On August 17, 2017, a van drove into a crowd of people in a popular tourist area of Barcelona, killing 13 and wounding more than 100 others. After escaping the scene, the van’s driver stabbed another individual to death in a car hijacking. Early the following morning, there was another vehicle-ramming attack in Cambrils, a coastal town south of Barcelona. After injuring seven people, the car overturned and five men emerged from the vehicle. Before they were shot and killed by police, one of the men managed to stab a woman to death. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils via the group’s official media channels. Authorities have linked the perpetrators to a single cell that had planned a series of bomb attacks around Barcelona. The cell had reportedly decided to carry out the vehicular attacks after a premature explosion destroyed their explosives. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News, BBC News, BBC News, Guardian, Associated Press, Reuters, Guardian, Independent, Independent)


Since the early 1960s, the Basque nationalist and separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) has killed more than 829 people in its effort to gain independence from Spain. The group was designated as a terrorist organization by Spain, the United States, Britain, France, and the European Union. ETA declared a “definitive end” to armed activity in October 2011 and announced that it was officially dissolving in a letter dated April 16, 2018. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, France 24, Guardian)

Spain has also been a target for Islamic extremists. Up until the late 15th century, large parts of Spain and Portugal were under the control of an Islamic caliphate. Consequently, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups have vowed to “re-conquer” what they refer to as “al-Andalus,” the historic Arabic name for the Iberian mainland. In 2014, a Spanish-speaking ISIS member declared: “I tell you, Spain is the land of our forefathers, and, Allah willing, we are going to liberate it, with the might of Allah….” Moreover, in the year leading up to the 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, Spain was reportedly mentioned 45 times in ISIS propaganda. (Sources: ABC News, El País, MEMRI, Time)

I tell you, Spain is the land of our forefathers, and, Allah willing, we are going to liberate it, with the might of Allah…Spanish-speaking alleged ISIS leader

Spain suffered “the worst Islamist attack in European history” on March 11, 2004 when blasts from 10 bombs killed 191 people on four Madrid-bound commuter trains. In the decade following the attack, Spain reportedly arrested 472 suspected Islamist militants. By 2014, approximately 1,800 security officials were dedicated to fighting terrorism in the country. In the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France, Spain raised its terror threat level to a four (in a five-tiered system). Between June 2015 and December 2016, Spain arrested 177 suspected terrorists. (Sources: Guardian, CNN, U.S. Department of State, El País, Euro Weekly

In June 2017, El País reported that the Spanish government had more than 3,000 individuals working to prevent terror attacks in Spain. Among those working to prevent terrorism were the Spanish police, who were reportedly monitoring 259 individuals and tapping 500 telephones. Despite these measures, in August 2017 Spain suffered two vehicular-ramming attacks that claimed a total of 14 lives and injured more than 100 others. (Sources: El País, Reuters)

Spain recognizes the importance of international cooperation and information sharing in preventing terrorism and is currently a member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Spanish police have also worked closely with security forces in Morocco, Germany, and other countries to dismantle transnational jihadist networks. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

The 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils were orchestrated primarily by Moroccan nationals that had been radicalized while living in Spain. Of the 21 Moroccans implicated in the devastating 11-M attacks, 19 had reportedly been radicalized in Spain. Similarly, eight of the 10 individuals involved in the 2017 Barcelona and Cambrils attacks were Moroccan nationals that had been radicalized in Spain by Abdelbaki Essati, a local imam from the city of Ripoll. Analysts believe that Essati, who died in an explosion on the day before the vehicular attack in Barcelona, communicated with members of ISIS’s external operations wing. (Sources: Combating Terrorism Center, BBC News, Combating Terrorism Center, Combatting Terrorism Center, New York Times)

Of those arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2016 for Islamist-terror related activities, 42 percent were Spaniards and 43 percent were Moroccans, according to an empirical study published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. The study found that 90 percent of the detainees had been partially or entirely radicalized while living in Spain. (Source: Combating Terrorism Center

Like other European countries, Spain has seen a rise in online radicalization. “Islam en Español,” a Facebook page that glorified ISIS and promoted militancy, had approximately 32,500 followers in September 2016. Following the 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, ISIS reportedly released its first propaganda video in Spanish. In the video, a man identified as Abu Lais Al Qurdubi from Cordoba, encouraged Muslim viewers to “carry out jihad where you are” and said that “Allah willing, Al Andalus will become again what is was, part of the caliphate.” (Sources: Reuters, Deutsche Welle, USA Today)

