First phase of Operation Kibera.

8 See Fernando Reinares & Carola García-Calvo (2016), Estado Islámico en España, Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid, chap. 1.

9 See Anita Peresin (2015), ‘Fatal attraction: Western Muslims and ISIS’, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 9, nr 3.

10 For Spain, see Reinares & García-Calvo (2016), Estado Islámico en España, op. cit., and, for Europe, Rajan Basra, Peter R. Neumann & Claudia Brunner (2017), ‘Criminal pasts, terrorist futures: European jihadists and the new crime-terror nexus’, ICSR.

11 Patricia Ortega Dolz (2015), ‘Samira, la “reclutadora” de mujeres del Estado Islámico’, El País, 14/III/2015.

12 Audiencia Nacional, Criminal Court, Section 4, Sentence 38/2016, 15/XI/2016.

13 Juzgado Central de Menores de la Audiencia Nacional, Reform file 5/2014.

14 Antonio R. Vega (2015), ‘La yihadista de Almonte contactó con el islamismo en Sevilla’, ABC Andalucía, 25/X/2015.

15 Ortega Dolz (2015), op. cit.

16 Oral hearing of the summary trial /2014, session of 6/I/2017 at the Audiencia Nacional (Madrid), testimony questioned by the state attorney at 11:35.

17 For more information see Carola García-Calvo and Fernando Reinares (2016), ‘Patterns of involvement among individuals arrested for Islamic State-related terrorist activities in Spain, 2013-2016’, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 10, nr 6.

18 DGP, CNP, CGI (2014), ‘Informe de situación de la investigación’, JCI nr 1, Audiencia Nacional, Pre-trial proceedings 71/2014, 11/XII/2014, p. 315.

19 For further information, see ‘Women of the Islamic State. A manifesto on women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade’, translation and analysis by Charlie Winter, Quilliam Foundation, 2015, and ‘Letter to our sisters, “Jihad without fighting”’, Dabiq, nr 11.

20 On this point, regarding the experience of other Western countries, see Melanie Smith & Erin Marie Saltman (2015), ‘Till martyrdom do us part’, Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

21 ‘Las amenazas de la yhadista canaria encarcelada: “Vuestra sucia sangre correrá por España”’, El Español, 24/VII/2016.

22 Mia Mellissa Bloom (2010), ‘Death becomes her: the changing nature of women’s role in terror’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 11, nr 1, Georgetown University Press, p. 91-98.

23 Carola García-Calvo, ‘El papel de la mujer en la yihad global’, Revista de Occidente, nr 406, March.

<![CDATA[ Jihadist mobilisation, undemocratic Salafism and terrorist threat in the EU ]]> 2017-03-10T11:54:29Z

Each time a terrorist attack is perpetrated, jihadism is to be thought of not just as a national security problem but also as a challenge to the very fabric of open societies.

The most recent jihadist mobilisation seen since 2012 across countries belonging to the EU is related to the ongoing like-minded insurgencies in Syria and in Iraq. However, the levels of this jihadist mobilisation, from all accounts in a receding sequence throughout last year, reached unprecedented peaks inside the EU. Since al-Qaeda’s creation in 1988 and the subsequent development of global jihadism as a worldwide movement, no other jihadist mobilisations –in connection, for instance, with conflicts such as those which took place in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq between 2003 and 2007, Somalia or northern Mali– have risen to similar heights within the EU.

In order to explore and understand both the extent and scope of this most recent jihadist mobilisation affecting EU nations, it seems reasonable to rely on data about foreign terrorist fighters as a good indicator. It has been empirically established, precisely with respect to previous jihadist mobilisations, that individuals who radicalise as jihadists in the West are more likely than not to leave –or attempt to leave– the West in order to fight elsewhere. This trend has been explained as the result of factors such as the opportunity to travel easily to fight abroad for a longer period, the availability of training to increase operational capabilities and the existence of norms according to which fighting abroad is perceived to be more legitimate.

Muslims –including in this term not only mindful followers of Islam but persons having a Muslim cultural background– from EU nations account for around one-fifth of the 27,000 to 31,000 individuals who, from 2012 to the end of 2015, had travelled to join jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq. They primarily went to join the so-called Islamic State –known between April 2013 and June 2014 as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL)– but also the al-Qaeda branch based in the first of these two countries, and other smaller entities also active in the area. However, no more than 20 million Muslims were living in EU countries, which means these are approximately 16 times overrepresented among the foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq compared to figures for Muslims traveling from other regions of the world.

Against the background of all these developments, the purpose of these remarks is, first, to reflect on the differences in the levels of the most recent jihadist mobilisation that can be observed in the various EU nations. Secondly, it aims to deal with a factor usually forgotten when discussing why Western European governments have problems accommodating some of the descendants of immigrant Muslims. Finally, this article discusses how jihadist organisations based abroad can exploit both favourable conditions for recruitment within certain Muslim congregations and the religious cleavage within EU countries.

Towards a differential analysis

“Neither a multiculturalist approach, such as the one long pursued in the UK, nor the pervasive assimilationist policies adopted by France, have succeeded.”

The unprecedented jihadist mobilisation in the EU has not plagued all member nations uniformly, which is a relatively overlooked reality. Contrary to what is often taken for granted, the EU countries to be most seriously affected by this recent jihadist radicalisation are neither necessarily defined by having the largest number of Muslim inhabitants nor by having the highest percentage of Muslims as part of their total national populations. Leaving aside the case of Cyprus, because of the exceptional circumstances concurring in this divided island, Bulgaria is next among EU countries with respect to the highest percentage of Muslims as part of its total population. However, very few Bulgarians are known to have travelled to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters.

On the other hand, Italy and Spain rank among the top five EU states with the largest Muslim populations living within their territories. However, figures for the number of nationals or residents in these two countries that have left to become foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, as well as for their proportion with respect to their corresponding national populations in general and their Muslim populations in particular, are rather low. Therefore, if countries affected in a particularly serious manner by the most recent jihadist mobilisation taking place across the EU are not necessarily those where Muslims register the highest proportions with respect to the national populations nor of necessity those which concentrate more Muslim people, which ones are they?

The EU countries most seriously affected by this wave of jihadist mobilisation surely include large nations with large Muslim populations, such as France, Germany and the UK, but also smaller nations with relatively high proportions of Muslims as part of their populations, as in the cases of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. As opposed to the centuries-old Muslim population of Bulgaria or the first-generation immigrants that predominate among Muslims in both Italy and Spain, the common unifier for those other eight countries is the fact that they all have Muslim populations composed mainly of second-generation residents, descendants of immigrants who left their Muslim-majority homelands in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia decades ago.

A generalised identity crisis among young, second-generation descendants of immigrant Muslims in Western Europe’s wealthiest countries appears then to lie behind the most recent unprecedented jihadist mobilisation. Migrant descendants born or socialised in an EU country are often caught in an odd balance between cultures and are especially prone to identity crises connected with a diaspora situation. Too many of them have developed little, if any affection, for the EU nation in which they were born or raised, even though they show scant attachment to the nation from which their parents or grandparents originate. Jihadist propaganda offers an extreme, violent solution to these people’s identity conflicts, luring them with a different concept of nation: the nation of Islam as promoted by Islamic State and also al-Qaeda.

Policy failure, but also Salafism

“Within the Muslim collectivities themselves there are dynamics pushing towards self-marginalisation and self-exclusion from the mainstream open society.”

What the figures on foreign terrorist fighters suggest is that the EU countries in general and Western European governments in particular have a serious problem in accommodating a more than significant portion of second-generation Muslims amidst their heterogeneous and pluralistic societies. Their institutions and civil society entities are failing to persuade thousands of young second-generation Muslims –irrespective of their socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, which are no key to predicting the appeal of jihadist attitudes and beliefs– that their religious identity is compatible with their identity –or multiple identities– as citizens of liberal democracies. Neither a multiculturalist approach, such as the one long pursued in the UK, nor the pervasive assimilationist policies adopted by France, have succeeded.

But flawed institutional policies and the inadequate performance of civil society entities are not only to blame for the lack of accommodation experienced by considerable segments of second-generation Muslims in EU countries. Within the Muslim collectivities themselves there are dynamics pushing towards self-marginalisation and self-exclusion from the mainstream open society. These dynamics advocating segregation result mainly, though not only, from the doctrinal and organisational efforts of Salafist religious leaders and congregations. These efforts are often pursued in places of worship and in households, but also in prisons, attracting many among young second-generation Muslims born or raised in Western European countries but suffering from identity conflicts and in quest of meaning or structure in their lives.

While, in its traditional version Salafism presents itself as a quietist orthodox brand of Islam, respectful to established authority, it is also a fundamentalist and politicised religiously-based ideology. Salafism as a rigorist understanding of the Quran and the Hadith leads its followers to believe that liberal democracy is haram or prohibited from an Islamic perspective, that there is an intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and democracy, and that Muslims living in majority non-Muslim countries should actually resist social integration and behave in such a way as to drastically restrict and regulate, particularly but not solely when it comes to women of their own closed communities, any interaction with the rejected surrounding society –presented in typically antagonistic terms as a secularised and impure infidel environment– in order to avoid corrupting influences and thus affirm what they claim to be the true faith of the Prophet Mohamed.

This all implies a very serious middle to long-term challenge to the basic social cohesion of Western European nations, added to other socio-political antagonisms. Not only because Salafist congregations and organisations established in EU nations purposefully reach out to Muslim immigrants or Muslim-immigrant descendants whose original Northern African or Middle Eastern religious tradition derives from a distinct, far more adaptable, and tolerant understanding of Islam. Also because they are comparatively more efficient in incorporating individuals to their associations due to, among other advantages, financial support from transnational Salafist networks and ultimately from affluent public authorities and private donors located in countries of the Arabian Peninsula where, Saudi Arabia being the unavoidable reference, Salafism is the exclusive religious confession.

