Why Spain, why now?

Now that Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the horror in Barcelona many people are asking ‘Why Spain?’  France, the UK and Belgium they understand since there has been a spate of attacks in recent years.  Perhaps even Sweden and Germany are on some peoples’ list even if these nations have suffered comparatively less. In this regard it is interesting how short our memories are.  It was scarcely a decade ago that Madrid was hit by a terrorist attack that is second only to 9/11 in terms of lethality: 192 dead and over 1,600 wounded back in 2004 when extremists put bombs on the metro.  Nevertheless, most people don’t seem to think of Spain when it comes to Islamist terrorism.

And we are safe in calling it Islamist terrorism at this juncture. Even if the IS claim is bogus, the most likely interpretation of this attack is Islamist.  This is of course not always so obvious.  After all, a similar tactic was used by a Hitler-loving loser in Charlottesville, Virginia less than a week ago (is it really less than a week?  How did we go from fretting about far right/white supremacist/xenophobic/neo-Nazis back to jihadis so soon?).  It is still to be determined whether the assailants were IS-directed or inspired and whether they may have spent time with the terrorist group (returning foreign fighters for instance?).  Yet there is no serious doubt that it is Islamist extremist in nature.

There are four primary reasons why Spain is seen as a viable target by the extremists.  In addition, the country has had a huge issue with violent radicalisation for decades.  A lot of this does not make the news in North America, but Spanish security agencies regularly make arrests and disrupt terrorist cells.  A new problem this is not.

But back to those reasons, in ascending order of importance (in my view):

a) Spain still holds on to two tiny enclaves on the northern coast of Africa, Melilla and Ceuta. These are vestiges of old treaties between long dead kings who didn’t think to ask the locals what they wanted. In recent years Spanish authorities have had to deal with a serious illegal immigrant problem in the two cities as Moroccans and others seek to enter that territory to be considered ‘in the EU’ in the hopes of getting to more lucrative spots like England and Germany. The status of the enclaves rankles a lot of people including Islamist extremists (Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri condemned the Spanish ‘usurping’ of the territories earlier this year).  They are a symbol of how a foreign power stole the ‘homes’ of Muslims.

b) building on this, Spain was of course part and parcel of the great Muslim ummah for almost 800 years (714-1492 AD).  Jihadis refuse to the use the word ‘Spain’ (derived from the name of the original Roman province) but instead use ‘al-Andalus’, the term to describe the territory  of Spain under its Muslim overlords.  To an Islamist extremist, land that was once Muslim  is always Muslim.  Spain must therefore return to the Islamic fold.

c) Spain is part of the West and the West is portrayed as Islam’s greatest enemy.  They see the West as engaged in a millennial struggle to dominate and eventually eliminate Islam and are therefore required to rise to their faith’s defence.  Spain deserves what it gets merely for being a Western nation.

d) because.  Just because.  Jihadi groups often engage in flowery rhetoric and propaganda to explain why they use violence but sometimes we over-analyse.  Some people just like to kill others.  They do not need a particularly complicated excuse.  Sometimes we have to accept that there are warped, bad people (I really don’t like the term evil due to its religious overtones) who do bad things.  I would guess that if you asked most of them why they maim and destroy you might get some memorised rationale about Islam and history and fate and divine duty, but if pressed they would have a hard time explaining what it all means.  They just like to take lives.

So Spain joins an ever-growing roster of nations struck in recent months/years by jihadi terrorism and Barcelona joins an ever-growing club of cities.  While none of this was unexpected by those who follow terrorism it is still a sad day for Spain.  And for all of us too.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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