At least a dozen Portuguese nationals have joined jihadist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, according to new estimates by Portuguese counter-terrorism officials.
All of the Portuguese jihadists (ten men and two women) are under the age of 30 and most of them are children of immigrants, but so far none of the individuals is known to have returned to live in Portugal.
Portuguese authorities are—for now—downplaying the threat these individuals may pose to Portugal upon their return home from the battlefields.
Security analysts from Spain, however, are warning the Portuguese government against complacency. They argue that although the number of Portuguese jihadists may be small compared to other European countries, radical Muslims are becoming increasingly strident in their vows to reconquer Al-Andalus—of which Portugal is a key component—for Islam.
Al-Andalus is the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France occupied by Muslim conquerors (also known as the Moors) from 711 to 1492, when both the Moors and the Jews were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Most of the territory of modern-day Portugal was occupied by the Moors for more than 500 years, from 711 until 1249. During that time, the territory was known by its Arabic name, Gharb Al-Andalus (The West of Al-Andalus) or Al-Gharb (The West).
Jihadists believe that all of the territories Muslims lost during the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula still belong to the realm of Islam. They claim that Islamic law gives them the right to return there and re-establish Muslim rule. This belief is based on a verse in the Koran that reads: "And kill them wherever you find them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you..." (Koran 2:191)
A jihadist group called Sharia4Spain—which says it wants to replace the democratic order in Spain with Islamic Sharia law—has called for the "destruction of the constitutional systems of Spain and Portugal and the reestablishment of Sharia law and the system of the Caliphate in all of the Iberian Peninsula."
Portugal, like Spain, also figures prominently in a map produced by the jihadist group Islamic State [IS] that outlines a five-year plan for expanding its Islamic Caliphate into Europe.
In late March 2014, a masked jihadist, using the nom de guerre Abu Isa al-Andalus, appeared in an IS propaganda video calling on others to join the fighting in Syria. A post accompanying the video stated that the individual was originally from Portugal: "He grew up with [the Portuguese footballer Cristiano] Ronaldo, played for Arsenal, and [then] left football, money and the European way of life for the sake of Allah."
The British security service MI5 eventually identified the jihadist as 29-year-old Celso Rodrigues da Costa, a Portuguese citizen.
Celso Rodrigues da Costa, the Portuguese jihadist known as Abu Isa al-Andalus, appears in an Islamic State recruitment video. (Image source: MEMRI)
The Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manhã reported that Costa, a son of immigrants from Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa, was born in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and was raised in the nearby town of Sintra. At age 20, Costa moved to England to study. "It was there that he joined the Islamic cause," the paper stated.
In the eight minute recruitment video, Costa brandishes an AK-47 rifle and speaks in English with a heavy Portuguese accent. After boasting that IS has "conquered many cities" and is now "implementing the Sharia," he expresses his contempt for Western society:
"If you have families in kafir [infidel] countries, what will happen most probably is you do not have control of your children. In some countries you must put your children in kafir schools and who is going to teach your children? It is going to be maybe a gay, maybe a drug dealer, maybe a paedophile. It is very important for you to protect your children from these animals, these dirty people. Allah says they are the worst of creatures. So you prefer to live among the worst of creatures rather than among the Mujahideen?"
British authorities suspect that Costa was recruited in Leyton, East London, where at least a dozen other Portuguese nationals are believed to be recruiting Portuguese Muslims for jihad.
In August, another Portuguese jihadist, a 19-year-old woman identified only as Umm [Arabic for mother] travelled to Syria to become the wife of an IS jihadist named "Abdu," whom she had met on Facebook but never in person. Both are converts to Islam.
An article entitled, "A Portuguese Bride of Jihad," published on September 3 by the Lisbon-based weekly newspaper Expresso, describes how the couple "shared radicalism and life ambitions" through social media: "Both are converted Muslims, extremists, supporters of the Islamic caliphate, and opponents of the West and the countries of 'infidels.' And both are Portuguese." The paper adds: "She fled on August 9, she married on August 10."
