The Spanish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria

The Spanish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria

(*)This article was originally published in CTC Sentinel, vol 7, Issue 1, 2014 (Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy).

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, foreign fighters from various European countries have joined the war against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Spain has not been immune to this mobilization. According to Spanish counterterrorism officials, at least 17 Spanish residents joined jihadist groups in Syria between April 2012 and November 2013.[1] Those jihadist groups include Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Harakat Sham al-Islam. Additionally, Spain’s corresponding security agencies in Morocco have identified three other Spanish residents who have traveled to fight with jihadist groups in Syria.

In total, Spanish and Moroccan counterterrorism services estimate that 20 Spanish residents have traveled to fight with jihadist groups in Syria.[2] Eleven of the 20 are Spanish citizens, while the remaining nine are Moroccan nationals living in Spain.[3] Separately, an estimated 25 other Spanish residents have traveled to fight in Syria for the non-jihadist Free Syrian Army (FSA).[4]

This article examines the 20 known Spanish residents who traveled to Syria to fight with JN, the ISIL and Harakat Sham al-Islam. It finds that 11 are Spaniards, suggesting that homegrown jihadist activity is becoming a more salient phenomenon in Spain, even if territorially concentrated in Ceuta. Most of the 20 individuals had no known jihadist activity predating their decision to join the war in Syria, but they were radicalized and recruited top-down by experienced agents with wide international connections active in the Spanish-Moroccan jihadist network.

Spanish and Moroccan Men from Ceuta
Most of the 11 Spaniards who joined jihadist groups in Syria are from the city of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave across the Gibraltar Straits in North Africa surrounded by Moroccan territory. Ceuta’s population is close to 85,000 people, of which approximately 37% are native Muslims.[5] The nine Moroccans who joined jihadist groups in Syria lived in Ceuta, as well as in peninsular localities such as Girona in Catalonia and Malaga in Andalusia.[6]

Ceuta has experienced jihadist activity in the past.[7] In 2006, security forces conducted Operation Duna in the city, apprehending 10 Spaniards and one Moroccan accused of involvement in jihadist terrorism, although nine of those finally indicted were all subsequently absolved.[8] In 2007, authorities arrested three Spaniards living in Ceuta and convicted them of illegal activities related to jihadist terrorism.[9] Between June and September 2013, Operation Cesto concluded, and the police detained 10 suspects on charges of belonging to a terrorist network with international connections, engaged in the radicalization and recruitment of individuals for al-Qa`ida-related entities in Syria.[10] Nine of them were nationals of Spain living in Ceuta, while one was in Belgium, where he was arrested.[11] Some of these detainees were ready to travel to Syria, but the police intervention disrupted their plans.[12] It is through investigations which led to Operation Cesto that authorities identified the majority of the 20 Spanish residents who went to fight with jihadists in Syria.[13] As part of the investigations, authorities detected a cybercommunity in 2012, which facilitated the identification of some of those who became jihadists in Syria.[14]

Of the 20 Spanish residents who have traveled to fight for jihadist groups in Syria, all are male. Although further data has not been made available in three cases, 17 are between 15- and 49-years-old, the majority between their mid-20s and early 30s, generally married and with children.[15] At the time of their departure, they were mainly taxi drivers, unskilled workers, students or unemployed.[16] Several had participated in episodes of street aggression against police in the restive Ceuta neighborhood of Príncipe Alfonso and had previously faced drug trafficking charges.[17]

Overall, except for the nationality variable, these figures correspond to the basic sociodemographic characterization of individuals convicted for jihadist terrorism activities or killed in an act of suicide terrorism in Spain since the mid-1990s.[18]

Recruited for JN, the ISIL and Harakat Sham al-Islam
All of the 20 fighters joined JN, ISIL and, to a lesser extent, Harakat Sham al-Islam, the latter of which is a group formed around Moroccans fighting in Syria.[19] At least 16, but probably up to 19, of these individuals had no known jihadist trajectory predating the current Syrian conflict. The one individual who had established connections to a jihadist group was the Syrian-born Mouhannad Almallah Dabas, a naturalized Spaniard. Dabas was formerly connected to the al-Qa`ida cell established in Spain in the mid-1990s led by Abu Dahdah until its dismantling in November 2001.[20] Dabas was indicted in the 2004 Madrid train bombings case and convicted at the National Court, although later the Supreme Court overturned his sentence.[21]

