• It remains to be seen whether Catalonia will succeed in reframing the debate over burqas as an issue of public safety rather than one of freedom of religion.

A jihadist group affiliated with Al Qaeda has threatened to carry out terrorist attacks in Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain that is home to the largest concentration of radical Islamists in Europe.

The threats were issued by a group called "Africamuslima" in response to efforts by Catalonian lawmakers to increase surveillance of radical Salafists seeking to impose Islamic Sharia law in Spain and other parts of Europe.

Catalonia -- a region of 7.5 million people centered on the Mediterranean city of Barcelona -- is home to the largest Muslim population in Spain. Most of the estimated 450,000 Muslims in Catalonia are from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

Many of the Muslims living in Catalonia are shiftless single males who are unemployed and "susceptible to jihadist recruitment," according to diplomatic cables obtained by Wikileaks and published by the Madrid-based El País newspaper.

Spanish authorities are especially concerned about the threat posed by Salafism, a radical strain of Islam that seeks to re-establish an Islamic empire [Caliphate] across the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, which Salafists view as a Muslim state that must be reconquered for Islam.

Spain's National Intelligence Center [CNI] says Catalonia is home to hundreds and possibly thousands of Salafists who, according to intelligence experts, pose the greatest threat to Spain's national security.

Catalan officials recently have redoubled efforts to improve surveillance of Salafist groups in the region.

On August 27, it emerged that Catalan police (known locally as the Mossos d'Esquadra) have been conducting a "census" to identify and register Muslim women who wear Islamic body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs.

According to local media reports, the Catalan Interior Minister, Ramon Espadaler -- based on the belief that these garments may constitute an indicator of the spread of Salafism in Catalonia -- has ordered members of the Mossos to file a report every time they see a burqa or niqab.

Espadaler said the effort involves creating a "list of indicators that could point us to radicalization processes." He warned that there is a "target risk" of radicalization in Muslim areas in Catalonia, and made it clear that the collection of data on burqas and niqabs is part of the requirement that the Mossos "remain vigilant."

Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs defended the move; he said that police have an obligation to "know what is going on."

On July 18, the Catalan Parliament approved a draft law that would ban the wearing of face-coverings such as the Muslim burqa or niqab in all public spaces. The proposed ban is set to become an integral part of a new Law on Pubic Spaces that will be presented to the Parliament in early 2014.

Women wear the niqab face covering under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. The French government has banned the wearing of the face-covering burqa and niqab in public.

In an effort to avoid being accused of singling out Muslims, the Catalan Interior Ministry has sought to frame the proposed burqa ban within the context of public safety. As a result, it has extended the proposed ban to prohibit the wearing of all forms of face coverings, including masks and motorcycle helmets, within public buildings.

In February 2013, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that a municipal ordinance banning the wearing of Islamic burqas in public spaces was unconstitutional.

In its 56-page ruling, the Madrid-based Tribunal Supremo said the Catalan city of Lérida exceeded its authority when it imposed a burqa ban in December 2010.

The court further said the ban on burqas "constitutes a limitation to the fundamental right to the exercise of the freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by the Spanish constitution." The court added that the limitation of a fundamental right can only be achieved through laws at the national level, not through local ordinances.

The decision, which the court said addressed a "profoundly political problem," represented a significant victory for Muslims in Spain. Although it is unclear how many women actually wear the burqa there, the ruling denoted a step forward in the continuing efforts to establish Islam as a mainstream religious and political system in Spain.

It remains to be seen whether Catalonia will succeed in its effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling by reframing the debate over burqas as an issue of public safety rather than one of freedom of religion.

The proposed burqa ban has already drawn the ire of Salafi jihadists, who are determined to quash any resistance to the rise of Islam in Spain.

In a three-page document dated August 28, Africamuslima -- a little-known jihadist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- rebukes "the Nazi gestures of the Catalan government" and warns that moves to "scapegoat Muslims for Catalonia's institutional and economic failures" by regulating the burqa "will not remain without a response."

"We note the history of hatred and mistreatment of the Muslim community in Catalonia on the part of the government and its goons [Mossos]," the document states. "We have been following the situation in hopes that things would change. However, the only thing we have observed is an increase in the mistreatment of the Muslim community that is without equal in all of Europe."

The document posits a series of rhetorical questions: "Democracy? And they [the Catalan authorities] want to interfere in the way in which women dress? What will be next? The establishment of concentration camps for Muslims who refuse to wear the types of clothing dictated by the Catalan government?"

Africamuslima then lists five specific complaints, including the "denial of permits for the construction of mosques," "the indiscriminate detention of Muslims," "the institutional and financial support for organizations promoting a Nazi ideology with the clear objective to intimidate the Muslim community," "the exclusion of [unemployed] Muslims from the public health and social welfare system," and "the exclusion of Muslim children from meal voucher benefits [in public schools]."

Some of these complaints refer to economic austerity measures in Catalonia that have dramatically restricted the availability of social welfare benefits -- including free meal vouchers in public schools -- to Spanish families across the board, regardless of race or religion.

The document concludes by urging Catalan media, as well as Catalan political and cultural elites, to "distance themselves from the incendiary, racist and xenophobic discourse" that is promoting "fear of the other."

Africamuslima warns that "blaming Muslims will not solve your [economic] problems but will bring you misfortune." It adds that "any action taken against Muslim women will be met with a response against Catalan interests both inside of and outside of Catalonia."

The text is signed by an individual calling himself Karim Al-Maghribi, who, because of his knowledge of the social issues of the region, Spanish intelligence analysts believe may be living inside Catalonia.

Ramon Espadaler, the Catalan Interior Minister, says the proposed burqa ban has nothing to do with "religious issues. It is not a general prohibition. That would lead us nowhere and we would be infringing on fundamental rights." He added: "We want to be sensitive…we want a careful, subtle and clear debate to find a consensus."

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.

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