What terrorists can do

“Each time a terrorist attack is perpetrated, jihadism is to be thought of not just as a national security problem but also as a challenge to the very fabric of open societies.”

Salafism continues to gain influence among Muslims in the EU and, despite the many different interpretations of Islam existing among them, play a central role in conditioning how Muslims deal with their religious traditions in Western societies. This has sometimes been the unexpected or uncalculated consequence of poorly-informed decisions, adopted on the spur of the moment and often in the context of broad religious policies or radicalisation-prevention programmes, from the local level of government to the national one and including intermediate provincial and regional authorities. Probably out of ignorance, EU politicians and policymakers, when confronted with the problem of jihadist mobilisation, seem prone to think about peaceful Salafists –because they present themselves as peaceful, disregarding their fundamentalist credentials– as the best partners against violent Salafism. Contrary to what has been asserted, also from within academia, the emergent trend of sectarian and puritanical Salafism in Western Europe has not produced the ebbing of jihadism. In fact, far from becoming an obstacle to radicalisation in prisons by attracting young incarcerated Muslims, jihadism has boomed in penitentiary systems such as France’s, were Salafism was even institutionalised.

A first implicit risk in this kind of partnership is that of empowering those who preach the incompatibility of Islam and democracy at the obvious expense of moderate Muslims who, also part of our own societies but loyal to our institutions as a result of conviction and not of convenience, think the opposite in this respect. This would amount to facilitating the growth of Salafism among Muslims living in Western European nations, moving people away from ordinary social life to deliberately segregated collectivities with patterns of behaviour in contradiction with those common in open societies. As a consequence, Muslims as a whole might be perceived with increasing distrust by non-Muslims, potentially widening an already emerging religious cleavage, as unfavourable views of Muslims appear to be on the rise in the main EU countries.

The more Salafism as a fundamentalist version of Islam, as well as the inward-looking Salafist congregations, become attractive to identity-seeking and disenfranchised second-generations Muslims in EU countries, the easier jihadist organisations based abroad will find it to recruit young individuals, willing to make the transition from orthodox quietism to jihadist terrorism, by focusing on potential recruits already familiar with Salafist tenets and using Salafist entities as gateways. Also, terrorists acting under the attitudes and beliefs promoted by the bellicose strand of Salafism –that is to say, by Salafist-jihadism or, plainly stated, just jihadism– can exploit and widen the social fracture between Muslims and non-Muslim in the EU countries alluded to in the previous paragraph.

Indeed, they now do so every time a jihadist attack is successfully perpetrated on Western European soil and it could even be said that as long as jihadist terrorism remains a credible threat for Europeans, even if perceived differently depending on the country. This threat can currently manifest itself, as is well known, through a variety of possible expressions, ranging from terrorist attacks carried out by lone actors or isolated cells to acts of terrorism prepared and executed by small groups of individuals having some kind of connection with jihadist organisations based abroad or acting in a more complex and centralised mission planned by the senior leadership of Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Each time a terrorist attack is perpetrated, jihadism is to be thought of not just as a national security problem but also as a challenge to the very fabric of open societies.

Fernando Reinares, Director of the Programme on Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute | @F_Reinares

(*) This commentary is a short version of ‘Jihadist Mobilization, Undemocratic Salafism, and Terrorist Threat in the European Union’, published in Georgetown Security Studies Review (Special Issue, February 2017).

<![CDATA[ Patterns of involvement among individuals arrested for Islamic State-related terrorist activities in Spain, 2013-2016 ]]> 2016-12-29T10:49:33Z

Research on the case of Spain conducted by the Program on Global Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute confirms that the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State is highly networked and organized.

The full article can be read on the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume X, Issue 6 (December 2016).


A quantitative study of 130 individuals arrested in Spain between June 2013 and August 2016 for terrorist activities related to the Islamic State (IS) shows that the vast majority of them were involved in jihadist activities together with others and not as lone actors. They were typically part of cells, groups or networks (CGN) of varied size and composition. These CGN were more often new, transnational and IS-linked than regenerated, national and only IS-inspired. Detainees who participated in CGN occupied various positions in the centre (or first-tier), in the intermediate circle (or second-tier), and the periphery, depending on their social characteristics and functions. Nearly all of them belonged to jihadist aggregates engaging in radicalisation and recruitment efforts, usually dispatching foreign fighters, raising money and distributing propaganda on behalf of IS. In addition, the majority of these individuals had either travelled to Syria and Iraq, had tried (but failed) to travel, or had the intention of doing so. About one third of the 130 individuals belonged to CGN with operational capabilities and manifested willingness to carry out attacks inside Spain. Our research on the Spanish situation shows that the threat posed by IS is highly networked and organized.


Spain has not been exempt from the unprecedented jihadist mobilization worldwide prompted by the Islamic State (IS) organization, though Spain is not among the Western European countries most affected, neither in absolute terms nor relative to the size of its population.1 Between June 2013, when the first anti-IS (then still anti-ISIL) counterterrorism operation was launched inside Spain, and August 2016, the total number of detainees for IS-related terrorist activities was 130. Until the Summer of 2016, some 190 departed from Spain to join the ranks of IS in both Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters. Six of the latter were arrested upon return–though the actual number of returnees can be estimated as being up to five times larger–and are included in the figure of detainees.

To explore patterns of involvement at the individual level of analysis, we have gathered information and built a database on 130 detainees, in the Elcano Database on Jihadists in Spain (EDBJS). Our sources were the Interior Ministry’s press releases, police reports and publicly accessible court documents at the Audiencia Nacional (National Court) in Madrid, the only jurisdiction in Spain dealing with terrorism offences. Our database has also benefitted from interviews with law enforcement experts and information gathered from systematic searches of media sources indexed in Factiva.2 The body of information assembled was thus treated both quantitatively and qualitatively.3

Most individuals arrested in Spain for IS-related terrorist activities are men (83.8%) aged between 20 and 44 at the time of detention (80.3%), more often than not–56.7%–they were married. 43% are nationals of Spain and 41.4% are Moroccan nationals. Five out of every ten are immigrants and four out of ten are second generation descendants of (mainly) Moroccan immigrants. Some 13.3% are converts. Six out of ten were enrolled in secondary education, twice the number of those who only attended primary school. Three times as many as those detainees with only working class jobs, have been in middle class or lower middle class jobs. 16.7% had no known occupation at the time of detention, and one third had a previous criminal record as ordinary delinquents.

In Spain, just like elsewhere, different patterns of becoming involved in IS-related activities can be observed; this affects the range of expressions a terrorist threat may eventually adopt. In this sense, becoming involved as an individual acting alone is not the same as becoming involved with others as part of cells, groups and networks (CGN).4 In this article we will explore how exactly the 130 individuals arrested in Spain for IS-related terrorist offences became involved. We also look at the position they occupied inside the CGN most of them belonged to. We will explore the nature, size, composition, scope and functions of the CGN these detainees joined. Finally, we will also look how many of them were willing to become foreign fighters or to carry out attacks in Spain, the two options being not mutually exclusive. [...]

Read more on the Perspectives on Terrorism website

Carola García-Calvo
Researcher in the Program on Global Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute
| @carolagc13

Fernando Reinares
Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center
| @F_Reinares

1 See, on this issue, Fernando Reinares, “How to Counter Jihadist Appeal among Western European Muslims”, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, Wilson Brief, December 2015.

2 Factiva, a Dow Jones product, is a database drawing upon approximately 25,000 sources of information emanating from more than 200 countries in 28 languages.

3 Here we wish to acknowledge the outstanding help on both data collection and database maintenance provided by Álvaro Vicente, Research Assistant of the Program on Global Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute.

4 It is not always easy to distinguish between cells, groups and networks. As we understand it for the purpose of this article, cells are smaller and tend to exhibit a greater degree of internal hierarchy and cohesiveness. Groups tend to be larger but have more blurred contours and are usually also a less formalized. Networks are more complex and overlapping aggregates, where individuals may also belong to other cells or groups.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

<![CDATA[ Brussels attacks: Challenge to Security and Coexistence ]]> 2016-03-28T10:25:53Z We have to avoid the spread of Islamophobia without losing sight of the challenge that both the Jihadists with their terrorist outrages and the Salafists with their anti-democratic preaching pose to open societies. ]]> (*) Published on 23/3/2016 in El País (in Spanish).

Original version in Spanish: Atentados en Bruselas: Desafío a la seguridad y la convivencia

Belgium stopped bombing Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) targets in Iraqi territory at the end of June 2015. The country had joined the international coalition against the Jihadist organisation in September of the previous year, but by then it was already in the terrorists’ sights. When, shortly after the proclamation of the supposed new Caliphate, in June 2014, the command of external operations for IS decided to establish an operations network to carry out attacks in Western Europe, Brussels and its environs became its base. And something else besides.

It is in Brussels and in this environment, in the district of Molenbeek, that for over a decade there has been a Jihadist subculture in which agents of radicalisation and recruitment linked to such entities as Sharia4Belgium have been able to move and operate with ease. It will be remembered that the core of the unit that the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) inserted into the 2004 Madrid train bombing network lived and was arrested in Molenbeek. It is also where the first written evidence came to light, dated 19 October 2003, of the date chosen for the attack in Madrid.

“No other  country has produced so many foreign terrorist fighters relative to its total  population or the size of its Muslim community”

It is hardly surprising that Belgium is the European Union country where the current Jihadist movement, spurred by events in Syria and Iraq, is at its most fervent. No other country has produced so many foreign terrorist fighters relative to its total population or the size of its Muslim community. In Belgium’s case, such fighters number 562 as of February 2016, of whom a quarter, according to the Belgian authorities, have returned to the country. A year ago, in March 2015, the number of people held in Belgian prisons for activities related to Jihadist terrorism was 61, a fourfold increase on the figure for 2014.