Dabas went initially to Syria in 2012 and was there again in 2013 in the company of his two teenage sons, allegedly to aid JN’s logistical activities.[22] According to a confidential Spanish police source, he helped transfer resources from the United Kingdom to JN in Syria.[23] He was killed in Homs in October 2013.[24] Although media reports have reported that Dabas boasted of ties to the FSA,[25] Spanish authorities contend that he joined JN, and likely made the FSA claim to conceal his involvement with the jihadist group since that would have been considered a terrorist offense under the Criminal Code of Spain.[26]

Intense Radicalization Process
Before becoming members of JN, the ISIL or Harakat Sham al-Islam, those who lacked jihadist experience in Ceuta underwent an intense radicalization process by means of closed door gatherings inside Islamic worship places and private homes as well as open air activities—which included physical training—in Ceuta and nearby localities across the border in Morocco, in particular Fnideq (Castillejos).[27]

An established Moroccan-Spanish network organized these activities. Two to three radicalization and recruitment agents operated on Spanish territory, but were skilled at working on both sides of the Spanish-Moroccan border.[28] Operation Cesto, which developed between June and September 2013, dismantled the portion of this network that operated on Spanish territory.[29]

These recruiters indoctrinated individuals by highlighting religious rulings from radical clerics in the region that sanctioned the killing of Shi`a or more specifically Alawite Muslims, the latter of which comprise the ruling elites in Damascus.[30] The presence of radical imams is not a new occurrence in Ceuta. In June 2012, for example, a well-known Moroccan radical imam from Tetouan, who spent years in prison after the Casablanca bombings in 2003, preached at the Attauba mosque located in the Príncipe Alfonso area within Ceuta. Several of the individuals who traveled to fight in Syria had attended this mosque.[31]

Generally speaking, however, the aspects of radicalization leading these 20 individuals to join jihadist groups in Syria are not different from those observed for a majority of the jihadists radicalized and recruited previously in Spain.[32] As in prior cases, the radicalization and recruitment process was often facilitated by existing bonds based on kinship and friendship.[33] Recruitment was nevertheless stimulated through economic incentives to help families of the recruited.[34] Money for this purpose came from a mixture of donations and illegal trafficking.[35]

From Spain to Syria through Turkey
Most jihadists from Spain took a similar route to reach Syria.[36] They left Ceuta by ferry to Algeciras in Spain’s Cadiz Province, and then took a plane from Malaga or Madrid to Istanbul. In a couple of cases, they took a flight from Casablanca to Istanbul.[37] Once in Turkey, they generally boarded another flight to southeastern Hatay Province, where facilitators belonging to one of the three previously mentioned jihadist groups moved them into Syria.[38]

After reaching Syria, the recruits were incorporated into training camps. Depending on their personal characteristics and aptitudes—one of the recruits, for example, was deaf—some were assigned to militant cells, while others were sent on individual suicide missions.[39]

At least three of the 20 became suicide bombers. All three were young Muslim Spanish nationals residing in Ceuta.[40] The most lethal of the suicide attacks, which alone reportedly caused more than 100 deaths, was executed near a military installation in Idlib Province in June 2012.[41] JN claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing a video testament of the suicide bomber.[42] The bomber explained how he prepared the truck bomb, smiled, and gave thanks to Allah, saying that conducting jihad “is the summit of the belief in Islam.”[43]

From a domestic threat perspective, there is concern that some of the Spanish residents fighting as jihadists in Syria could return home and conduct attacks in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Although their stated purpose is to fight in Syria, they will gain terrorist experience and will be in the presence of hard core jihadists who espouse an anti-Western, pro-al-Qa`ida agenda.[44]

According to court documents, intercepted phone conversations—both between those who traveled to Syria and those who were prepared to go but were instead arrested in Spain—revealed that they were also willing to “make jihad at home,” meaning to perpetrate a terrorist attack in Spain if they were not able to reach Syrian territory.[45]

Illustrating the Spanish government’s concern and alert, one of the 20 known jihadists from Spain was arrested at Malaga airport upon his return from Syria on January 5, 2014.[46] The 28-year-old Spaniard allegedly joined the ISIL while in Syria.[47] Spanish authorities labeled him as a “very dangerous” individual, and warned that “returning jihadists” might be preparing attacks.[48] If history is a guide, the current trend of European citizens joining jihadist groups in Syria will create new security threats for Spain and other European countries in the years ahead.