Islamic extremists have targeted women, in particular, in online recruitment. In December 2014, Spanish and Moroccan police arrested seven individuals that had reportedly recruited 12 women online to travel to ISIS-held territory to join the terrorist organization. Following ISIS’s Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, reportedly “tried to recruit Spaniards, especially women, through social networks to join and fight with Daesh… to repopulate the caliphate.” (Sources: Reuters, International Business Times)

In recent years, Spanish cities in North Africa such as Melilla and Ceuta have increasingly become a locus for recruitment. In August 2014, Spanish and Moroccan police broke up a nine-person cell that was radicalizing and sending new recruits from Ceuta and neighboring cities in Morocco to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. A month later, another ISIS recruitment network was dismantled in Melilla and Nador, a city in Morocco. On May 20, 2014, Spanish authorities broke up a Melilla-based cell reportedly responsible for radicalizing and sending 26 individuals to fight with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to an NPR article published in 2015, several female ISIS recruiters have been arrested in Ceuta for targeting Spanish women online. (Sources: Business Insider, Al Arabiya, New York Post, CNN, El Mundo, NPR)

As of October 2015, an unofficial estimate by The Soufan Group puts the number of foreign fighters from Spain at 250. In November 2015, the Spanish National Police and INTERPOL’s National Central Bureau in Madrid co-hosted a meeting during which countries discussed the importance of information sharing to contain the threat posed by foreign fighters. Spain’s then-Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Diaz expressed concern that returnees may perpetrate violent acts or facilitate recruitment within Spain and has highlighted the importance of international cooperation. (Sources: The Soufan Group, INTERPOL, CNN)

According to an Arab Weekly report in October 2017, Catalan authorities have noticed an increased Muslim Brotherhood presence in the region. The Brotherhood in Catalonia have reportedly been trying to organize forums, build schools, and provide social services in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the region, sparking concerns about a greater spread of extremist ideology. (Source: Arab Weekly)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

2017 Attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils

On August 17, 2017, a van crashed into a crowd of people on the Las Ramblas pedestrian walkway in Barcelona, killing 13 and wounding more than 100 others. Police arrested two suspects in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but the van’s driver fled the scene on foot. After escaping the scene, the driver stabbed another individual to death in a car hijacking. ISIS released a statement through its Amaq News Agency referring to the perpetrators as “Islamic State soldiers.” ISIS claimed that the attackers “carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting coalition states.” Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time, called the killings a “savage terrorist attack.”

Early the following morning, five men attempted another vehicular-ramming attack in Cambrils, a coastal town located south of Barcelona. After overturning their car, the men were shot and killed by the Spanish police. Six civilians and a police officer were wounded in the attack and one woman was killed. The suspects were reportedly wearing explosive belts, which police later determined to be fake. Police identified the five as 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, 19-year-old El Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, 19-year-old Said Aallaa, 21-year-old Omar Hychami, and 24-year-old Mohamed Hychami. All five were born in Morocco. The following day, ISIS issued an official statement claiming responsibility for the attack in Cambrils. Police believe that the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks were related and that the perpetrators belonged to the same cell. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News, New York Times, Associated Press, New York Times, Guardian, Guardian, Reuters, Independent)

On August 16, a house linked to the cell exploded in the coastal town of Alcanar Platja. Authorities believe that the explosion occurred while members of the cell were attempting to build a bomb. Inside the house, Catalan firefighters discovered 120 canisters of butane and propane. Police later found trace amounts of TATP, a popular explosive featured in a notorious ISIS bomb-making video.  The initial explosion killed two individuals. A second explosion wounded first responders on the scene. One of the two people killed in the explosion was Abdelbaki Essati, a Moroccan imam living in the Spanish town of Ripoll. Essati is believed to have radicalized the cell and to have masterminded the attacks. (Sources: Independent, Reuters, Guardian, Sky News, New York Times, New York Times)

The cell had allegedly planned a bombing campaign through Barcelona before the premature explosion, according to Spanish authorities. Without the explosives, the cell instead turned to using their vehicles in ramming attacks. In the hours succeeding the Las Ramblas attack, police arrested four suspected members of the cell. By the following Monday, police reported that the cell had been completely dismantled. (Sources: Guardian, Independent, Guardian, Reuters)

After a five-day search, police shot and killed the driver of the August 17 attack, who was wearing what appeared to be a suicide belt. Police later identified the driver as a 22-year-old Moroccan immigrant named Younes Abouyaaquoub, who lived in Ripoll. Abouyaaquoub’s credit card was reportedly used the day of the attack to rent three vans, including the one used in the Las Ramblas attack. (Sources: Reuters, Associated Press, Guardian, Independent, Guardian, Reuters)