The attacks carried out in Paris last November were conceived and planned in Syria but prepared in Belgium. A Belgian city however, in all likelihood Brussels, was the target initially selected by the IS operations network in Western Europe. This became clear on 15 January 2015, when an anti-terrorist operation in Verviers thwarted the plans of a cell made up of no fewer than 10 terrorists, some of them newly-returned foreign fighters, linked to the IS leadership. It was a cell that, as was subsequently confirmed, formed part of that operations network.

The attacks in Brussels, as in Paris, are an attempt to instil fear in the hearts of European citizens, forcing them to change their behaviour and to shape the decisions of their governments. It also involves attacking the capitals of two European countries with substantial Muslim communities and significant second-generation populations living in precarious circumstances, a social structure that is especially vulnerable to the schism the terrorists seek. We have to avoid the spread of Islamophobia without losing sight of the challenge that both the Jihadists with their terrorist outrages and the Salafists with their anti-democratic preaching pose to open societies.

Fernando Reinares
Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute
| @F_Reinares

<![CDATA[ How to counter jihadist appeal among Western European Muslims ]]> 2015-12-15T03:45:36Z Worldwide terrorism connected with the jihadist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq emerges disproportionately among second- and third-generation Muslim youth from Western Europe. Governments should prepare community leaders to identify and intervene with at-risk youth and should enhance and coordinate efforts to counter jihadist propaganda. ]]> Worldwide terrorism connected with the jihadist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq emerges disproportionately among second- and third-generation Muslim youth from Western Europe. Many of them identify neither with European society nor with their countries of origin, but find in jihadist propaganda an identity in a transcendent “nation of Islam.” Governments should prepare community leaders to identify and intervene with at-risk youth and should enhance and coordinate efforts to counter jihadist propaganda both online and in local communities.

The origin of the worldwide terrorist mobilization related to the jihadist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq lies not only in the Middle East but also in Western Europe. Poignantly, all those suspected of involvement in the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, were French or Belgian, though most assailants had spent time in Syria.

Muslims from Western Europe are overrepresented among the foreign terrorist fighters actually present in Syria and Iraq—exactly 16 times overrepresented. In 2010, the year before civil war erupted in Syria, there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Only about 20 million of them—slightly more than 1 percent—were living in Western Europe. Yet Muslims from Western Europe have accounted for no less than one-fifth of the 25,000 to 30,000 individuals who have traveled to join the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL]), al-Qaeda’s Nusrah Front, and other jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq over the past four years. This unprecedented expression of jihadist radicalization and recruitment, mostly of young men, presents a crisis to Western Europe. [...]

Read more at the Wilson Center website

Fernando Reinares
Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center
| @F_Reinares

<![CDATA[ Recent evolution of terrorism in the Maghreb ]]> 2015-11-10T11:40:17Z While Libya has seen an extraordinary rise in terrorist violence, particularly since 2012, the frequency of attacks has been contained in Algeria since 2013, the year when terrorism started to grow considerably in Tunisia. Morocco has been notorious for an absence of attacks since 2011. ]]> Original version in Spanish: Evolución reciente del terrorismo en el Magreb


While Libya has seen an extraordinary rise in terrorist violence, particularly since 2012, the frequency of attacks has been contained in Algeria since 2013, the year when terrorism started to grow considerably in Tunisia. Morocco has been notorious for an absence of attacks since 2011.1


The number of terrorist attacks in the Maghreb has increased extraordinarily overt recent years. It is unlikely that their current frequency will lessen in the short term. The main scenario for such attacks is no longer Algeria but Libya. The acts of terrorism are being carried out above all by jihadist groups connected to al-Qaeda and, since 2014, followers of the Islamic State (IS). Their modalities are typical of terrorism and their targets are governmental as well as civilian. It is a terrorist phenomenon characterised by high and increasing frequency but relatively low lethality, although attacks have been recorded every year that have claimed numerous lives. In 2011, acts of terrorism in Maghreb countries accounted for 0.33% of all such incidents throughout the world; in 2014 they accounted for 4.7%.


Over the course of 2015, the Maghreb has seen a number of particularly important terrorist acts. Prominent among these were the two consecutive attacks that caused the deaths, on 18 July, of 14 Algerian soldiers in the demarcation of Ain Defla, to the southwest of Algiers; those that claimed the lives of 18 people around the Bardo Museum, in the capital of Tunisia, on 18 March, and, on 26 June, another 38 lives in the tourist resort of Sousse; also the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Christians at an unknown location on the coast of Libya, which came to light in February; and, in the same country, the suicide attacks causing no fewer than 17 deaths in Benghazi on 25 March.

These acts of terrorism are but the most recent expression of a phenomenon that has manifestly been trending upwards in the whole of North African region since 2011, when the anti-government revolts began in Tunisia and Libya, albeit with very different political impacts. Revolts that as such did extend to Morocco and Algeria. The present analysis, based on data elaborated from information contained in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, explores the evolution of terrorism in the Maghreb between 2011 and 2014, paying special focus to its incidence in the different countries, the modalities adopted in carrying out that violence, the preferred targets and the fatalities caused.

Changes in the terrorism scenario

“The main scenario for terrorism in the Maghreb has thus increasingly transferred from Algeria to Libya.”

Between 2011 and 2014 a total of 1,105 acts of terrorism were recorded in the countries that make up the Maghreb (Table 1). In 2011 a mere 15 terrorist acts were committed, but  there were 90 incidents in 2012, representing a sixfold increase with respect to the previous year; this figure in turn augmented threefold in 2013, when the number climbed to 302, and then more than doubled in 2014 with 698 terrorist attacks. Although the rate at which the frequency of terrorist attacks has multiplied from one year to the next has been deceasing, their overall increase on the southern shores of the western Mediterranean is extraordinary and unprecedented. The number of terrorist acts recorded in 2014 was almost 47 times greater than that recorded in 2011.

Table 1. Terrorist attacks in the Maghreb 
2011-2014, according to countries

Clearly this increasing and unprecedented terrorist activity has not affected uniformly the four countries traditionally deemed to comprise the Maghreb region of North Africa. Almost nine out of every 10 attacks taking place in the region between 2011 and 2014 occurred in Libya. In 2014, the year that saw the greatest number of attacks ever recorded in the area, as many as 95.3% of them took place in Libya. Three years prior to this, in 2011, when the region witnessed only 15 terrorist attacks, Algeria accounted for 66.7% of all these incidents. The main scenario for terrorism in the Maghreb has thus increasingly transferred from Algeria to Libya.

This does not mean that terrorism has ceased to have a significant impact on Algeria, though its frequency has undergone a clear decline, having fallen from 39 attacks in 2012 to 12 in 2014, being this last a year in which Algeria accounted for only 1.7% of all the terrorist attacks perpetrated in the entire region. Exhibiting an opposing tendency, terrorist activity in Tunisia has increased considerably over the recent years, going from just two attacks recorded in 2011 and a single incident in 2012 to no fewer than 25 in 2013 and 21 in 2014. In the latter two years the terrorist acts committed in Tunisia grew 15 times in comparison to the preceding bienium.

In short, while Libya has witnessed an extraordinary rise in terrorist activity, particularly since 2012, Tunisia has seen a considerable increase since 2013, and Algeria seems to have been contained, particularly since 2013, a nonetheless notable frequency of attacks. Morocco is salient among the four Maghreb countries analysed here for the absence of acts of terrorism, ever since the attack that took place in Marrakesh on 28 April 2011. In this incident, a bomb that had been left in a well-known café in Jemaa el Fnaa Square exploded, claiming 17 lives (although some sources put the number of deaths at 16), most of them tourists.

Old and new actors of terrorism

“Terrorist attacks taking place in the Maghreb are fundamentally, but not exclusively, the product of jihadist organisations”

The information derived from open sources, as with the collected in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), does not make it possible to identify the groups and organisations responsible for many of the attacks perpetrated in the four Maghreb countries that are the focus of this analysis for the 2011-2014 period. However, the important percentage of cases in which such an attribution of authorship is possible – around 20% in the case of Libya, almost 40% in the case of Algeria and approximately 50% in the case of Tunisia – enables certain generalisations to be made about the actors that lie behind acts of terrorism in these countries and their ideological orientation or aims in pursit of which that violence is practiced.

It is clear that the attacks carried out in Algeria between 2011 and 2014 are attributable to terrorism of a jihadist orientation, practiced above all by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), based in the country, but also by the Movement for Unicity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and both the organisations Those who Sign with Blood – which in 2013 co-ordinated with MUJWA to establish a new entity, al Mourabitoun – as well as Jund al-Khilafah. Similarly, in Tunisia, there is an association between the terrorist attacks that occurred in the same period and the jihadist terrorism carried out mainly but not exclusively by the Ansar al-Sharia organisation in the country (AST) and by individuals or cells connected to AQIM.

The situation in Libya is rather different. A large majority of the attacks for which some sort of authorship information is available, where perpetrated with an Islamist or more specifically jihadist orientation, especially by the Ansar al-Sharia organisation active in the country (ASL). But other armed organisations and militias, among the many that struggle for power in a territory lacking an effective state authority capable of imposing its legitimate monopoly of force, including some of a local character and others inspired the former regime of Muammar al-Gadaffi or even ascribed to the forces loyal to the self-styled general Khalifa Haftar, have resorted to terrorist tactics as part of their repertoires of violence.

It should be added that, in respect of a few of the episodes mentioned at the start of this analysis, the emergence in June 2014 of the organisation that calls itself Islamic State (IS) as a global jihadism matrix alternative to al-Qaeda, albeit deriving from the Iraqi branch of the latter, has affected the already fragmented map of terrorism the Maghreb. Followers of IS in Algeria styling themselves Jund al-Khilafah or Soldiers of the Caliphate, already alluded to, which split apart from AQIM, killed and decapitated a French tourist in September of the same year. But it is in Libya where, following the establishment of a colony in Derna the following month, IS militants found propitious conditions to spread terrorist activities elsewhere in the region.