Fernando Reinares is Senior Analyst on International Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute and Full Professor of Politics and Security Studies at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid.

Carola García-Calvo is Research Assistant at the Elcano Royal Institute and Advanced Doctoral Candidate at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid.

[1] Much of the content of this article is derived from interviews with counterterrorism officials of the Spanish security forces (Fuerzas y Cuerpos de Seguridad del Estado, FCSE) and the National Antiterrorism Coordination Center (Centro Nacional de Coordinación Antiterrorista, CNCA), as well as with specialized public prosecutors at the National Court (Audiencia Nacional, AN), in Spain throughout October and November 2013. The authors also spoke with leading members of the Directorate General of National Security (Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale, DGSN) in Morocco. The authors wish to thank all of their interlocutors.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Estudio demográfico de la población musulmana 2012,” Union de Comunidades Islamicas de Espana, February 2013.

[6] Jefatura de Investigación UCE-2 de la Guardia Civil y Comisaría General de Información del Cuerpo Nacional de Policía, Atestado policial 9883 (June 24, 2013), “Anexos,” p. 428.

[7] Javier Jordán and Huberto Trujillo, “Favorable Situation for Jihadist Recruitment: The Neigbourhood of Príncipe Alfonso (Ceuta, Spain),” Jihad Monitor 3 (2006); Luis de la Corte, “Actividad yihadista en Ceuta: antecedentes y vulnerabilidades,” Real Instituto Elcano, June 19, 2007. As for press reports, see for example Carmen Echarri, “Ceuta: cuna de radicales,” ABC, December 26, 2006; Carmen Echarri, “Preocupación en círculos religiosos de la ciudad por el auge extremista,” El Faro Digital, June 17, 2012; José M. Irujo, “Pescar suicidas en el pozo ceutí,” El Pais, September 8, 2013.

[8] Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Cuarta, “Sentencia 20/2012.” The court acknowledged that the accused were in possession of abundant proselytizing material exalting jihad, but determined that there was no proof of their intention to engage in terrorist actions, nor, according to the judges, enough evidence of them belonging to a formal terrorist organization. In addition, the declarations of two protected witnesses were invalidated due to legal technicalities. It must be pointed out that Spain’s antiterrorist legislation was reformed in 2010 to add new offenses such as those related to terrorist indoctrination and recruitment, and to redefine the concept of a terrorist organization to include smaller and less articulated varieties. On these and other changes in Spain’s antiterrorist legislation, see María Ponte, “La reforma del Código Penal en relación a los delitos de terrorismo,” Grupo de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional, 2010.

[9] Audiencia Nacional, Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, “Sentencia 31/2009” and “Sentencia 49/2011.”

[10] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 45-73. José María Irujo, “Detenido en Bélgica el jefe de la red ceutí que envía suicidas a Siria,” El País, September 26, 2013; “Detenido en Bélgica el líder de la red yihadista desarticulada en Ceuta,” ABC, September 26, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Atestado policial 9883, “Anexo,” pp. 459-460.

[13] Ibid., p. 12

[14] Ibid.

[15] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 45-73.

[16] “Tres de los detenidos trabajaban en el CETI y en los Planes de Empleo,” El Faro Digital, June 24, 2013; Carmen Echarri, “El fenómeno de las captaciones,” El Faro Digital, June 24, 2013.

[17] Gonzalo Testa, “Quien empieza lanzando piedras llega al narco y acaba viendo la luz de Dios,” Ceuta al Día, June 24, 2013.

[18] Fernando Reinares and Carola García-Calvo, “Los yihadistas en España: perfil sociodemográfico de condenados por actividades terroristas o muertos en acto de terrorismo suicida entre 1996 y 2012,” Real Instituto Elcano, 2013.

[19] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 22-26.

[20] José M. Irujo, El Agujero. España invadida por la yihad (Madrid: Aguilar, 2005), pp. 244, 267, 275; Lorenzo Vidino, Al Qaeda in Europe. The New Battleground of International Jihad (New York: Prometheus Books, 2006), pp. 322-323.

