Why Spain is Different
(Published on The Weekly Standard, August 25, 2017)
For many years General Franco’s regime used the slogan “Spain is different” to attract tourism. Spain had sun and great beaches, unlike, say, Germany and Belgium, but the country was also a dictatorship and lagged economically and socially. We were indeed different from the rest of Europe. Today, Spain is still different, particularly in relation to Islamic terrorism.
Spain was the site of the deadliest post-9/11 jihadist attack. On March 11, 2004, Madrid’s railways were bombed: 192 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in the worst terrorist event ever suffered in Spain. But with a few exceptions, people judged the government at the time ultimately responsible for the attacks, and even today the average view is that those attacks were a sort of punishment for the prime minister, José María Aznar, for being too arrogant, too active in the international arena, and too close to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The fact that Spain has not been subject to attacks of any kind since then, while most of our allies in Europe suffered dramatic attacks by al Qaeda, ISIS, and their associates, reinforced the view that being more passive and less relevant internationally made us Spaniards safe. Thus, we looked on with a distant attitude to the horrors in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Nice, even as we all ran to put candles in the streets and retweeted hashtags, in solidarity. Our secret weapon against jihadism was the minute of silence after every attack, in sympathy with the far-off victims. We were lucky enough not to have many nationals involved in terrorist attacks around the world.
But our “system” couldn’t last forever. And it didn’t. On Thursday, August 17, a van driven by a fanatical young Moroccan Islamist, Younes Abouyaaqoub, careened into the popular Ramblas in Barcelona, killing 13 and injuring more than 100 (a dozen are still in critical condition). The dream of a multicultural, open, liberal Barcelona was transformed into a nightmare in a few seconds. Why and how this could have happened were the two questions everyone asked in the immediate aftermath.
Though the investigation is still ongoing, it is very easy to answer the why and how of the attacks. Contrary to the dominant narrative in Europe of the “lone wolf,” the more deadly terror attacks on the continent have required more than a single person, were planned for months, involved international travel, and were conducted by jihadists who were known to the police and/or the intelligence services. The “lone wolf” concept has been useful to some authorities to downplay attacks. Pointing to the mental instability of an attacker, for instance, is a way to deflate the level of threat posed by Islamists in Europe and can be particularly tempting to officials if the attacker was a refugee. Otherwise people might blame the open-door policy pursued in Europe since 2015. Unless a car bomb or Kalashnikovs are involved, the reflex is to seek any explanation except Islamist-motivated terrorism.
But there was no way to avoid the truth in the Barcelona attack: More than a dozen people were directly involved; there was a larger group of relatives and friends who suspected something but said nothing; an imam had provided inspiration; there were international contacts and travel.
People, infrastructure, and ample time to prepare are a dangerous mix. To anyone not familiar with the decay of Spain’s institutions, it may be impossible to believe that a group of young jihadists could take over a house as squatters for more than six months and convert it into a massive bomb factory (more than 100 gas canisters were found there) without anyone noticing, not even the owner of the house. But the reality is that in Barcelona the squatter movement has been given succor by officialdom (indeed, the current mayor was a leader of the movement against evictions), and the economic crisis has left banks in possession of thousands of empty houses that nobody cares about and nobody controls.
The terrorists had a Plan A: to drive a truck loaded with explosives into the Sagrada Família, the famous church designed by Antoni Gaudí, and reduce it to rubble, along with the thousands of tourists who visit it every day. Fortunately, they mishandled the explosives and it was their house, not the spectacular church, that was destroyed. At least two terrorists died in that explosion the night before the attack in Las Ramblas. The remaining elements of the jihadist cell moved then to Plan B. They couldn’t get a multi-ton truck so they used a van to run down pedestrians. They hijacked a car (killing the driver, an NGO worker and the 14th victim in the attack) to escape the scene; and they tried to replicate the attack later that night in Cambrils, a pleasant town along the coast. They killed one person there before being intercepted by the police and shot dead. Five terrorists were involved in this second attack.