Main modalities of terrorism

Between 2011 and 2014, more than four out of every 10 acts of terrorism recorded in the Maghreb – 44.9% of the total to be precise, although with variations depending on the year – were committed using bombs and explosive devices (Table 2). Three out of every 10 attacks were carried out using other types of lethal weapons, used either in generic assaults against humans or in specific individual assassinations, categories that account respectively for 26.1% and 8.1% of all terrorist attacks. Such operating modalities are typical of the terrorist repertoire, which includes kidnapping and hostage-taking, which between 2011 and 2014 accounted for 13.6% of all the terrorist attacks in the region.

Table 2. Terrorist attacks in the Maghreb 
2011-2014, according to modalities

Suicide attacks are often considered a practice that is characteristic of jihadist terrorism, but fact is that only 26 were carried out in the Maghreb between 2011 and 2014, a figure that represents just 1.8% of all terrorist acts perpetrated in the region in this period. In absolute terms however, it is worth drawing attention to the number of suicide attacks carried out in Libya over the course of 2014: no fewer than 13 according to the STARTGlobal Terrorism Database, which is more than half the total episodes of suicide terrorism committed in the Maghreb over the four years here under consideration. This however is a reflection of the extraordinary recent escalation in terrorism in the country, since it accounts for 2.0% of the total terrorist attacks in Libya in 2014.

The targets of terrorist violence

More than half the targets of terrorist attacks in the Maghreb between 2011 and 2014 – 54% to be precise – were governmental targets of one or another kind (Table 3). In some 29,2% of recorded incidents were military targets, police targets in 12.3% of the cases, and other type of governmental targets in 13% other incidents. Citizens and private property were the targets of terrorism attacks in the Maghreb, over the same four year period, in 14.3% of the cases. This figure, when combined with attacks on businesses and commercial activities, religious figures, media outlets and journalists, educational institutions and non-governmental organizations and tourism, means that in no less than 33% of the cases the targets of terrorism in the Maghreb can be defined strictu sensu as civilians.

Table 3. Terrorist attacks in the Maghreb 
2011-2014, according to targets

If the percentage of attacks against targets defined strictu sensu as civilian are added to governmental targets other than those of a military or police nature, including also those of a diplomatic nature, virtually half of all the terrorist targets in the Maghreb, between 2011 and 2014, can be broadly considered as civilian. This figure does not encompass violent political organisations, including rival terrorist entities and non-governmental armed militias, which at 5.5%, account for a significant percentage of the total terrorist targets of terrorist violence in the region during that four year period.

The victims of terrorist violence

The number of deaths caused by terrorism in the Maghreb countries between 2011 and 2014 is estimated at 1,229 (Table 4). Viewed as a whole it is evidently a terrorist phenomenon characterised by a high and increasing frequency, but – given that the ratio of deaths per attack is 1.1 –a relatively low lethality. Libya accounts for almost eight out of every 10 deaths due to terrorist activity in the region. In 2012 this country accounted for 52.4% of deaths from terrorist violence in the Maghreb, a figure rising to 64.5% in 2013 and to 89.6% in 2014. By contrast, the percentages of deaths in Algeria show a gradual decrease, though the overall total for the period – 15.5% – remains considerable.

Table 4. Deaths resulting from terrorist attacks 
in the Maghreb 2011-2014, according to countries

Of the fatalities caused by terrorist attacks in the Maghreb, those taking place in Tunisia –the 5.9% – an in Morocco –a 1.4% – are significant percentages. The 17 deaths recorded in Morocco –1,4% of the total-- came about as the result of a single terrorist attack, which, as already mentioned, was perpetrated 2011 in Marrakech. Leaving this case aside, the lethality rates oscillate between 0.9 deaths per terrorist attack in Libya and 2.3 in Algeria, scene in 2013 of an attack on a gas processing facility in In Amenas, as a result of which at least 40 members of the plant’s workforce lost their lives. That ration is only higher for the suicide terrorist attacks carried out in Libya in 2013 and 2014, resulting in an average of four deaths per attack.


There were 47 times more acts of terrorism in the Maghreb as a whole in 2014 than in 2011. The frequency of terrorist attacks in the region has increased year after year and, in light of the attacks that already took place during the first half of 2015, it is unlikely that there will be any let-up in Algeria and Tunisia in the short term, although there may be some diminishment in Libya by the end of the year, due largely to the process of political dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations that was set up in the country. Be that as it may, fact is that at the outset of the anti-government revolts in 2011 the number of terrorist attacks in the Maghreb represented 0.33% of the total attacks worldwide. Four years later the figure was 4.7%.

Terrorist attacks taking place in the Maghreb are fundamentally, but not exclusively, the product of jihadist organisations directly or indirectly linked to al-Qaeda and, since 2014, followers of the self-styled IS, which has found especially favourable conditions in Libya for carrying out terrorist activities both inside the country and in adjacent ones such as Tunisia. The modalities of violence used are typical of a terrorist repertoire and its targets are both governmental as well as civilian. It is a terrorist phenomenon characterised by high and increasing frequency but relatively low lethality, although attacks have been recorded every year in the region with high numbers of fatalities.

While Libya has seen an extraordinary rise in terrorist violence, particularly since 2012, the frequency of terrorist attacks has been contained in Algeria since 2013, which is also the year when terrorism started to grow considerably in Tunisia. Morocco, on the other hand, has been notorious for an absence of attacks since 2011. These major variations are above all a reflection of the different security context existing in these four countries. These contexts may be altered however, depending on factors such as, for instance, a reorientation of the Islamist sector in the case of Morocco, a deterioration of the economic conditions in the case of Algeria, the worsening of the social situation in the case of Tunisia, or the implementation of political pacts in the case of Libya.

Fernando Reinares
Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute and currently visiting professor at the American University in Washington, DC
| @F_Reinares

1 The author wishes to thank Christopher Wall and Álvaro Vicente for their help in elaborating the tables included in this ARI.

<![CDATA[ A transatlantic conversation ]]> 2015-09-22T04:05:48Z

Speech by Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute, at the conference of experts on security and transatlantic relations held on 16 September 2015 in Washington D.C adn organised by the Wilson Center and the Elcano Royal Institute.

It is a great pleasure to be at the Woodrow Wilson Center and to have the opportunity to engage in a transatlantic conversation.

Washington is the world capital of many things, among others of think-tanks, of which the Wilson Center is a leading institution, if not the leader. It is therefore a great honour for the Elcano Royal Institute to be a partner with the Wilson Centre in hosting this event.

I hope this will be the first of more to come, both in Madrid and here.

Allow me to start with some short self-publicity, a brief presentation of the Elcano Royal Institute.

Obviously, we are an international-relations think-tank; relatively small, at least by Washington standards; and also quite young: Elcano was set up in 2001, largely as a consequence of the opening up of not only Spain’s economy but also of its society as a whole to the outside world.

Over the past decade, we have especially focused on Europe, Latin America, the Maghreb and transatlantic relations. We have also developed particularly strong programmes in defence and security affairs, global terrorism, energy and international political economy.

We have always been strong defenders, and I must include myself here, of the Atlantic alliance, in a complex country and through difficult times. After all, Spain was the first European country to become Atlantic. One has only to mention the Latin American Community, including the large Latino community in the US, to realise how true that is.

Although we are relative newcomers to the think-tank community, I am happy to say that we are gradually making a name for ourselves. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think-Tanks and Civil Society Program placed two of our papers (both prepared in cooperation with other European think-tanks, Chatham House included) among the best three published worldwide.

Finally, we are a ROYAL Institute. His Majesty King Felipe –who is very much interested in international relations, having gained an MA from Georgetown– has been our Honorary President since 2001, when he was still heir to the throne. It goes without saying that we are particularly proud of this and furthermore very grateful to His Majesty for having found the time to join us later this morning.

Finally, in case you are wondering about our name, Elcano, allow me to elaborate a little.

Juan Sebastián Elcano, not a composer as perhaps one might think, was a Basque sailor who accompanied Ferdinand Magellan on his last voyage. As you may recall, in 1520 they discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan, crossed the Pacific for the first recorded time, and when Magellan was killed in an ambush in the Philippines, Elcano took over as commander of the fleet, finally returning to Spain in 1522 after much hardship. It was the first physical endeavour of globalisation and the first recorded circumnavigation of the world.

Today, five centuries later, globalisation is an everyday reality that we experience in our smartphones and cars, in world trade, investment flows and, as we shall see later, in global terrorism and refugee flows.

But now let us turn to the issue that bring us here today: transatlantic dialogue.

“(...) a new world order is taking shape. The bipolar world is long behind us, the unipolar moment came and went and we seem to be in a transition towards a brave new world, a kind of neo-Westphalian international society. A world full of opportunities but also of risks and uncertainties. A world where the Atlantic alliance is suffering under the strain. ”

Auguste Comte, the founding father of sociology, believed that ‘demography is destiny’. So I shall start with some basic demographic figures.

At the time of my father’s birth, at the beginning of the 20th century, Europe accounted for 25% of the world’s population. When I was born, in the middle of that same century, 20% of the world’s population was still European. Today, the figure is down to only 7%. There is currently only one European country –Germany– among the world’s 20 most heavily populated countries.

Meanwhile, Asia accounts for 60% of the world’s inhabitants and Africa will soon have a population of 1,000 million, as much as Europe and the Americas combined or, in other words, as much as the whole of the Western world.

