MADRID — It’s hardly surprising that the faux-Muslims of the so-called Islamic State see Spain as a primary target. The country’s full of delicious Serrano hams, superb wine, and pretty women—a little like paradise on Earth for these strange jihadists of the 21st century.
Certainly those recently detained in the Spanish city of Ceuta on the north coast of Africa, who are accused by police of preparing attacks in Spain and the rest of Europe, know the temptations of Spanish life. Yet they convinced the cops and perhaps themselves they were disposed to die.
“They were even ready to sacrifice themselves,” declared the minister of interior when the first group of four was arrested in January. And they just keep coming, it would seem. Two more suspects were picked up on Tuesday.
Of the four initially detained, three are being held in police custody while one, Redouan Ali Amzal, who was dedicated to tracking terrorist targets, has been released on account of “mental disability.” (Guess that means the others are sane.)
Mohamed al Lal is one of those detained in Ceuta. In the Firenze ice cream shop where he worked, nobody could believe that this kid who was smiling all the time was a “terrorist threat.” But his case is like one of those murderers the police discover with a mountain of chopped-up cadavers in their houses, while the neighbors tell the television camera that he was a very normal kid, very likeable, who always said hello in the elevator, and who loved his cat. But with this difference: According to the police, Mohamed al Lal is not just any potential murderer, he’s an Islamist. That is to say, he is one of those intransigent radicals who want to impose the sharia, strict Islamic law, and kill all the infidels.
But there’s a disconnect. How do we square his presumed belief with photographs in which he appears surrounded by bottles of booze, flirting online with scantily clad girls, and with a worldly passion for luxury, travel, and the good life?
It’s surprising that someone who is about to blow himself up for Allah is dedicated to serving drinks until dawn, shares pictures on Facebook of sexy girls dancing and shows off Christmas video mashups to wish “Happy Holidays” alongside his colleagues at the ice cream shop.
One of the videos of sexy women that he published on social networks with the comment “what good dancing” even brought a rebuke from a friend: “Well, the truth is that she knows how to dance, but she will go to hell. We Muslims do not do that.” Mohamed al Lal did not respond, and did not take down the post.
Mohamed al Lal is the brother of Farid Mohamed al Lal, the alleged leader of the Islamist cell, and participated in the meetings of the group plotting mayhem in the name of the Lord in the few hours he was not working at his job as a waiter in the ice cream shop.
Nothing raised suspicions about the radicalization of Mohamed al Lal. Or almost nothing. One of the few suggestive clues: “Free Palestine for better or worse, Allah Akbar,” he wrote on Facebook on July 25, 2014. And last January 20, four days before his arrest, he changed his profile photo for a few hours to “Je suis Mohamed,” alluding to the Moroccan Mohamed el Makouli, murdered in France by a mentally deranged man the week after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
According to Spain’s ministry of interior, the people arrested early the morning of March 10 in Ceuta were “prepared physically as well as mentally for jihad.” They had firearms and had adopted “complicated security measures when they moved and when they communicated.” The members of this terrorist cell followed the directions of ISIS, and their aim was not to recruit new militants to send to jihads abroad, as was the case with other cells broken up in Spain. Instead, they were indoctrinated and prepared to commit terrorist attacks in Europe. The profiles of those detained were very similar to those of the attackers in Paris last January, according to the Spanish police, who said they were notable for their “high level of radicalization and the danger they posed.”
This long police operation in the barrio of El Príncipe in Ceuta suggests the paradigm of extravagant jihadism brewing in Spain and threatening the rest of Europe. In this troubled, exclusively Muslim neighborhood poverty, drug trafficking and violence cohabit. “The police cannot go into the neighborhood,” according to police sources. “About 80 percent of the people there are illegal immigrants, unemployment is 90 percent, the houses don’t have deeds, and the gangs of hashish smugglers act with impunity.” The marginalization fosters radicalization among many of these young people, and they often are swept up in the Islamic networks that, in the past, sent them to join the jihad in Syria or Iraq.