Altogether, 130 people were wounded in the Las Ramblas and Cambrils attacks. These attacks were Spain’s deadliest since the 2004 Madrid bombings, which killed 192 on commuter trains. It was also Spain’s first fatal attack since July 2009, when Basque separatist group ETA killed two paramilitary officers on the Spanish island of Majorca. (Sources: Guardian, Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, Associated Press. BBC News, New York Times)

2004 Madrid Train Bombings (“11-M” Attacks)

On the morning of March 11, 2004, Islamist terrorists murdered 191 people and injured approximately 1,800 in Madrid. The terrorists used cellphones to detonate 10 bombs that exploded on four commuter trains at three different stations. The chief perpetrators of the 11-M massacre were young men, primarily of North African origin. They were reportedly inspired by an al-Qaeda-affiliated website that called for attacks on the Spanish mainland leading up to Spain’s March 14th general election.

Both the conservative People’s Party (PP) incumbent, Jose Maria Aznar, and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) candidate, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, politicized the event. Aznar immediately pointed the finger at ETA, despite evidence showing that jihadists were responsible. (Sources: Guardian, Deutsche Welle)

On April 3, 2004, seven suspected perpetrators of 11-M committed suicide by detonating explosives strapped to themselves. Officers of Spain’s Grupo Especial Operaciones (GEO) force tracked the men to an apartment in Madrid. The suicide explosion killed one GEO officer and wounded 15 other agents. (Sources: Telegraph, El País, BBC News, CNN)

By October 2007, 29 individuals were indicted for the Madrid train bombings. Their charges included murder, belonging to a terrorist cell, and providing material support for the bombings. Three of the individuals were sentenced to over a thousand years in prison but will only serve 40 (the maximum sentence that can be served under Spanish law). (Sources: Reuters, Guardian)


Domestic Counter-Extremism

The Spanish Criminal Code outlaws terrorism and any act of collaboration with a terrorist organization. The Spanish Criminal Code also prohibits incitement “to incur in discriminatory acts, hate or violence” under Article 510. “Hate speech” is punishable by imprisonment for one to three years and a fine of 6 to 12 months’ salary. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights)

The Center for Intelligence against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO), the National Police, and the Civil Guard are responsible for enforcing the Spanish Criminal Code as it relates to terrorism. In 2015, the Spanish police arrested 100 suspected Islamic extremists. Between the 2004 Madrid train bombings and February 2016, Spain arrested approximately 600 alleged terrorists. (Sources: La Moncloa, Human Rights Watch, Associated Press, BBC News)

In 2014, ETA reportedly had over 700 former members imprisoned for participating in terrorism. Spain has been scrutinized for exercising harsher punishments on ETA members. One case led to the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, which forced the release of an ETA operative who was sentenced to 3,000 years in prison (despite Spanish law permitting a maximum sentence of 40-years).  At the time ETA announced its dissolution in April 2018, the number of former ETA members imprisoned had reportedly dropped to under 300. (Sources: Newsweek, The Economist, DW)

In recent years, the Spanish government has largely focused on preventing terror attacks in the context of growing Islamic extremism. In September 2014, Secretary of State for Security Francisco Martinez ramped up security measures in conjunction with the government’s escalation of the terror threat level. Law enforcement took extra precautions in monitoring transit hubs, hospitals, government buildings, and other key sites. The decision was primarily a response to ISIS’s expansion in Iraq and Syria and direct threats against Western countries. On December 5, 2013, Spain launched the Cyber Defense Committee, charged with establishing a national cyber-security strategy to protect sensitive information networks across all departments. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, U.S. Department of State)

According to the U.S. Department of State, Spain is in the process of improving its legal framework to (a) directly address the flow of foreign fighters to conflict zones like Iraq and Syria; (b) enable the government to more aggressively prosecute suspected jihadists not already associated with criminal organizations; and (c) prevent online recruitment. Given its experience with ETA, Spain’s jurisprudence and bureaucratic systems have the capacity to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Library of Congress)

In May 2016, the city of Malaga in southern Spain joined the “Strong Cities Network,” launched by the United Nations in September 2015 to build community resilience and cohesion in order to counter violent extremism. Malaga serves as a pilot for community-based counter violent extremism (CVE) programs. For example, Malaga has a youth radicalization intervention program as well as a number of programs designed to improve communication between government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Immigration Policy

As part of its comprehensive immigration policies, Spain participated in the U.S. Immigration Advisory Program. Through promoting collaboration between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials stationed at Madrid-Barajas International Airport, airline security personnel, and local police, this program is designed to monitor high-risk passengers traveling to the United States. The program has aided Spain in improving security and detecting false documents at its borders. Spain has recently introduced a number of new technologies to further secure its borders. For example, Spain has implemented a system to read EU passports with biometric data, improved explosive trace detection capabilities, and introduced an “External Surveillance System” for maritime policing. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