It is interesting to note that nobody, not Catalonia’s regional police, the Mossos, not the national police, not the intelligence service, had a clue who they were or what they were planning to do. Despite the facts that their inspirational leader, the imam Abdelbaki Es Satti, was incarcerated for two years in Spain and was close to one of the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid attack, that earlier this year he spent three months in the Belgian town of Vilvoorde (known for its significant numbers of jihadists departed to Syria), and that he had moved his family to his hometown in Morocco a month ago. Other members of the cell traveled in recent months to France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Morocco, changed some habits, and became more secretive about their activities and visits to their factory house, more than 200 miles away from where they all lived. Nonetheless they kept posting on Facebook radical messages for all to see.
It is worth noting some of the reactions by the police. Just after the Ramblas attack, the terrorists sped through a police checkpoint, injuring one of the officers, but nobody shot to kill. Indeed, four of the five jihadists eliminated that night in Cambrils were shot by a single officer. It could be simply that the others didn’t have the right angle. But no one would be surprised if the passivity were instead attributable to the constant harassment suffered by police officers in Spain, thanks to a judicial culture of progressivism that puts the blame on them in any incident in which they must use their weapons. That same culture treats terrorism as a police problem, with officers expected, above all, to apprehend suspects alive. This mentality is not unique to Spain. A jihadist rammed six soldiers in the streets of Paris on August 9, and none of them tried to shoot him. Why? Because the soldiers are not legally and psychologically prepared to deal with combat situations at home. The responsibility for this state of affairs rests on their political masters.
It is certainly true that what happened in Barcelona could have taken place elsewhere. But having said that, there are a few factors that local and national authorities should bear in mind. Catalonia is the region with the highest number of Muslims in Spain, almost 700,000; the region has nearly 300 mosques, and around 80 are well known for their radical Salafist preaching. Why this concentration? Because the regional authorities have been following a linguistic-cleansing policy against the Castilian language spoken everywhere else in the country, and they preferred immigrants of non-Spanish-speaking origin. And because the Catalan political leaders are currently consumed with their policy of disengagement from the rest of Spain, they don’t care about much else. And that includes their regional police. How to explain, otherwise, that an explosion in a house occupied by squatters from Morocco is taken at first as an accident (despite all the evidence), and that the only survivor is taken to a hospital without being interrogated? If the explosion had been properly investigated and understood, the attacks of the following day might have been avoided. But the Mossos didn’t pass the information to their counterterrorist colleagues in Madrid.
Furthermore, the confrontational atmosphere between the Catalonian government and the national government made cooperation on the ground impossible. The Catalan authorities did not want any cooperation with the national police or the civil guard, our real experts in counterterrorism. At the same time, the national government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy avoided raising the threat level, because it would have triggered the deployment of military units in the streets, including Barcelona’s. Since the government doesn’t want to make any move that could be criticized as provocative in the context of Catalonia’s quest for independence, Madrid has fallen back on the usual assertions that we are safe now. Until the next attack.
Since the attacks of March 11, 2004, the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the popular government of Rajoy have tried hard to avoid any jihadist attack on our soil, hoping thereby to sustain the myth that Spain’s safety owes to our no longer being engaged in Iraq and the Middle East. In fact, they both encouraged the police to carry out preemptive and preventative operations to dismantle any jihadist plots in the making. And to some extent it worked: Spain had the highest number of detentions of Islamists in Europe but no attacks, until now. That was the real explanation for the lull in terror we enjoyed.
The time has come to explain that Spain is considered by extremists to be part of the lands of Islam, that threats have been mounting in recent years, and that jihadists are motivated more by what happens in Raqqa than by policies in Madrid. Unfortunately, no political leader seems willing to do it. It is far easier to pose in a condolence photo-op carrying a candle, singing (badly) John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and praying for the victims than to do what it takes to prevent more victims.
Even if Spanish leaders reject the idea that we are at war, changes in immigration policy should be adopted urgently; the labyrinthine system of national, regional, and local police corps must be rethought and simplified, and the counterterror units centralized. But above all, the authorities should start talking sensibly to our citizens, beginning with a clear definition of the enemy. People were chanting in the streets of Barcelona the day after the attacks, “We are not afraid.” But not being afraid of dying is not what is needed. What is needed is courage and valor to confront terrorism and terrorists. Spain is not there yet because Spain still believes it is different.