Spanish police have arrested six members of an al-Qaeda cell in Barcelona that was dedicated to providing a related terrorist cell in Germany with large numbers of stolen passports.
The Spanish Interior Ministry said the police action, dubbed Operation Comet, was carried out on October 13 in Barcelona and the nearby town of Vilanova del Camí, and entailed police raids on at least four homes of Muslim immigrants involved in the network. Police found large numbers of stolen passports and identity papers issued in many different countries.
Those arrested were from Algeria, Belgium and Morocco, and all were carrying stolen passports that included their own photos attached to the personal data of dozens of individuals from several different countries.
One of those arrested was intercepted at the main airport in Barcelona as he was about to board a flight to Greece; he had more than 100 stolen passports in his possession.
Some of Barcelona's tourist areas, especially those in the downtown areas, are known for having gangs of North African pickpockets who prey on foreigners. On any given day, tourists can be seen standing in lines in front of local police stations waiting to file police reports about stolen passports and other personal possessions. Spanish police believe many of the passports stolen in Spain end up in the hands of al-Qaeda operatives in Europe, among other places.
Operation Comet was launched after German anti-terrorism officials alerted the Spanish Interior Ministry to links between the two terrorist cells. In April 2011, for example, German police arrested three members of an al-Qaeda cell in the cities of Düsseldorf and Bochum on suspicion of planning a shrapnel-laden bomb attack in a crowded location.
A month later, police in Berlin arrested a 22-year-old Austrian al-Qaeda operative, Maksud Lodin, who was hiding a digital storage device in his underpants. The German newspaper Die Zeit recently reported that German cryptologists discovered 141 al-Qaeda documents embedded inside a pornographic movie on the memory device. The documents provided detailed information about the terror group's most ambitious future plots in Europe, including a plan to hijack cruise ships in the Mediterranean and to execute the passengers.
German investigators also discovered that al-Qaeda members in Germany had been in regular contact with various individuals in Spain who provided them with stolen identity papers to facilitate their activities and movements within Europe.
According to Spanish police, the members of the Spanish cell purchased the stolen passports from pickpocketing gangs in the Barcelona metropolitan area. The documents would then be sent to other countries in Europe and Asia by mail or by human couriers. The cell in Barcelona would often receive specific requests for stolen passports from certain countries in particular, or with detailed biometric data, such as eye or hair color.
The money obtained for providing the stolen documents was wired through money transfer companies of the Western Union type, using third persons who were offered cash in exchange for the use of their name as senders and receivers of the funds.
The arrests come just days after the head of Russian intelligence blamed al-Qaeda for a series of forest fires in Spain and other European countries in recent months. Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of Russia Federal Security Service (FSB), said the fires were set by arsonists as part of al-Qaeda's low-cost attack strategy.
"One should note that setting fires to forests in the countries of the European Union is a new tendency in al-Qaeda's strategy of a 'thousand cuts'," Bortnikov said at a meeting of heads of security agencies in Moscow, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. "This method allows al-Qaeda to inflict significant economic and moral damage without serious preliminary preparations, technical equipment or significant expenses."
Although Bortnikov provided no concrete proof, he did point to calls to launch a "forest jihad" by various Islamic extremist websites which he said also publish detailed instructions about how and where to carry out arson attacks.
The summer 2012 issue of Inspire, the online propaganda magazine run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, devoted 11 pages to starting forest fires in NATO countries, including instructions. "Fire is one of the soldiers of Allah," it said. "Imagine that, after all the damage is caused, if a jihad organization were to take responsibility for the forest fires. You can imagine the dread it would cause people in the United States, Europe, Russia and Australia."
Deadly forest fires have swept through thousands of hectares of forest land in Spain and Portugal over the past few months, killing scores of people and forcing thousands to evacuate. More than 198,000 hectares of land in Spain alone were destroyed by fires between January 1 and September 30, according to the Agriculture Ministry, the highest amount in a decade.
In August, Spanish police arrested three suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who were allegedly plotting an airborne attack on a shopping mall near Gibraltar, the British overseas territory on the southernmost tip of Spain.
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 also plotting to attack the joint US-Spanish naval base at Rota, strategically located near the Strait of Gibraltar.
The recent arrests in Spain contradict claims of some within the Obama Administration that al-Qaeda and its offshoots are dead and no longer pose a threat to Europe and the United States. In July 2012, the US State Department claimed that al-Qaeda "is on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse" and 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."
Soeren Kern is a 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.