Moreover, the diffusion of technology, both hard and soft, is fuelling the economic growth of the rising demographic powers. In April 2014 the FT announced on its cover that China was already the world’s largest economy measured in Purchasing Power Parity. Meanwhile, India has overtaken Japan and Brazil’s economy is now larger than those of both the UK and France.

Naturally, the new economic powers are also rapidly becoming major political players. July provides an abundance of fresh evidence of the fact: another BRICS summit; a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union; a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; and the formal constitution of both the BRICS’ new Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Inevitably, sooner or later, political powers become military powers. Although the US continues to spend far more on defence than any other nation on earth, the gap is narrowing. And, of course, the willingness to project force is as important as the ability to do so.

In brief, a new world order is taking shape. The bipolar world is long behind us, the unipolar moment came and went and we seem to be in a transition towards a brave new world, a kind of neo-Westphalian international society. A world full of opportunities but also of risks and uncertainties. A world where the Atlantic alliance is suffering under the strain. Some think that Europe is a question of the past; some that the US might be more a liability than an asset. Euro-bashing and anti-Americanism may have faded away with the Obama Administration, but they still linger on here and there.

The latest US National Security Strategy describes Europe as an ‘indispensable partner’ and the EU officially classifies the US as a key ‘strategic partner’. Frankly speaking, I would like to see much stronger language on both sides: in my view, this is really the ONLY relationship that is truly ‘indispensable’ and ‘strategic’ for both of us.

Our most significant joint effort today is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). An ambitious TTIP could significantly boost our economies and, more importantly, provide us with a unique opportunity to advance global economic governance in a manner that ensures that our preferences and values remain influential for decades to come.

Of course, we continue to rely on each other on a vast array of issues, ranging from conventional defence, counter-terrorism, climate change, energy security and so on. In many ways, NATO remains the bedrock of the transatlantic relationship and can thus be seen as THE bedrock of overall international security.

Certainly, we need a stronger EU. More union in Europe and more Europe in the Union, as Jean Claude Juncker recently said. Let me add immediately that at Elcano we are convinced there is no alternative to a United States of Europe, even though we are fully aware of the difficulties such a thing would entail. Significantly, the Spanish government itself has included this goal in the Foreign Policy Strategy it adopted last year. Spain is now leading the project for a much closer union.

Finally, I shall turn to the specifics of this seminar: the security challenges facing us. And that means physically facing us.

Historians and intellectuals, mainly French, have frequently considered the Mediterranean as the Romans did, an area of communication, a kind of inland sea, the Mare Nostrum. However, more frequently, the Mediterranean has been a frontier, a border, one of the two barriers that have shielded Europe and helped give rise to a specific European civilisation. On this occasion I shall say nothing about the other border, the Eastern one.

But what I want to convey to you is that Europe’s Southern border is, probably, the world’s most deeply marked, contrasting frontier, separating two completely different social worlds. There are two major religions, two cultures, two main language groups and distinct histories.

The cultural divide overlaps what is also the world’s deepest socio-economic divide: GDP per capita in Spain and Italy is around US$35,000; Morocco’s is around US$5,000 dollars; Egypt’s is just above US$6,000 and Algeria’s over US$7,000. That is a difference in wealth of one to seven, exactly twice the gap between the US and Mexico.

And, once again, add demography: Africa’s median age is 20, while the median age in the EU is 42.

To compound matters, there are Islamic terrorist groups freely roaming throughout the huge and desolate lands of the Sahara and the Sahel, from Mauritania to South Sudan, pressing northwards and southwards, destabilising the MENA countries –some of them failed States– and also penetrating to the Mediterranean through the Libyan corridor and to the Atlantic towards West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. And just be aware of some data: terrorist attacks in the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) multiplied by 47 between 2011 and 2014. There were 15 terrorist attacks in the region in 2011, 90 in 2012, 302 in 2013 and 698 in 2014.

This goes a long way to explaining the dramatic flow of refugees and immigrants. A few years ago they were moving from Eastern Africa to the Canary Islands and Spain. Later, mainly due to a successful containment policy implemented by Spain with countries such as Morocco and Mauritania, they began moving from North of Africa to Italy. And now they are moving from the Middle East to Turkey, Greece, Hungary and, finally, to who knows where. This human tide of huge proportions is putting the Schengen Treaty and even European democracy itself to the test.

But this is not just a European frontier. It is a world frontier, a frontier of the Western World. Probably more the revenge of geography than a clash of civilisations, to make a couple of references that everyone will recognise.

Spain is attempting to show the reality of NATO’s Southern border as a major problem. This is not an easy task because problems to the East seem more tangible and urgent. Spain needs US support to increase NATO’s interest in the South, translating the token expression of support agreed at the Wales Summit into actual specific measures. When NATO’s Secretary General came to visit the Elcano Royal Institute a few months ago we tried to convince him of this priority.

To conclude, the US may not be the hyper-puissance it once was, as Hubert Védrine said a few years ago, but it is still an ‘indispensable nation’ in Madeleine Albright’s oft-quoted expression. However, big countries always try to take their place in history. This already occurred at the turn of the 19th century when the US, Germany and Japan emerged as world powers. The process, making room in the world for new powers, cost us two world wars.

So it is to be hoped that we might manage things better now.

As President Obama has acknowledged, no single country in the world, however powerful, is capable of dealing with all these challenges on its own. That is why we Europeans are trying to build an ever-closer Union, a Union that should bridge the Atlantic and be linked to another union: e pluribus unum.

There is no alternative to a strong and healthy transatlantic relationship for the 21st century.

Thank you very much.

<![CDATA[ Keynote address by His Majesty the King of Spain. Transatlantic Conversation: Confronting Common Security Challenges ]]> 2015-09-17T03:52:33Z

Text of the keynote address by His Majesty the King of Spain at the conference of experts on security and transatlantic relations held on 16 September 2015 in Washington D.C adn organised by the Wilson Center and the Elcano Royal Institute.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me tell you how pleased I am to be here today for this ‘transatlantic conversation’ on our common security challenges, jointly organized by the Wilson Center and the Elcano Royal Institute. 

I would like to start by thanking the honorable Jane Harman and her staff here at the Wilson Center for making this event possible. As you all know, she has had a very distinguished career in the legislative branch, and is the first woman to lead this venerable institution, something that both she and the Center should be very proud of.

Let me also thank the chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute, Professor Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, for his enthusiastic support in this initiative. Professor Lamo de Espinosa is one of Spain’s leading public intellectuals, and strong believer in the importance of the transatlantic relationship. As you may know, I hold the honorary presidency of Elcano since its foundation (close to 15 Years ago), and I’m happy to publicly thank him for his effective and inspiring leadership of an institution I value very highly.

I am particularly pleased to see both our institutions coming together to host this event. As I understand it, the major goal of the Wilson Center, a living memorial to one of the greatest US presidents of all time, is to honor him by providing a bridge between the world of ideas and the world of policy so as to better serve the public interest.

I think it is fair to say that this reasoning is very similar to that which led us to establish the Elcano Royal Institute back in 2001, when I was still the heir to the throne. Ultimately, both our institutions aim to understand the world better, and to share that knowledge with decision-makers and our citizenry at large to help make the world a better place.

Given our common aims and interests, I very much hope that today’s meeting will be the first of many joint ventures between the Wilson Center and the Elcano Royal Institute. As well as contributing to our understanding of complex, challenging issues such as those you have been discussing this morning, it would also help us strengthen what is already a very rich and fruitful bilateral relationship between our two countries.

Relations between states and government officials will always be essential. In this framework, we must acknowledge the positive contribution of prestigious think tanks, such as Wilson Center or Real Instituto Elcano, regarding a better understanding of the current challenges, as well as the better ways to face and overcome them.

We are here today to participate in what we have described as a ‘transatlantic conversation’, and I would like to make a few remarks about how Spain views the transatlantic relationship. Anyone who has ever looked at a map of the world, or has read a bit of history, will immediately understand why the transatlantic relationship is specifically crucial to Spain.

The main reason is that, in a very real sense, Spain is an American nation. As I argued in a talk I gave at Harvard University a couple of years ago, we are an American nation in the sense that, for well-known historical and cultural reasons, we have a very substantial American identity.

“Today’s transatlantic relationship is about values, values which are deeply embedded in our respective national cultures. Most importantly, it is premised on our shared faith in freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, and a rules-based international order.”

I raise this because we all have a tendency to forget about Spain's centuries-long presence in a large part of North America; initially in the south and south-west of what is today the United States, and eventually in the entire territory to the west of the Mississippi river. Similarly, the entire Pacific coast from California to Alaska, including present-day Canadian territories, were explored and incorporated into Spain's dominions some 250 years ago. The first town founded in U.S. soil was San Agustín by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. This month we are all commemorating its 450th anniversary.

In many ways, of course, this not only makes Spain an American nation; it also means that the US is deeply ‘hispanic’, there are more than 50 million people from hispanic origin in this country. Two Spaniards, Junípero Serra and Bernardo de Gálvez, are a part of your history as well as ours. And there are many others that helped to strengthen ties between our two countries.

Today’s transatlantic relationship is about our common interests in such key areas as trade and security. Regarding security, let me remind you that in just the last few years the U.S. and Spain have signed two new protocols amending our Defense Agreement. Under these two new protocols, four American destroyers are currently deployed at Rota Naval Base and a Marine task force is operating from Moron Air Base.

Above all, today’s transatlantic relationship is about values, values which are deeply embedded in our respective national cultures. Most importantly, it is premised on our shared faith in freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, and a rules-based international order.

I think it is important to remember all this given the many challenges we currently face. Many of these —climate change, nuclear proliferation, global terrorism— are of a magnitude such that no single nation, however powerful, can tackle them on its own. More than ever, what is at stake leaves us no other way than to work together. Global threats need global solutions. The best way to guarantee our safety is to find a way to close tight alliances. Today I would like to reiterate that, from a Spanish and a European perspective, the United States is our indispensable partner in dealing with these challenges.