[21] Contrary to the Audiencia Nacional judges, the Supreme Court, in the Sentencia 503/2008 of its Sala de lo Penal, absolved Mouhannad Almallah Dabas despite acknowledging that evidence showed his “inclination” towards “violent ideas related to the imposition of his own radical Islamism.” Another decision, namely Sentencia 38/2011, of the Sala de lo Penal, Sección Segunda, at Audiencia Nacional, understood that proven facts “would place the activity of the accused at the doors of collaboration with a terrorist organization.” Again, this decision acknowledged that these proven facts included relations with radical Islamists and activities of indoctrination leading to jihadism. In that time period, however, this was not an offense under Spain’s Criminal Code. Almallah Dabas was finally absolved of the charges. Changes to Spain’s Criminal Code in 2010 would now consider those activities a crime.

[22] Personal interview, senior Spanish police counterterrorism intelligence officer with in-depth knowledge of jihadists of Syrian origin active in Spain since the 1990s and extensive contacts with Spanish nationals of Syrian origin involved in domestic affairs of their native country, Madrid, November 5, 2013.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. Amanda Figueras, “Un absuelto del 11-M muere en Siria delante de uno de sus hijos,” El Mundo, October 10, 2013.

[25] “Muere en Siria un absuelto del 11-M que estuvo casado con una ceutí,” El Faro Digital, October 29, 2013; Amanda Figueras, “Un absuelto del 11-M muere en Siria delante de uno de sus hijos,” El Mundo, October 10, 2013.

[26] Personal interview, senior Spanish police counterterrorism intelligence officer with in-depth knowledge of jihadists of Syrian origin active in Spain since the 1990s and extensive contacts with Spanish nationals of Syrian origin involved in domestic affairs of their native country, Madrid, November 5, 2013.

[27] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 17, 430-442.

[28] Ibid., pp. 48-54.

[29] Ibid.,  p. 1.

[30] Ibid., p. 17.

[31] Ibid., p. 27. Echarri, “Preocupación en círculos religiosos de la ciudad por el auge extremista.” A spokesman for the Attauba mosque in Ceuta, interviewed by El Faro Digital on June 29, 2012, claimed afterwards that they were radicals if “radical means to follow the Qur’an and the Sunna.”

[32] Carola García-Calvo and Fernando Reinares, “Procesos de radicalización violenta y terrorismo yihadista en España: ¿cuándo? ¿dónde? ¿cómo?” Real Instituto Elcano, 2013.

[33] Carmen Echarri, “Varios marroquíes con residencia han marchado ya a tierras sirias,” El Faro Digital, May 19, 2013; “No hablamos de combatientes sino de terroristas yihadistas,” El Faro Digital, June 23, 2013.

[34] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 32-33.

[35] Ibid., pp. 28-32.

[36] In the case of Mouhannad Almallah Dabas, apparently he traveled via London. See personal interview, senior Spanish police counterterrorism intelligence officer, Madrid, November 5, 2013.

[37] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 18-19.

[38] Echarri, “No hablamos de combatientes sino de terroristas yihadistas.”

[39] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 26, 43.

[40] Carmen Echarri, “De testimonios vitales y pinchazos,” El Faro Digital, June 23, 2013; “Muere en Siria otro de los ceutíes integrante del grupo que partió en junio,” El Faro Digital, August 22, 2013; “Al menos tres españoles de la red yihadista cometieron atentados suicidas en Siria,” El Mundo, June 24, 2013.

[41] Atestado policial 9883, pp. 21-23.

[42] Ibid. Both the video testament and JN’s claim of responsibility for the suicide attack were posted on the jihadist website on August 20, 2012.

[43] Echarri, “No hablamos de combatientes sino de terroristas yihadistas”;  Atestado policial 9883, p. 39.

[44] Spain’s minister of interior referred to this at a press conference held in Madrid in June 2013. See “El ministro del Interior, Jorge Fernández Díaz, ha comparecido en rueda de prensa para informar de la detención de ocho presuntos integrantes de una red vinculada a la organización terrorista Al-Qaeda,” Spain’s Ministry of Interior, June 22, 2013.

[45] Atestado policial 9883,  pp. 1, 44.

[46] “Detenido en España yihadista considerado ‘muy peligroso’ tras pasar por Siria,” EFE,  January 5, 2014.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.