In January 2015, then-Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Diaz also called for a discussion over the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which removed passport checks on EU internal borders. Diaz argued that “the existing mobility in the European Union is facilitating the movements (of jihadists) to any country and also to our country.” He planned to have Spain move “back to border controls” to limit the movement of Islamist fighters returning to Europe from the Middle East. Diaz also petitioned for the creation of a European passenger database. This would allow EU member states to share passenger information and thereby enhance border security. In February 2015, the Spanish government and opposition party agreed to implement new measures to address individuals in Spain who were planning to join Islamic extremist groups in war zones. The announcement came in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and was reaffirmed by the Interior Minister after the November 2015 Paris attacks. (Sources: NDTV, Business Insider, International Business Times)

The government’s efforts to counter domestic extremism are closely associated with its clampdown on illegal immigration and efforts to integrate existing immigrant communities. Spain’s Foundation for Pluralism and Co-existence, a public office through the Ministry of Justice, supports integration of minority religious communities. The Foundation has provided grants to non-governmental organizations developing programs and activities aimed at social cohesion.

International Counter-Extremism

In the aftermath of 9/11, Spain took a leading role in international counterterrorism efforts. Spain has been a key participant of the Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC), established by the U.N. Security Council to monitor states’ compliance with counterterrorism standards. Spain has contributed significantly to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and, in 2016, deployed over 300 Spanish troops to a military-training mission in Iraq alongside the U.S. mission. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, U.S. Department of State)

Spain also helped found the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). The GCTF has a long-term goal of reducing vulnerability to terrorism by creating a comprehensive approach to countering radicalization and recruitment, preventing terrorist attacks, and prosecuting the perpetrators of terrorist acts. Spain has also been a long-time member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body that works to promote polices that combat money laundering and terrorist financing, and the Egmont Group, a global association of financial intelligence units. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Egmont Group)

Since 2004, Spain has been a member of an informal working group on jihadism known as the 5 + 5. This unofficial network consists of defense ministers from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The group exchanges information on threats posed by Islamic extremism and foreign fighters in the region. The Spanish Civil Guard also utilizes Europol information to combat terrorism and organized crime. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Spain has also been an active partner in U.S. and African efforts to track and disrupt transnational terrorism. U.S. officials from the Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies have advised Spanish airline security personnel and police in screening high-risk passengers, particularly those flying to the United States. In Africa, Spain has increased cooperation with Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania. Together, these countries have sought to combat and contain the threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Spain has also provided funding to Mali and Mauritania to support CVE programs. (Sources: U.S. Department of State (2013), U.S. Department of State (2014))

Spanish authorities played a critical role in identifying the armed perpetrator of the thwarted Amsterdam-Paris passenger train attack that occurred on August 21, 2015. Spanish security services noted that the suspect, Ayoub El Kahzani, lived in Algeciras, a port city in southern Spain, during 2014 and was already known as a potential terrorist threat. Spain had identified El Kahzani, a Moroccan national, to France and Belgium as a person who had joined an Islamist group. (Source: New York Times)

Public Opinion

In August 2017, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on leading security threats and found that 88 percent of Spanish respondents believed that ISIS is a major threat to their country. (Source: Pew Research Center)

In September 2014, a Counter Extremism Project (CEP) study found that a majority of respondents from Spain consider Islamic extremist movements to be the greatest threat to their national security. The study also found that the growth of Islamic extremism in Spain was believed to be “very dangerous” by 51 percent of the Spaniards in the sample, and “quite dangerous” by 41 percent. In response to a question regarding the impact of growing Islamic extremism in the Middle East and North Africa, 55 percent of the Spanish respondents agreed it would destabilize the region. Finally, Spanish respondents most strongly felt that terrorist training and funding in foreign countries were the biggest threats to security and way of life in Spain. These threats were directly or indirectly related to Islamic extremism.

According to a December 2015 survey completed by Simple Lógica, a Madrid-based polling firm that specializes in social research and market analysis, the Spanish public disapproved of military involvement in conflict areas. With regards to Spanish participation in the Western-led war against ISIS, 61 percent of those polled were against and only 28.8 percent were in favor. When asked what effect they believed the war would have on the eradication of jihadi terrorism, 58.8 percent thought it would have “little” or “no” effect. Only 21.6 percent of respondents considered war to be “somewhat,” “enough” or “very impactful” against jihadists. (Sources: Counter Extremism Project, Simple Lógica)