The Eurozone, one of the most developed and prosperous regions in the world, has been affected by economic difficulties. Spain, as a part of it, has experienced a six year-long double-dip recession which has taken a very heavy toll. Fortunately, the recession is finally over, and although we still face some daunting problems, including —most importantly— an unacceptably high unemployment rate, the worst is finally behind us. In fact, Spain currently enjoys one of the highest growth rates in Europe.

These problems, serious though they are, have not prevented Europe from being a responsible, active partner in the transatlantic relationship. When it comes to the key issues —whether it is the struggle against climate change, the fight against jihadist terrorism, the future of Afghanistan, or attempts to create a fairer, more inclusive system of global economic governance— the U.S. can rest assured in the knowledge that Europeans remain committed to what we continue to see as one of the cornerstones of the international system.

Finally, I would like to mention a pressing issue for Europe but also for other regions of the world including the U.S. I am referring to the flow of refugees fleeing from countries at war. It is indeed a complex matter that must be addressed from many perspectives but always inspired by a greater sense of humanity and the protection of Human Rights.

Today we have only had time to address some of these key issues. I very much hope that we will be able to meet again soon, perhaps in Madrid, and continue to live up to the Wilsonian ideal of generating knowledge in the public interest.

Thank you very much.

(See also: Transatlantic Conversation: Confronting Common Security Challenges)

<![CDATA[ Catalonia and the evolution of jihadist terrorism in Spain ]]> 2015-04-30T04:14:34Z For more than a decade the available data have shown that four out of every 10 individuals convicted in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism were arrested in Catalonia, and more specifically Barcelona and its metropolitan area. ]]> Original version in Spanish: Cataluña y la evolución del terrorismo yihadista en España.

The latest arrests in Spain of individuals presumed to be involved in activities related to jihadist terrorism occurred in Catalonia on Wednesday 8 April. They were part of a cell of followers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) that aimed to perpetrate an attack in Catalonia. It was Catalonia also, or more specifically Barcelona, that saw in 1995 the first arrest in Spain of a member of one of the terrorist organisations linked to the jihadist phenomenon, the Algerian Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA), at that time closely linked to al-Qaeda.

Of the total number of individuals sentenced for jihadist-related terrorist criminal offences between 1996 and 2013, 33.3% were arrested in Catalonia –up to 28.6% in the province of Barcelona– and 30.6% were resident in that Autonomous Community –again, similarly, up to 23.5% in the province of Barcelona–. But these percentages are significantly higher when considering those sentenced who were arrested between 2004 and 2012, rising to respectively 37.5% and 35.7%. Thus, four out of every 10 individuals sentenced for jihadist terrorist activities in Spain during the period were located in Catalonia.

Catalonia was also where the Egyptian Mohamed Atta –the ringleader of the suicide terrorists responsible for the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington– and the Yemenite Ramzi Binalshibh –who liaised between the September 11 cell and the al-Qaeda leadership– met two months before putting their plans into action in order to work out final details. Their meeting was held between the towns of Salou and Cambrils in the Catalonian province of Tarragona, very close to the home of another al-Qaeda member, an Algerian who was in touch with the most important members of the so-called Abu Dahdah cell that the terrorist organisation had established in Spain in 1994.

A jihadist cell linked to al-Qaeda was broken up as a result of the antiterrorist operation carried out in Catalonia in January 2003. Its members were in possession of mobile phones that were identical to those used a little more than a year later in the 11 March terrorist attacks in Madrid and had been altered in a similar way. Furthermore, those who had fled after 11-M to Iraq passed through Santa Coloma de Gramanet, a town in the province of Barcelona where members of the Moroccan Islamic Combattant Group (Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, GICM) were active. The latter were linked to facilitators of another jihadist organisation associated to al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, Ansar al-Islam (AI).

At the time, Catalonia had more than 100 Islamic places of worship, and that number has now doubled. In no less than a quarter of them the presence was detected of extremists related to jihadist organisations such as –in addition to those mentioned above– the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat(GSPC) as well as of numerous adepts of Hizb ut Tahir and of Tabligh Jamaat communities, which are non-violent fundamentalist entities but that, similarly to fundamentalist Salafism, promote beliefs that are incompatible with the democratic values of an open society. In Catalonia there are around 50 Salafist worship places, half of all those currently in existence in Spain.

Barcelona and not Madrid was the target for an 11-M-style repeat attack in January 2008. Ten Pakistani-born individuals, seven of them resident in Barcelona and one a naturalised Spanish citizen, in addition to an Indian national, were sentenced for being party to a planned, most likely suicide bomb attack, thwarted at an early stage of preparation, against the Barcelona metro. The plan had a direct link to Therik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), one of the main associate organisations of al-Qaeda. Prominent senior members of the latter received funds from another jihadist cell broken up by the authorities in Catalonia in September 2004.

Since 2013, with the start in Spain of the antiterrorist operations aimed at dismantling networks connected to jihadist organisations based in Syria and Iraq, 35.3% of those suspected to be involved in them have been arrested in Catalonia, the Autonomous Community in which 39.5% of them were resident, and up to 31.8% and 36% of the total, respectively, in the province of Barcelona. These percentages are in line with the upward trend noted for the past decade that indicate that four out of every 10 individuals convicted for jihadist-related terrorist activities were linked to Catalonia, especially Barcelona and its metropolitan area.

Overall, Catalonia is over-represented in these figures, considering the number of immigrants from countries with Muslim majorities and their descendants in the Autonomous Community of Catalonia –mainly Moroccans and Pakistanis– since they account for no more than 26% of the total in Spain. The figures particularly over-represent the province of Barcelona that, although the home to the largest number of individuals of such an origin, accounts for only 16% of the Spanish total. Furthermore, in the Catalan case, radicalisation processes have begun to affect other segments of society, with a striking emergence of jihadist converts.

Fernando Reinares is Senior Analyst for International Terrorism, Elcano Royal Institute | @F_Reinares

Carola García-Calvo is analyst at the Global Terrorism Programme, Elcano Royal Institute | @carolagc13

<![CDATA[ Why did the Madrid train bombings divide, not unite Spaniards? ]]> 2015-03-13T12:00:44Z When 11-M occurred, Spaniards sought to explain the terrorist bombings using familiar concepts, since they could not do so using unfamiliar ones. What was familiar? On the one hand, ETA, and on the other, Iraq. Both interpretations were wrong. ]]> (*) Originally published in El País in English on 11/3/2015. Also available  the Spanish version: Por  qué el 11-M dividió a los españoles.

Contrary to what happened in British society after the London attacks on July 7, 2005, the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 profoundly divided Spanish society.

The after effects of that disunity persist, although they have become less manifest with time. The disunity was, and continues to be, based on differing attributions of blame for the commuter train massacre. Yet it proved to be a spurious division resulting from a politicization of 11-M, as the attacks came to be known.

This situation, in turn, was made possible by specific features of the Spanish political system – such as its greater penchant for polarization, or the recurring absence of cross-party consensus on matters of defense, foreign affairs or counter-terrorism – but above all because citizens were unaware of a terrorist threat that had been present in Spanish society for a full decade before 11-M.

Some Spaniards, particularly those whose political beliefs lie on the right of the spectrum, believed (and partly still do) that the Madrid attacks were somehow the work of Basque terrorist organization ETA. The most common version of this argument goes that the moritos de Lavapiés (or, the Little Moors from Lavapiés) – an odd way to talk about the people who set up the 11-M terrorist network – lacked the knowledge and ability to carry out the March 11, 2004 attacks.

That is why, even though these individuals took part in the events, they must have been induced and supported from within Spain by other, more experienced terrorists. Often, this argument is supplemented with speculation about the way José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – the new Socialist prime minister who emerged out of general elections held three days after 11-M – later offered ETA a transformative way out via an ultimately failed negotiation process instead of trying to defeat it.

Other Spaniards, mostly those on the left of this political spectrum, believed (and more than a few still do) that the attacks of March 11, 2004 were a consequence of the “Azores photograph,” a reference to a shot taken on March 16, 2003 on one of the Portuguese islands that illustrated the affinity between the Spanish prime minister at the time, José María Aznar of the center-right Popular Party (PP), and then-US President George W. Bush and his war on terror.

This affinity led to the subsequent deployment of Spanish troops in Iraq shortly after the US invaded the country and toppled its dictator Saddam Hussein. It has not been unusual for this sector of Spanish society to criticize the PP for its insistence on associating ETA with 11-M even after the evidence pointed elsewhere, in order to protect its voting expectations at an election that was held just three days after the bombings.

In truth, both interpretations of 11-M were erroneous, and the lacerating rift that divided Spaniards, including the surviving victims themselves, continues to be deceiving. There is no direct or indirect evidence that ETA was somehow involved in the bomb attacks. Nor is it true that the idea of perpetrating a massacre in Madrid originated in the presence of Spanish soldiers on Iraqi soil.

Like I explain and document in my book ¡Matadlos! Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (or, Kill them! Who was behind 11-M and why was Spain attacked?), the decision to carry out that act of terrorism was made in December 2001 in the Pakistani city of Karachi, and ratified at a meeting that delegates from three jihadist organizations from the Maghreb region held in Istanbul in February 2002. Besides that, what later became the 11-M network began forming the following month, over a year before the Iraq invasion took place.

But it was not really necessary to investigate the 11-M attacks, or to unveil new information about them, to avoid this division between Spaniards – even though doing so has helped narrow the gap. It would have been enough if, like the British, we Spaniards had been sufficiently aware of the threat of jihadist terrorism hovering over our heads since well before the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since at least 1997, reports sent in by the Foreign Intelligence Central Unit (UCIE) of the National Police to investigating judges at the High Court – in charge of authorizing wiretaps of jihadists active in Spain – were warning about the need for investigations “to prevent the highly probable perpetration of attacks in our country.”