Since the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people and injured 1,800 victims 11 years ago this week, and at the insistence of the European Union, policing has been stepped up in the hot zones of Ceuta and Melilla over the years, almost always through the used of spies and confidential informants. But the attractions of jihad remain.
In the past, besides a spiritual paradise in the afterlife, ISIS recruiters promised the new jihadists a certain stability here on Earth: Young Spaniards were lured by the jihadists to come live in cities like Aleppo where they received a weekly salary from the Islamic State, lodging, food, arms, tech gear and clothes.
But in a recent documentary produced by the Spanish network Antena 3 TV, two young men about 20 years old made some shocking statements. One of their friends went to Syria in 2014 and they say they are ready to die for Allah, but one asks, “Why would we want to go to Syria? I wage jihad in Ceuta. We have Syria here.”
And Islamism in Spain is not a problem exclusive to the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In recent years Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia have seen the arrest of numerous jihadists. According to the latest numbers from the Ministry of Interior, there were six people detained on charges of Islamist-related terrorism in 2012 and 35 in 2014. Most of those were planning attacks in Spanish cities or were part of a network proselytizing about such attacks.
Four men arrested on January 24 in Melilla, Barcelona, and Gerona administered social media pages supporting the Islamic State with thousands of followers, not only Spaniards but also people from Belgium, France, Morocco, and the United States.
In the face of this threat, the Spanish and Moroccan police are collaborating more intensely than ever. But it’s not easy to detect Islamists in Spain. Often they don’t behave like devout Muslims, but quite the contrary. In the mysterious plot behind the 3/11 bombings in 2004, the Islamists who were implicated went to brothels, got drunk, and snorted cocaine, according to the accounts of various police informers and to the ex-miner who helped them acquire the explosives in exchanged for hashish.
Police sources say that the current “second generation” of would-be terrorists is even more difficult to spot. They are Spanish, the children of Muslim immigrants, who look and act like Westerners. They are well schooled in the extremist doctrines of takfir wal hijra, which allows them to violate Islamic rules if that is necessary to achieve the greater goal of destroying the West. To avoid raising suspicions, they can eat pork, go to discos, drink alcohol and skip prayers while preparing their attacks. The takfiris also break the rule that says they should not attack fellow Muslims, declaring those of their co-religionaries who do not attack “infidels” to be traitors deserving the death penalty.
ISIS propaganda looks at Spain as part of its “caliphate.” But, again, why this obsession? One could say it is because of Spain’s alliance with the despised United States (including a military base in Cádiz, less than 150 miles from Ceuta). But, really, their attitude toward Spain is, in a barbarous way, more like that of an ex-fiancé pining for his lost bride and filled with murderous impulses.
When the Islamists talk of Spain, they talk about medieval Al Andalus, as it was called under caliphs of yore, with a romanticism that’s frightening, considering the source. On the Web, they publish pretty photographs of the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita of Córdoba, and they accompany them with poems and religious prophecies that promise sooner or later “the wayward daughter will come back to the father.” Their chatrooms are full of emotive heart emojis whose harmony is interrupted only by the black banners of the Islamic State. They vow that blood will purify the monuments that belonged to them centuries ago.
The obsession with Spain is, perhaps, easiest to understand with a quick glance at history. The Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 was only a small part of the great Muslim military expansion that lasted up until the 17th century. But Spain is, today, the only Islamic land that was re-conquered entirely by its pre-Islamic inhabitants.
The Reconquista slowed the Islamic push into the rest of Europe. It was part of a fight that went on for centuries, and that marked the destiny of the continent. Yet that long struggle might not have been as difficult as today’s war against Islamist terrorists. After all, in the old days, at least you could identify the pious Islamists in the heat of battle: they were the ones who didn’t go to war drunk.
Translated by Christopher Dickey