The Forgotten Front in Europe’s ISIS War

Spain is on high alert and Spanish police are trying to pursue every lead, but the threats keep coming.

Jesus Blasco De Avellaneda/Reuters

MADRID — Even before the atrocity in Brussels, Spain was on its highest state of alert. For years, as the shock of horrific bombings in March 2004 that killed 191 people subsided, some authorities behaved as if they thought the country had achieved a sort of immunity: jihadists moved through here, they didn’t strike here. But that delusion is waning. Never before has Spain received so many explicit threats of imminent terrorist attacks or felt so acutely the psychosis that comes with them.

You can see the results on the streets.

A young man wanders in the center of Madrid painting manhole covers with a black marker. Dark-skinned, perhaps of Arab—probably of Moroccan—origin, well dressed and groomed, he excites little alarm, or interest, from those who pass by.

But a patrol from the National Police shows up in less than five minutes to take the young man aside for half an hour, interrogate him, frisk him, confiscate the marker and take what looked like a rock of hashish.

The agents check every crevice of his wallet, display some crumpled papers, and carefully examine their contents, to the surprise of the young man, who remains with his legs spread and his head down, scared and angry, in the back of a police car. Meanwhile, a crowd of tourists walks aimlessly around the scene.

This is Madrid on high alert, seizing Magic Markers.

Twenty-four hours after the graffiti shakedown, a “general alert” is declared at Barajas Airport. Passengers are pulled off the Saudi Airlines Madrid-Riyadh flight after someone finds a note pinned in the prayer room of the aircraft: “Bomb aboard.” But there is no bomb).

Forty-eight hours after the airport incident, the Spanish police launch one of the most important anti-terrorist operations in recent years: the dismantling of a criminal gang that is shipping weapons, materials for explosives and military uniforms to Syria from Spain.

Before, arrests in Spain were linked to jihadist recruitment networks, never the logistical support.

The cell sent its arms by ship in huge containers camouflaged as humanitarian aid to Syria and Iraq under the umbrella of several NGOs so as to reduce suspicions. Much of the material was packaged and labeled as “used clothing.”

This police operation, started on Feb. 7, remains open due to the complexity and size of the network. On March 4, weeks after the theoretical dismantling of the gang, the police intercepted three containers in Valencia and Algeciras, concealing 20,000 military uniforms for the so-called Islamic State that were catalogued, once again, as “used clothing.”

In the warren of industrial sites in Alcoy, in southern Spain, a multimillion-dollar business in secondhand clothes has been flourishing. One of the key people detained in the recent operation was a Moroccan businessman identified by authorities as Nourdine C., who managed with remarkable speed to become a lead player in this business of collecting, recycling, packaging, and distributing used clothing through the Spanish Mediterranean ports.

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“They collared him,” a veteran entrepreneur in Alcoy told The Daily Beast (which may not be the most appropriate metaphor for someone arrested for collaboration with the jihadists), but the same person told us, “I can only say good things.” Apparently he was quite generous to others. “He was very friendly, very helpful, and not what you might imagine.

“But there is this,” said the same entrepreneur. “Two years ago there were no ships for used clothing here. Now, apart from four Spanish companies, all other ships are for ‘used clothing,’ and they’re run by Arabs… They have monopolized everything in record time.”

The Moroccan businessman had used clothing companies in Alcoy, the Canary Islands, and Tangier and has been linked to several fake NGOs. Police familiar with the investigation believe these were fronts to disguise shipments of weapons and materiel.

The others arrested in the operation are Spaniards of Syrian, Jordanian, and Moroccan origin who allegedly were performing such operations in different parts of Europe before settling in the Spanish Mediterranean ports, where they consolidated their work, earning the trust and appreciation of their two main customers, the so-called Islamic State and the al Qaeda franchise in Syria known as the al Nusra Front.

While the ringleader, Ammar T., went to prison immediately, Nourdine was released on March 4, then rearrested two days later when three new containers linked to the plot were discovered in Valencia.

It may seem surprising that a country that can declare a “general alert” because of a small note with a bomb threat has somehow not discovered huge containers loaded with weapons, transmitters, uniforms, and material for explosives bound for ISIS or al Qaeda.

And yet, the business network stitched together by the jihadists and the humanitarian labels put on the ships allowed them to sail with little or no suspicion.

Police sources gave The Daily Beast the basic outlines of the operation.

“The Spanish police have been following the case since 2014, when we came across a ship carrying arms bound for Syria,” as one of these sources explained. “Research has been difficult precisely because of the amount of precautions that the gang imposed on all its members and in particular the network of companies and intermediaries that were involved.”

Evidence turned up in a dozen house searches in Valencia, Alicante, and Ceuta that heightened concerns. They found HK pistols and 9mm cartridges.

“It’s not so easy to detect what’s going on because everything is cooked up in ports inside ships with huge containers that were passing through Spain and sometimes not even out of Spain,” one police source told us, referring obliquely to the shipments from Morocco being investigated.

The containers discovered in Valencia with 20,000 military uniforms came from Arab countries, and were meant to dress for combat an entire army of Islamists.

ISIS has pulled together an international supply network for military equipment, and criminals compete among themselves to offer the best prices. This Spanish gang was the low bidder with the best quality.

According to the Ministry of Interior, the cohesion of the cell was based on undisputed leadership and mutual trust among all its members, united by a common Islamist ideology.

The military pressure being put on ISIS in the war zone has led to a huge increase in jihadist demand for new fighters, hi-tech equipment, arms, and other military supplies.

Investigators are looking beyond the original sources of the weapons and uniforms to pull the thread that might unravel the financing and money laundering that involved these textile companies, since Spain is the financial center of radical Islam.

According to a report in El Pais, citing intelligence services, “an extensive network of 250 call centers, butcher shops and food stores make up the hawala [an unregistered but extensive system for transferring funds] that moves without any control the savings of over 150,000 Muslims and is being exploited to send donations to the Islamic State and al Nusra Front.”

Hawala was precisely the method used by this Spanish gang to send money to terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, police have been concerned about the continuing media blitz that ISIS has put on Spain, hitting a sort of crescendo on Feb. 1 with a video addressed directly to the Spanish people. In it, a French jihadist claimed that Spain (“Al Andalus” for Islamists) should “pay dearly” for the expulsion of Muslims, referring to the Spanish Reconquista that took place between 722 and 1492.

“Oh dear al Andalus! You thought we had forgotten you… No!” said the jihadist. “No Muslim can forget Cordoba, Toledo, or Xátiva. There are many sincere and faithful Muslims who want to return to al Andalus,” he said. “Al Andalus, be patient.”

In the video, which was recorded in the ruins of a building in Nineveh, the terrorist executed with shots to the head five hostages accused of spying.

Fortunately for Spaniards, who have lived in a kind of political parenthesis since the inconclusive elections last December, the police force is one of the few institutions that is not in stand-by mode waiting for the post-electoral negotiations to allow some governance. Everything has been at a virtual standstill in Spain except for jihadist activity, and those trying to track it down.

So the trickle of arrests is constant, every week. Among the last three jihadists arrested in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the north coast of Africa, was a veteran of Afghanistan who had already served his sentence for terrorism at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. Once again, the terrorists are using Spain as a gateway to Europe.

But, as in Belgium, the moment appears to be fast approaching when they decide the country is no longer so useful as a base or a throughway, and they make it a target.

Perhaps that is why the experts at Spain’s National Intelligence Center have leveled ferocious criticism at the disastrous performance of Belgium. Brussels was a cautionary tale for any country where government is weak, and the push by jihadists is strong.