Three suspected al Qaeda terrorists arrested in Spain in early August were allegedly plotting an airborne attack on a shopping mall near Gibraltar, the British overseas territory on the southernmost tip of Spain.
In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has claimed that al Qaeda "is on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse" and the US State Department has even declared that the "war on terror is over." Advisors to President Obama have also boasted of "the end of al Qaeda in any meaningful sense of the word."
The arrests in Spain, however, indicate that al Qaeda continues to pose a serious threat and that Obama's triumphalism may be premature. Jorge Fernández Díaz, the Spanish interior minister, put it this way: "The terrorist organization al Qaeda represents a major threat globally and in particular to the entire Western world."
Spanish counter-terrorism officials say an attack near Gibraltar, home to 30,000 British citizens, was likely intended to coincide with the London Olympic Games, and would have been a more feasible alternative to attempting an act of terrorism in the heart of London.
In addition to Gibraltar, the suspects were credibly also plotting to attack the joint US-Spanish naval base at Rota, strategically located near the Strait of Gibraltar.
The foiled plot shows, among other revelations, that, contradicting the claims of some within the Obama administration that al Qaeda and its offshoots are dead, al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations continue to pose a threat to Europe and the United States.
Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz has called the case "one of the biggest investigations carried out until now against the al Qaeda terrorist group at an international level." At a news conference in Madrid, he said the three men "have experience in the development of chemical explosives, manufacture of car bombs, handling of poisons, and sniper training," and that together they constitute one of the most skilled and experienced terrorist cells seen in recent years.
The suspects involve two Chechen-Russians named Eldar Magomedov (also known as Ahmad Avar) and Mohammed Ankari Adamov, both of whom were arrested on August 1 on a bus near Almuradiel, a town situated halfway between Spain's southern coast and Madrid.
The third suspect, a Turkish national named Cengiz Yalcin, was arrested on August 2 in the province of Cádiz, near Gibraltar.
Police say the two Chechens "resisted fiercely" and hid their true identity after they were arrested; they claimed they were in Spain to apply for political asylum, but Spanish authorities established their real names after obtaining help from American and Russian intelligence agencies.
Magomedov, the suspected leader of the cell and a former member of Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces), has training as a sniper and is an expert in poisons. After leaving Spetsnaz, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry, Magomedov joined training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including camps run by the Pakistani militant group and al Qaeda ally, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Police say that before his arrest, Magomedov had been living in Spain for two months.
Adamov, the other Chechen, received "intensive training in the camps of Afghanistan where he became an expert in managing explosives," according to Spanish officials. He is also believed to have been involved in the January 2011 bomb attack at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, a strike that killed at least 35 people and injured more than 100, many critically.
Yalcin, the Turk, who police believe was in charge of managing logistics for the cell, had been living legally for the past six years in a Spanish town that borders Gibraltar, La Línea de la Concepción, where he worked as a site manager for Profield Contractors, a local construction company. A police raid of Yalcin's apartment yielded enough explosives "to blow up a bus," three motorized paragliders, and a video in which Yalcin is filmed flying a large remote-controlled model airplane.
Spanish investigators suspect the cell was testing a remote-controlled airplane as a potential bomber. The video footage showed the aircraft -- about three meters, or nine feet, long -- being maneuvered into a descent during which two packages were dropped from both wings of the airplane.
At a court hearing in Madrid on August 3, Yalcin told the investigating magistrate, Pablo Ruz, that he was an enthusiast of motorized paragliding -- a sport for which southern Spain is renowned -- and wanted to teach the two Chechens, Magomedov and Adamov, how to fly such aircraft.
Spanish investigators later affirmed that Yalcin paid for both Chechens to receive motorized paragliding lessons near La Línea; as police found a paragliding handbook in Russian among their possessions, they may have had some instruction before arriving in Spain.
A Spanish paragliding instructor who had dealings with the three men said Yalcin had repeatedly asked his instructor about taking aerial pictures of the "Puerta Europa" shopping mall in Algeciras, the largest city on the Bay of Gibraltar, and situated virtually opposite Gibraltar (map here) – an observation which led Spanish authorities to deduce that the cell was seeking to attack the shopping center if they were unable directly to attack Gibraltar.
The three suspects have been jailed without bail until a date is set for court proceedings (see here for nine-page court order in Spanish).
Most recently, in March 2012, in Valencia, Spanish authorities arrested Mudhar Hussein Almaki, a Jordanian-born Saudi member of al Qaeda. Known as "The Librarian," he was one of al Qaeda's chief propagandists, working full-time to promote jihad on Internet forums online. In 2011, Almaki called for the murder of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana for "crimes perpetrated against Muslims."
Al Qaeda's largest terror attack in Europe took place in Madrid on March 11, 2004, when bombs were exploded on four commuter trains;191 people were killed, more than 1,800 were wounded. Since then, in towns and cities across Spain, police have been continuing to arrest dozens of al Qaeda members and other Jihadists.
Soeren Kern is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.