Police in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia have arrested eleven members of a jihadist cell that was planning to behead a random person in Barcelona.
The cell, which prosecutors say was actively recruiting jihadists for the Islamic State, is also accused of planning to bomb public and private buildings in Catalonia, including a Jewish bookstore in Barcelona.
The arrests have drawn renewed attention to the spiraling problem of radical Islam in Catalonia, which has one of the largest per capita Muslim populations in Europe.
The cell — known as the Islamic Brotherhood for the Preaching of Jihad — was broken up on April 8, when more than 350 police officers conducted seven raids in five Catalan municipalities.
According to police, the cell's primary objective was to show that terrorist attacks such as those perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could be carried out in the West.
Spanish police arrest one of several Muslim jihadists who were conspiring to commit terror attacks in Catalonia, April 8, 2015. (Image source RTVE video screenshot)
Prosecutors allege that, among other plots, the group was planning to kidnap a random member of the public, dress their victim in an orange jump suit, and then film him or her being beheaded. The group also allegedly planned to kidnap for ransom the female branch manager of Banco Sabadell, a local Catalan bank, as a way to finance their terrorist activities. Apparently, the beheading was intended to induce the bank to pay the ransom.
The suspects are ten men and one woman, all between the ages of 17 and 45. Five of suspects are Spanish citizens, five are from Morocco and one is from Paraguay.
The ringleader of the cell has been identified as Antonio Sáez Martínez, a Spaniard who converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim woman. Also known as "Ali the Barber," Martínez worked as a hairdresser in Barberà del Vallès, a suburb of Barcelona.
According to a ten-page detention order signed by Santiago Pedraz, a judge at the high court (Audiencia Nacional) in Madrid, Spanish intelligence listened in on at least four telephone conversations between Martínez and other members of the cell in which they talked about radical Islam and planned attacks in Catalonia. Potential targets included police and military installations, as well as the Catalan Parliament building.
Martínez is an acquaintance of a Spanish neo-Nazi ideologue named Diego José Frías Álvarez. The two are said to share a mutual hatred of Jews and allegedly discussed bombing Jewish targets in Barcelona, including synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses.
A police raid on Álvarez's home uncovered a large cache of weapons, including grenades, military firearms, ammunition and sharpshooter rifle scopes.
The court document says that Álvarez also transferred weapons and explosives to Martínez. Police who raided the home of Martínez found bomb-making literature as well as a large quantity of chemicals. He is believed to have experimented with the chemicals in an effort to produce home-made explosives.
Police also discovered at the Martínez home a trove of radical Islamic literature, including writings by leading Salafist ideologues and books about the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood. Other titles included "Recruiting Manual Al-Qaeda" and "The Anarchist Cookbook."
The court document shows that Martínez became radicalized within a very short time. A personal journal found at his home shows an entry dated July 13, 2012, the day of his conversion, when he wrote:
"My conversion to Islam has been a decisive moment for me... I am very happy with this new commitment and to be a Muslim in a Christian world dominated by the unfaithful and the impious... My mission is to become a good Muslim and do what is necessary to arrive at the end goal [paradise]."
Just three months later, in an entry dated September 14, 2012, Martínez mentioned jihad for the first time. He wrote:
"Every day I am more convinced that the greatest martyrs do not become martyrs because they want to, but because years of oppression toward the Muslim people. I am convinced that at some moment in the future I will put myself at the service of the global jihad."
In an entry dated October 26, 2012, Martínez wrote:
"I continue to believe in the interior jihad, but more importantly in the exterior jihad. After much reading, I am convinced that the world is divided into two camps: the global jihad against the Christians and Jews."
The court document identified another key member of the cell as Said Touay, a Moroccan whose Internet activities were monitored by Spanish police. Touay allegedly glorified the Islamic State and watched videos of radical Islamic preachers. According to the document, Touay was especially enamored of videos that showed extreme violence, including executions.
Touay was also overheard proposing attacks on sites in Barcelona. Police found dozens of photographs on his mobile phone, including prominent hotels, police buildings and shopping centers, which the cell allegedly studied to determine security vulnerabilities.
Police also monitored the movements of Gonzalo Cabezas, another Spanish convert to Islam. According to the court document, Cabezas met with the other members of the cell at Martínez's hair salon on September 13, 2014, when the group discussed the kidnapping plot mentioned previously.
On March 14, 2015, police observed Cabezas taking photographs of hotels situated near the Olympic Stadium, in the Montjuic district of Barcelona. Cabezas apparently suspected he was being monitored, and used a "secure" telephone calling card, but his cover was blown when his girlfriend accidentally called his secure number.
Police say the operation to dismantle the cell marks one of the most important victories to date in the fight against Islamic terrorism in Catalonia, home to 465,000 Muslims, who account for more than 6% of the total Catalan population of 7.5 million.
Catalonia not only has the largest Muslim population in Spain, it also has the largest concentration of radical Islamists in Europe, and is a main center for Salafi-Jihadism on the continent. Spanish intelligence believes that fully half the 100 Salafist mosques operating in Spain are located in Catalonia.
But much of Catalonia's problem with radical Islam is self-inflicted.
Muslim mass immigration has been a key component of the Catalan independence movement for many decades. In an effort to promote Catalan nationalism and the Catalan language, Catalonian pro-independence parties have deliberately promoted immigration from Muslim countries for more than three decades, in the belief that these immigrants — unlike those from Latin America — would learn the Catalan language rather than speak Spanish.
But many of those immigrants are attached to Salafism, a radically anti-Western ideology that seeks to impose Islamic Sharia law in Catalonia and other parts of Europe.
In an ominous sign for the future of Catalonia, Salafi preachers — who categorically reject democracy because it is a form of government designed by man rather than by Allah — are calling on Muslims who are eligible to vote to support Catalan separatist parties as a means firmly to establish Islamism in Catalonia.
Abdelwahab Houzi, a Salafi jihadist preacher in the Catalan city of Lleida, has declared: "Muslims should vote for pro-independence parties, as they need our votes. But what they do not know is that, once they allow us to vote, we will all vote for Islamic parties because we do not believe in left and right. This will make us win local councils and as we begin to accumulate power in the Catalan autonomous region, Islam will begin to be implemented."
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.