How did the characteristics of the jihadists change from the 11 Madrid bombing to Catalonia's attacks and beyond? An overview of the jihadist mobilitation in Spain from 2004 to 2018 by Carola García-Calvo, Head of the Scientific Panel in MINDb4ACT.

When the attacks took place in Madrid on 11 March 2004 –exactly 15 years ago – still the worst terrorist attack perpetrated on European soil, few Spaniards were aware that three years earlier, in September 2001, days after 9/11, an Al Qaeda cell operating in Madrid and Granada had been dismantled. Some of its members –subsequently involved in the Atocha bombings on 11 March– had met that summer with members of the Hamburg cell, responsible for 9/11, in a small town on the Catalan coast. For many of their compatriots, the Madrid attacks focused attention on a situation that had in fact begun to emerge in Spain approximately 10 years previously when, apart from the aforementioned al-Qaeda cell, other individuals linked to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) had already been arrested and convicted for their jihadist terrorist activities.

Over the decade and a half that has elapsed since 2004, jihadist mobilisation and its attendant threats have far from disappeared in Spain – witness the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in 2017, linked not to al-Qaeda but to Islamic State (IS)– although it has certainly undergone a transformation, with 2012 being the year that marked the turning point. And indeed, when the civil war in Syria erupted, the worldwide jihadist movement was at a low ebb, exacerbated by the death of its charismatic leader, Osama Bin Laden, in 2011. However, the Syrian conflict, which subsequently spilled over into neighbouring Iraq, constituted a catalyst by providing a new stage for jihadism and attracting some 30,000 individuals from over 130 countries, recruited to the ranks of, above all, IS.

This unprecedented mobilisation particularly affected western Europe, from where more than 5,000 Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) are thought to have travelled, including more than 200 from Spain, which marks a pivotal moment in the history of jihadist terrorism and requires analysis of the mutations undergone by jihadism in Spain. One of these changes –the most important– will constitute the particular focus of this article. Which? To answer this question, it is essential to turn to the way jihadists’ sociodemographic characteristics have evolved in Spain.

According to data from the Elcano Royal Institute’s Violent Radicalisation and Global Terrorism Programme, of those individuals who had been convicted or died as a consequence of their jihadist activities in Spain between 2004 and 2018, published in the Spanish-language book “Yihadism and yihadists in Spain, 15 year after the 11M”, presented on the 6th of March 2019 in Madrid, all the arrested or deceased individuals prior to 2012 were male, first-generation immigrants from countries with Muslim-majority populations (such as Algeria, Pakistan and Syria but, above all, Morocco), and the threat was therefore of a foreign nature. This applies the individuals involved in the Madrid attacks: of the 25 individuals who made up the network, all of them were foreigners and only one could be considered as a second-generation immigrant, having arrived in Spain when he was under 14.

From 2012 onwards, significant changes in the characteristics of the jihadists started to emerge, starting with the appearance of women among their ranks. Until then, no women in Spain had been convicted or lost their lives as a consequence of their terrorist activity, whereas in the ensuing period women accounted for almost 15% of the total. The biggest change undergone by jihadism in Spain in the last 15 years however is the fact that, since 2012, six out of every 10 individuals in question are second-generation immigrants; in other words, they are the offspring of Muslim immigrants and were born or have grown up in Spain, regardless of whether they actually hold Spanish citizenship. If we add to these the 10% of individuals who lack immigrant ancestry (predominantly converts), seven out of 10 jihadists in Spain are now homegrown. The threat implicit in the current jihadist mobilisation in Spain is thus endogenous in nature. Indeed, nine of the 10 terrorists involved in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks –all except the imam, Es Satty– were second-generation immigrants.

It is thus young second-generation Muslims, male and female, who have proved to be most susceptible to jihadist recruiters and propaganda since 2012. They often suffer identity crises stemming from belonging to two cultures –their own and that of their parents– which, as a young Spanish Muslim woman of Moroccan descent said in an article published in Verne, makes them feel they are from neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’. The grievances, real or perceived, stemming from their dual status generate a conflict of identity that the terrorist organisations inspired by jihadist Salafism are sometimes able to exploit, offering them a future based on membership of a community of mutually-supportive believers that supervenes any nationality. Ensuring that these young people do not lead their lives divorced from the values and principles inherent to the pluralistic and democratic society in which they were born and educated is a responsibility incumbent upon everyone; it is an area in which the authorities, the security forces, academia and civil society in general need to work in a joined-up way, resisting any temptation towards short-termism, on a project involving a truly inclusive and cohesive society.