During my book presentations throughout the past year in numerous Spanish cities, I was able to certify that, even among citizens with an interest in the issue who were adults when the Madrid bombings took place, there was a huge lack of awareness about the expansion of jihadism in our country since the mid-1990s. Practically nobody – or at least very few people – knew that back in 1994 Al Qaeda had founded in Spain one of its most important cells in all Western Europe, or that this cell was broken up in November 2001 after it was shown to have ties with the people who committed the 9/11 attacks on US soil.

Practically nobody was aware that throughout 2003, the year before 11-M, over 40 individuals were arrested in Spain for their involvement in jihadist terrorism activities. That figure had not been so high since the first jihadist arrest in Barcelona in 1995 and the first breakup of a jihadist cell in Valencia in 1997.

This lack of awareness about these and many other incidents relating to the evolution of jihadist terrorism in Spain in the decade prior to the Madrid attacks, and the fact that this reality was not perceived as a threat by Spanish public opinion until very late, and then only after the Iraq crisis of 2002, can be partly explained by all the attention that ETA’s frequent terrorist attacks were getting. But there was no adequate education by the political class regarding a problem that was even trivialized on occasion – suffice it to mention the humorously titled Operation Dixán, named after a brand of detergent.

As a result, when 11-M occurred, Spaniards sought to explain the terrorist bombings using familiar concepts, since they could not do so using unfamiliar ones. What was familiar? On the one hand, ETA, and on the other, Iraq. If 11-M divided us, it is because we as a society lacked the necessary resilience against large-scale terrorist attacks beyond our immediate crisis and emergency management skills.

At present, with global jihadism more widespread than ever and the terrorist threat against liberal democracies at levels unseen since 9/11, Spain’s political elites and civil society as a whole, especially the media, have a pending challenge: to make Spain less vulnerable, more aware and increasingly resilient to the penetration of jihadist actors and ideologies as well as to any future expressions of their violence against our own citizens and interests.

Fernando Reinares is Senior Analyst on international terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute think tank, a professor of political science at Rey Juan Carlos University and an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of ¡Matadlos! Quién estuvo detrás del 11-M y por qué se atentó en España (Galaxia Gutenberg / Círculo de Lectores, 2014) | @F_Reinares

<![CDATA[ The interplay between terrorism, insurgency, and civil war in the Middle East ]]> 2015-01-23T10:22:48Z Terrorist groups are generally distinguished from guerrilla organisations, but this distinction is gradually disappearing as a growing number of terrorist groups adopt guerrilla tactics. ]]> Terrorism Words. Photo: Watchdog Wire.
(Watchdog Wire)

Theme[1]: Terrorist groups are generally distinguished from guerrilla organisations, but this distinction is gradually disappearing as a growing number of terrorist groups adopt guerrilla tactics. This study first offers some empirical evidence in support of this claim and then argues that in light of the growing divergence between terrorist and guerrilla organisations, most terrorist groups are better conceptualised as insurgent organisations. Such an approach can help analysts adopt a greater nuance in examining terrorist groups, leading to improved policies to stem the evolving threat of terrorism.

Summary: This paper first offers some empirical support to the idea that the vast majority of contemporary terrorist groups use a combination of terrorist and guerrilla tactics.[2] It then argues that these transformations would benefit from a growing reliance on concepts drawn from the insurgency and counterinsurgency literature on the part of analysts in order to fully appreciate the evolving nature of these groups. Finally, the study calls for increased correspondence and cross-fertilisation between terrorism studies and the scholarship on insurgency and counterinsurgency, as well as the literature on civil wars. We believe that such an interdisciplinary effort can offer a more lucid and dispassionate conceptualisation of these groups, of the full range of their activities and of the broader context in which they tend to operate. Such an approach, in turn, can improve policies to address the threat posed by these violent actors.

Analysis: In the summer of 2014, three prominent militant groups commonly classified as terrorist organisations engaged in significant combat operations that featured capabilities and tactics exceeding those traditionally ascribed to terrorist groups. These groups also achieved rare battlefield successes untypical of ordinary terrorist groups. The ‘Islamic State’ (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS) has been able to extend its stronghold and create an imposing presence over large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq, while threatening other neighbouring countries such as Jordan. The Lebanese Hizballah, dubbed by some analysts as ‘among the most skilled light infantry on the planet’,[3] continues to amass significant battlefield experience through its ongoing involvement in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the incumbent Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Finally, in the Gaza Strip, the militant Islamist group Hamas has posed formidable challenges to Israeli military forces and civilians using a combination of terrorist and insurgent tactics. These trends also apply to other groups in broader geographical regions, including al-Qaeda. As a recent article by Jihadism scholar J.M. Berger argued, even al-Qaeda, broadly defined, is currently focused on fighting ‘wars and insurgencies’, while it conducts terrorism only ‘on the side’.[4]

This paper argues that the examples above indicate a broader transformation of terrorist groups into insurgent actors that increasingly combine the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics.

Terrorism, guerrilla and insurgency
The existing scholarship on terrorism and its perpetrators suggests that terrorist groups differ from other militant actors such as guerrilla organisations. Terrorist groups and guerrilla organisations are said to differ, among other things, in their target selection. As Alex Schmid notes in his magisterial volume on terrorism research, ‘in the dominant understanding among experts, the victims [of terrorism] are predominantly not members of an armed force’.[5] Moreover, terrorist groups are generally considered to be smaller in size, while employing uncompromising violence. Conventional wisdom holds that the secret nature and small size of terrorist organisations generally prevents them from holding territory, while their focus on extreme violence prevents them from enjoying popular support.[6] Bruce Hoffman, for example, writes that terrorists do not function in the open as armed units, generally do not attempt to seize or hold territory, deliberately avoid engaging enemy military forces in combat, are constrained both numerically and logistically from undertaking concerted mass political mobilization efforts, and exercise no direct control or governance over a populace at either the local or the national level’.[7] Terrorist groups, in other words, are generally considered to have a modus operandi that differs from those of guerrilla groups.

A cursory look at contemporary ‘terrorist groups’, however, suggests that these groups regularly carry out guerrilla operations as well. In the existing literature, guerrilla attacks are said to typically emphasise extended campaigns of assassination, sabotage and hit-and-run attacks carried out by small and highly mobile paramilitary units. Like the tactics of terrorism, guerrilla warfare is described as a ‘weapon of the weak’ designed to harass the enemy and gradually erode his will. Yet where terrorism is in essence an act of psychological warfare –it hopes to turn the targeted population against its own government–, guerrilla operations primarily target their enemy’s capabilities.[8] Functioning as ‘small armies’, potent guerrilla forces are large and strong enough to seize and hold territory. Moreover, guerrilla tactics differ from terrorist tactics in terms of its main targets. While the prime targets of guerrilla fighters are the enemy’s armed forces, police or support units, as well as general government and economic targets, the targets of terrorist groups are usually understood to be civilians and, at most, non-combatants.[9]

Whereas terrorist groups have traditionally been treated as distinct from guerrilla organisations, many contemporary militant groups apply both terrorist and guerrilla tactics. As Robert Scales and Douglas Ollivant argue, a growing array of Islamist ‘terrorists’ have turned into ‘skilled soldiers’ who increasingly use a blend of traditional terrorist tactics and modern war-fighting techniques.[10] Contemporary militants continue to use terrorist tactics to intimidate potential supporters and enemies alike, but their modus operandi has evolved into skills that can pose considerable challenges to states and their populations. They now ‘maneuver in reasonably disciplined formations… and employ mortars and rockets in deadly barrages’. They rely on ambushes, roadside bombings, sniper fire and other tactics that in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan have imposed considerable challenges and losses to US forces. Groups such as the Islamic State, Hizballah and Hamas are able to handle second-generation weapons such as Russian RPG-29s and possibly wire-guided anti-tank missiles and build sophisticated underground tunnel systems.[11]

Empirical support for the growing terrorism-guerrilla nexus
One criterion by which to measure the growing crossover of terrorism and guerrilla tactics is to examine the choice of targets. Specifically, this analysis examines the targeting choices of groups defined as ‘terrorist groups’ by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) of the University of Maryland, one of the most extensive and widely employed databases on terrorism. We examined all groups in the period between 2002 and 2012 that carried out at least six attacks –the minimum required to render the statistical analysis meaningful–.[12] 2012 is the last year for which data is available through the GTD, and we examined a period of more than 10 years because a shorter period would have significantly lowered the number of groups that would have reached the set minimum of six attacks. Furthermore, focusing on this time period allows for the analysis of contemporary militant actors, thereby rendering our study more policy relevant. These requirements left us with 119 groups to analyse. For each group we recorded the total number of attacks during that period and examined the distribution of target types, with a focus on attacks against civilians, general and diplomatic government targets, military targets and attacks against the police.[13] We expected a sizeable portion of the targets of these organisations to be military, government or police targets –a finding that would lend credence to our hypothesis that terrorist groups use guerrilla tactics as well–.

As the following analysis shows, the data strongly suggest that terrorist groups indeed use a combination of guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The analysis first focused on data for the universe of groups active in that decade. For these 119 groups, the average percentage of attacks against civilians is 32% (with a median of 28.6%). As Figure 1 shows, on average civilians are the favoured targets for these groups but such attacks account for no more than a third of the total. As much as 16% of the attacks were aimed at military targets, 15.3% against government targets and 13.4% against police targets. When combined, these targets generally considered typical for guerrilla operations –such as military, government and police targets– are targeted in 44.7% of the cases –a significantly higher figure than for civilians, the classic target of terrorism–.