Umm's father, who lives in Alentejo, a wine-producing region in south-central Portugal, identified his daughter via her Facebook profile. "Yes, yes, those are her eyes," he said. "It is her, beyond any doubt." The father was viewing photos posted on Facebook in which his eldest daughter, "Umm," who was born into a Roman Catholic family, is wearing a niqab, a black veil covering her entire face, exposing only her eyes. Her marital status on Facebook reads "Married".
The father, who asked not to be identified, told Expresso that his daughter's behavior is "unbelievable, unreal." After her parents separated, the daughter and her mother moved to the Netherlands, where Umm converted to Islam. "She became a radical Muslim about a year ago, it was all very quick. Which is why I was surprised, I cannot understand."
After arriving in Syria, Umm posted: "I have arrived safely in Sham [Greater Syria]. Sisters, do not hesitate. I feel so good, as if I had always lived here. I feel at home. Insha'Allah [Allah willing]. Allah will soon unite us all." Umm continues:
"Before I used to define happiness as being temporary moments. But now that I have moved to an Islamic state, I finally understand that all the ingredients of happiness are right here. I am truly in paradise."
Umm also says that life on the battlefield is not as bad as it is being depicted by Western media, but she does admit that bombings are a regular feature of life in Syria. "Should a bomb have my name on it, I will be a martyr," she explains.
Umm's husband, identified only as "Abdu," also has a Facebook page on which he promotes holy war. According to Expresso, Abdu—who was born and raised in the suburbs of Lisbon, and converted to Islam after he moved to London—appears smiling, with various weapons and the black and white flag of jihad. "Holy War is the only solution for humanity," he writes.
In July, Portuguese police arrested a jihadist at Lisbon Portela Airport as he was trying illegally to board an Angola-bound jetliner via its landing gear. The newspaper Diário de Notícias reported that the man, who was born in Angola but held a Dutch passport, had received training in a jihadist camp in Syria.
In May, IS reported that a Portuguese-born French jihadist named Abu Osama Al-Faransi carried out a suicide car-bomb attack against a group of Iraqi army personnel in the Al-Mashahada district of Baghdad.
In January, a jihadist posted metro maps for several cities in Portugal, Spain and Germany, under the headline, "Terrorizing the Disbelievers."
For the time being, the Portuguese government maintains that the terrorism threat level in the country is "moderate," even though authorities in neighboring Spain on September 10 raised the threat level to "high." The move means that Spain's security agencies are stepping up their monitoring efforts at the country's airports, train stations, hospitals, government buildings and other key sites in response to the heightened risk of jihadist attacks.
Portuguese authorities say that the threat of attacks in Portugal is lower than in other parts of Europe because most of the jihadists who hold Portuguese passports actually reside in other European countries, primarily in Britain, France and the Netherlands.
Most of these individuals seem to be second- and third-generation descendants of families who emigrated from Portugal to find work in other European countries. Others seem to be the descendants of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies, including Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.
Portuguese officials contend that the Portuguese jihadists who have been identified so far have little-to-no interaction with Portugal's Muslim community, which, at 55,000 members is one of the smaller such communities in Europe.
Spanish terrorism analysts are nevertheless warning the Portuguese against complacency. In a recent interview with Expresso, Spanish terrorism expert Fernando Reinares advised: "Portugal should be very alert to the movements of jihadists on its territory and to the radicalization of Portuguese citizens within and outside of its borders."
Another Spanish analyst, Óscar Pérez Ventura, warned: "These Iberian jihadists should be considered very dangerous."
Miguel Torres Soriano, author of the book "Al Andalus 2.0," summed it up this way:
"Take heed. Every time these jihadists groups mention the recovery of al-Andalus, they are also referring to Portugal. Jihadists do not believe in national divisions, but in the existence of a single Muslim community that embraces the entire Iberian Peninsula."
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.