Police in Spain and Morocco have dismantled a jihadist network suspected of recruiting Islamic radicals in Europe and dispatching them to "hotbeds of tension" in Syria and other conflict zones.
Spanish officials say the cell, based in southern Spain, was one of the largest of its kind in Europe and responsible for recruiting more jihadists than any other network discovered in Spain so far.
The sting operation—in which seven suspected jihadists were arrested—was conducted on March 14, just three days after Spain marked the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people and wounded nearly 2,000.
Officials say the latest arrests demonstrate that Spain continues to be central to the ambitions of the global jihadist movement, which says it is committed to establishing a worldwide Caliphate.
Four of the suspects were arrested in Spain and the other three in Morocco. Of the suspects arrested in Spain, one was detained in the southern city of Málaga and the other three in Melilla, a Spanish exclave in North Africa. The three suspects arrested in Morocco had all recently returned from combat in Syria.
The suspected ringleader of the cell is a wheelchair-bound Spanish convert to Islam named Mustafa Maya Amaya. Maya, 51, was born in Brussels after his Spanish parents moved to Belgium in the 1960s to look for work there. After converting to Islam, he changed his given name from Rafael to Mustafa.
From left to right: Mustafa Maya Amaya, Paul Cadic and Farik Cheikh, three of the jihadists arrested by Spanish police. (Image source: Spanish Ministry of the Interior)
Maya eventually married a woman from Morocco, where he lived until December 2012, when he was arrested by Moroccan police for conspiring to overthrow the Moroccan monarchy and replace it with an Islamic government.
After escaping from prison in Morocco, Maya took refuge across the border in Melilla and became a naturalized Spanish citizen. Spanish counter-terrorism officials say Maya is well known for his advocacy of extremist Islam—he once told the Málaga-based newspaper Diario Sur that he supported the way the Taliban in Afghanistan treated women there—but that until now he had not been directly linked to terrorist activities.
Investigators say Maya—who maintained close ties to jihadist cells in Belgium, France, Indonesia, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Syria—is suspected of recruiting dozens of volunteer jihadists on the Internet and, after a careful selection process, sending them to join terrorist organizations in the Middle East and North Africa.
Groups benefiting from Maya's recruitment services include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaeda splinter group active in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Sunni Muslim jihadist group committed to establishing an Islamic government in North Africa and parts of Spain, and the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaeda operating in Lebanon and Syria, where it is fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Spanish police also arrested Chafik Jalel Ben Amara Elmedjeri, a Tunisian immigrant previously arrested in February 2006 for recruiting jihadists to fight American troops in Iraq.
Elmedjeri, a specialist in forging documents, is also known for operating one of the best kebab shops in Málaga. Terrorism analysts say this points to another problem: many of the tens of thousands of kebab and shawarma shops operating in Spain and other parts of Europe may be using their business proceeds actively to finance global jihad in Syria and elsewhere.
The other two Islamists arrested in Spain are Paul Cadic and Farik Cheikh, French jihadists who were about to depart for Syria.
Spanish security officials say that battle-hardened Islamist fighters returning to Spain from Syria under the influence of Al-Qaeda-inspired groups pose a significant threat to national security.
At least 2,000 European jihadists—including many from Spain—have now traveled to Syria in the hopes of replacing the Assad regime with an Islamic state governed by Sharia law.
Although exact numbers are unknown, intelligence sources interviewed by the Madrid-based El Mundo newspaper say that Spanish jihadists are travelling to Syria (via Morocco and Turkey) at the rate of about 30 per month. In many instances, the jihadists are travelling to Syria with their wives and children.
Other intelligence sources interviewed by the online newspaper El Confidencial say they believe that more than 250 Spanish jihadists are currently fighting in Syria, and that around 100 of these were recruited by the cell that has now been neutralized.
"It has been a very big operation that has dismantled an international cell, without doubt the biggest and most active in Spain and one of the biggest and most active currently in Europe," Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said at a news conference in Madrid on March 14.
Fernández Díaz—who revealed that a total of 472 suspected Islamic extremists have been arrested in Spain since the Madrid train bombings in March 2004—also said Spain remains an important target for global jihadists, who frequently use the term "Al-Andalus" when referring to the Iberian Peninsula.
Al-Andalus is the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France that were occupied by Muslim conquerors from 711 to 1492. Many Muslims believe—based on the Islamic doctrine that all territories once occupied by Muslims must forever remain under Muslim domination—that Spain still belongs to them, and that they have every right to return and establish Islamic rule there.
"Clearly Spain forms part of the strategic objectives of global jihad," Fernández Díaz said. "We are not the only ones, but we are in their sights."
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 and on Twitter