Figure 1. Terrorist groups: average distribution by target type, 

We then conducted a more focused analysis on the target selection of ‘terrorist groups’ active in the Middle East and North Africa. In sum, groups active in the Middle East and North Africa are more likely to attack civilian targets compared with their counterparts in the other geographic locations combined. Still, attacks that could also be considered guerrilla attacks, ie, against military, police and government targets, outnumber attacks against civilian targets. The 10 most active groups labelled as terrorist groups by the GTD that operate in the Middle East and North Africa aim for non-civilian targets 47.3% of the time and civilian targets 41.8% of the time.

Figure 2. The 10 most active groups in the Middle East and North 
Africa: target selection

Figure 3. The 10 most active groups in the Middle East and North 
Africa: target type (civilians vs non-civilians)

In conclusion, an empirical analysis strongly suggests that if terrorist attacks are defined as attacks against civilian targets only, the common labelling of these groups as ‘terrorist groups’ is, strictly speaking, only partially accurate.

Adopting concepts from insurgency and counterinsurgency theory
The trends emerging from our data analysis seem to suggest that what are commonly labelled ‘terrorist groups’ are in fact entities that engage in terrorism in addition to using other tactics. We argue that an existing concept, that of ‘insurgent group’, is most useful in describing this development.[14] The concept accounts for the generally observable interplay between violent and nonviolent (ie, political) means of struggle, for these groups’ reliance on either single or multiple tactics and for the fact that terrorism most often emerges in the context of a broader armed conflict such as a civil war.

The US Army/US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual offers a definition of insurgency that synthesises the dominant view among insurgency and COIN theorists. It describes insurgency as ‘an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control’.[15] Subversion and armed conflict –the interplay of political and violent means– are the two main ways in which insurgents seek to attain their goals. The concept of insurgency can help overcome the conceptual difficulties regarding the proper labelling of many contemporary militant groups because theorists of insurgency have long argued that insurgents typically rely on several modes of warfare at once. Although theoretically these modes of warfare do not have to include acts of terrorism –insurgents can rely, for example, on a combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics– they almost always do. Ariel Merari, for instance, observed that ‘whenever possible, insurgents use concurrently a variety of strategies of struggle. Terrorism, which is the easiest form of insurgency, is practically always one of these modes’.[16]

Viewing terrorist groups as insurgent groups should not be seen as an attempt to play down the fact that these groups frequently commit acts of indiscriminate violence. Yet it does help place these acts in a broader context of a more complex reality. Based on this understanding, even the most violent groups using the most despicable tactics are likely to spend most of their time and energy doing something other than killing civilians –fighting regular troops and government forces and subverting their enemies by means of propaganda and other political means–.

Of course, as the late terrorism scholar Paul Wilkinson noted, ‘it is possible to engage in acts of terrorism without mounting a full-scale insurgency’. [17] Self-standing campaigns of terrorism detached from broader conflicts, however, are becoming increasingly rare, and have always been the exception. According to Wilkinson, historically, acts of terrorism have been used as ‘part of a wider repertoire of struggle’.[18] Recent research on the interplay between terrorism and civil wars –the dominant type of warfare since World War II– confirms the ongoing relevance of Wilkinson’s assessment. According to data assembled and analysed by Michael Findley and Joseph K. Young, most incidents of terrorism ‘take place in the geographic regions where civil war is occurring and during the ongoing war’.[19] Civil wars are typically coded, inter alia, as wars between at least two parties, one of which is the government. The conduct of civil wars is therefore, by definition, marked by insurgency and counterinsurgency, again suggesting a close interrelationship between terrorism and insurgencies.

Conclusion: We believe that conceptualising of contemporary terrorist groups as ‘insurgent groups’ offers a far more nuanced approach that more accurately reflects reality on the ground. The approach helps acknowledge a number of important caveats: (1) terrorist groups use, almost without exception, terrorism in conjunction with other tactics, notably guerrilla warfare; (2) terrorist groups are becoming more sophisticated political actors, at times even striving to win over hearts and minds of local populations; and (3) terrorism is rarely a self-standing phenomenon as most terrorism occurs in the context of broader armed conflict, typically in cases of insurgency and/or civil war.

The analytical employment of the ‘insurgent group’ concept can contribute to a deeper theoretical understanding of the power distribution challenge that insurgent groups pose to governments by using terror. In addition, the suggested label can be useful in explaining the adoption of both violent (including terrorism) and nonviolent means of political struggle, based on the present political, economic and social conditions on the ground. Furthermore, the use of the label ‘insurgent groups’ allows a more comprehensive perspective on the dynamic relations between politically-motivated violent actors that use terrorism as a tactic, governments and other relevant actors. Finally, in terms of policy, the use of the suggested framework will provide a broader perspective of the insurgents’ political development, a better grasp of its network of contacts and supporters and it may also afford a considerable flexibility to policy decision-making.

Theoretically our conclusions also call for closer intellectual interaction between the terrorism and insurgency studies fields, as well as to the study of civil wars. Closer correspondence between these related fields can help shed more light on the political aspects of the campaigns in which terrorism occurs. Recognising that ‘terrorist’ violence, brutal and wanton as it is, cannot be divorced from these groups’ additional activities can assist in the formulation of better policies. Such policies should combine political and military components to address what is in essence a political-military threat. Finally, viewing terrorism as a phenomenon closely related to insurgency and civil war will allow analysts to pool the insights and best practices from academic fields that have thus far been treated separately. The study of terrorism, insurgency and civil wars not only suffer from a disconnect as far as the analysis of their causes are concerned: analyses of how these different phenomena might end are similarly compartmentalised. Insights from the study of the termination of civil wars and insurgencies, for example, are likely to inform future studies of the decline and demise of groups heavily reliant on terrorism, and vice versa.

Assaf Moghadam
Director of Academic Affairs, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya

[1] The author is grateful to Ronit Berger and Polina Beliakova for research support.

[2] The targeting of civilians is generally considered a key aspect of terrorism. On this point, see especially Boaz Ganor (2005), The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers, Transaction Publishers, p. 1-24. Most scholars, however, expand that category of victims to civilians as well as noncombatants. See Alex P. Schmid (Ed.) (2013), The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, Routledge, Oxford & New York, p. 39-157. For a recent discussion of guerrilla tactics targeting primarily government targets and armed forces, see Max Boot (2013), Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, WW Norton & Company, p. xxii-xxiv. For a classic treatment of the topic, see Walter Laqueur (1976), Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study, Transaction Publishers.

[3] Robert H. Scales & Douglas Ollivant (2014), ‘Terrorist Armies Fight Smarter and Deadlier than Ever’, Washington Post, 1/VIII/2014, (accessed 6/VIII/2014).

[4] J.M. Berger (2014), ‘War on Error’, Foreign Policy, 5/II/2014, (accessed 24/VII/2014).

[5] Alex P. Schmid & Albert I. Jongman (1988), Political Terrorism. A Research Guide to Concepts, Theories, Databases and Literature, Transaction Publishers, Amsterdam & New Brunswick.

[6] See James Khalil (2013), ‘Know Your Enemy: On the Futility of Distinguishing between Terrorists and Insurgents’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 36, nr 5, p. 419-430. On a traditional description of terrorist groups, see Martha Crenshaw (1985), ‘An Organizational Approach to the Analysis of Political Terrorism’, Orbis-A Journal of World Affairs, vol. 29, nr, p. 465-489. See also Bruce Hoffman (2006), Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, chapter 1.

[7] Hoffman, op. cit., p. 35.

[8] For classic doctrinal formulations of guerrilla warfare, see Samuel B. Griffith (1978), Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare, Anchor Press; Guevara, Ernesto ‘Che’ (1998), Guerrilla Warfare, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln; and Robert Taber (1970), The War of the Flea: A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practice, Paladin, London.

[9] For a comparison of terrorism and guerrilla strategies, see Bard E. O’Neill (2005), Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd edition, Potomac Books, Washington DC; Laqueur (1976), op. cit.; Boot (2003), op. cit.; and Ariel Merari (1993), ‘Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency’, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 5, nr 4, p. 213-251.

[10] Scales & Ollivant (2014), op. cit.

[11] Scales & Ollivant (2014), ibid.

[12] The GTD database distinguishes between a large number of target types, but five of these were of particular significance to this project: civilians, diplomatic, government, military and police targets. We chose a minimum of six attacks because if a group listed in the GTD database attacked each one of the target types included in the database, setting six attacks as the minimum would ensure that at least one target type was targeted more than the others. A lower cut-off point would render the statistical analysis less meaningful.

[13] As stated earlier, the GTD provides information about many other target types-However, these are of less importance to this project. Additionally, we eventually excluded one of the target types –attacks on (diplomatic) government targets– from our charts and the final analysis as this type of target was rarely struck compared with the other target types, not used by most groups and lacked sufficient weight for an empirical analysis.

[14] We are not the first authors to do so. For similar arguments, see for example Merari (1993), op. cit.; David J. Kilcullen (2005), Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, nr 4, p. 597-617; and Khalil (2013), op. cit.

[15] US Department of the Army (2007), The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, US Army Field manual nr 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting publication nr 3-33.5, University of Chicago Press. This definition is similar to the definition in other classic texts on insurgency. Compare, for example, O’Neill (2005), op. cit.; David Galula (1964), Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Frederick Praeger, New York, and John A. Nagl (2009), Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, University of Chicago Press.

[16] Merari (1993), op. cit.. For a similar view, see also Kilcullen (2005), op. cit.

[17] Paul Wilkinson (2011), Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response, 3rd edition, Routledge, Oxford & New York, p. 10.

[18] Wilkinson (2011), ibid.

[19] Michael G. Findley & Joseph K. Young (2012), ‘Terrorism and Civil War. A Spatial and Temporal Approach to a Conceptual Problem’, Perspectives on Politics, vol. 10, nr 2, 2012, p. 286.