The Spanish Experience with Radical Islamic Terrorism

Editor’s Note: Part of solving problems in a complex world involves understanding the culture of—and working with—other nations. Relationships with allies and coalition partners are not only critical to multi-domain operations, but to leveraging those friendships against potential adversaries to prevent conflict in the first place. As such, Over the Horizon is committed to regularly include articles and viewpoints from our international partners. In this particular article, the author explains how and why terrorism targets Spain, and how the nation combats it.


By Lorenzo Bobadilla, Spanish Air Force

“I say to the entire world as a warning: We are living under the Islamic flag, the Islamic caliphate. We will die for it until we liberate those occupied lands, from Jakarta to Andalusia. And I declare: Spain is the land of our forefathers and we are going to take it back with the power of Allah.” ~ Unidentified Islamic State Jihadist

Beginning in the 1960s, Spain experienced domestic terror attacks, most notably those conducted by the group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) until the group’s dissolution in 2011. In 2004, Spain suffered its first major radical Islamic terrorist attack. Nearly 200 people died. Today, radical Islamic terrorism is Spain’s most pressing national security threat. The country’s history and foreign policy make it a major target for terrorist groups. Furthermore, it’s proximity to unstable regions in North Africa make it an important and accessible target for terrorist groups. Consequently, terrorism influences both Spain’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and resource allocation. Spain’s military and security forces have effectively countered this threat, both inside Spain’s borders and beyond.

Terrorism is not new to Spain, having endured 43 years of attacks at the hands of ETA, a group that violently supported the Basque separatist movement. During this time, ETA assassinated 829 people and wounded countless others. The history of ETA and how it became Spain’s most significant security problem is complex, and a detailed explanation exceeds the purpose of this article. However, it is important to understand that combating ETA provided Spanish security forces with considerable counter-terrorism experience. In fact, until ETA dissolved in response to insurmountable police pressure in 2011, ETA terror operations and those of radical Islamic terrorism overlapped for almost a decade. Spain’s security forces were forced to learn how to conduct prolonged operations to combat both threats simultaneously. This experience became invaluable in countering radical Islamic terrorism.

The motives for ETA’s bloody campaign were clear, but what are the origins of radical Islamic terrorism in Spain? Islamic terrorism has evolved over the past 15 years, becoming Spain’s greatest security threat. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Spain had a conservative right-wing government led by President Jose María Aznar. In an attempt to boost Spain’s international standing and to secure cooperation from the United States in the fight against ETA, President Aznar strongly supported President George Bush’s plans for the invasion of Iraq. Initially, Spain provided diplomatic support leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Spain later allowed US aircraft to transit Spanish airspace and use its air bases. Since Osama bin Laden had threatened western nations on several occasions, it can be argued that Spain’s support of OIF led to it becoming a target for radical Islamic terrorism. For example, on 24 November 2002, bin Laden stated: “Anyone who tries to destroy our villages and cities, then we are going to destroy their villages and cities. Anyone who steals our fortunes, then we must destroy their economy. Anyone who kills our civilians, then we are going to kill their civilians.” However, the reality is that Spain did not become a target of terrorism solely as a result of its support for the US invasion of Iraq. Other explanations offer insight as to why Spain became a target of radical Islamic violence.

First, radical Islamic groups continue to include Spain as part of an Islamic state because it was under Muslim rule for eight centuries (from 711-1492). These claims are fairly common in Islamic rhetoric, and serve as a call to arms to all Muslims, because Jihadism considers the Iberian Peninsula to be an Islamic land that was taken and occupied by infidels. According to radical Muslims, and many moderates, Islamic Law gives them the right to re-establish Muslim rule in any land that Muslims occupied at any time. Second, Spain is close to unstable regions like the African Sahel, where a variety of radical Islamic terror groups are considerably active. Third, Spain is involved in the fight against terrorism as part of its commitment to international organizations like the EU and NATO. Finally, immigrants and Spain’s own Muslim population are vulnerable to radicalization. In sum, there are numerous root causes of the radical Islamic terror threat that Spain currently faces.

The radical Islamic terrorist threat materialized in Spain during the attack that took place on 11 March 2004. Three days before the general elections were scheduled to take place, an al-Qaeda terrorist cell detonated several explosive devices on Madrid’s commuter trains during the peak of rush-hour congestion. As a result, 191 people were killed and more than 1,500 were wounded. This attack significantly influenced the election results. Many have argued that al-Qaeda’s attacks might have effectively changed Spain’s government. Prior to the attacks, national polls predicted a victory of the conservative party, Partido Popular. However, confirmation of al-Qaeda’s responsibility for the attack led a large portion of Spanish citizens to believe the bombings were retaliation for Spain’s support of the war in Iraq. Already a war that many considered illegal, the attacks stimulated large anti-war street demonstrations against Spain’s involvement. Efforts by government authorities to convince voters of ETA’s responsibility for the attack only succeeded in generating a massive response from the electorate, resulting in large voter turnout and change in government. As a further consequence of this attack, the new socialist government followed through on its promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. On 27 April 2004, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced that Spain completed its withdrawal of Spanish peacekeeping troops from Iraq. Both the influence on Spain’s national elections and the withdrawal of Spain’s troops from Iraq demonstrated the immediate impact of terrorism on the Spanish people. An important question remained: were there long-term effects on the rest of Europe?

After the attack in Madrid, the radical Islamic terror threat spread throughout the rest of Europe. Throughout the past decade, there have been several terrorist attacks all across Europe, largely conducted by radicalized Muslims living in Europe. Today, ISIS presents a greater threat than terrorists posed twelve years ago. Since ISIS declared a caliphate in the summer of 2014, it has become the biggest concern. ISIS has either inspired or is directly responsible for the most recent deadly attacks in Western Europe. Today, the likelihood of lone wolf and small-scale attacks is increasing. Consequently, the terrorist threat has shaped the way in which Spain and the rest of Europe design their respective security strategies. Amidst a continent-wide economic crisis, the threat of terrorism is driving how reduced security resources are allocated.

Spain’s NSS consistently recognizes the importance of managing the threat of terrorism. However, strategic resource allocation does not reflect this emphasis. In 2011, Spain’s NSS stated that although terrorism did not represent an existential threat to Spain, its prevention and defeat was a national, European, and global priority. The 2013 NSS describes terrorism as “a direct threat to the life and security of citizens that aims to undermine our democratic institutions and jeopardizes our vital interests, infrastructures, supplies and critical services.” Even though these remarks show the importance attributed to terrorism, economic realities are preventing the desired allocation of human and financial resources. As an example, before the economic crisis hit Spain in 2008, the Spanish National Police had an average replacement rate of 5,500 police officers per year from 2005 through 2008. This number fell to 2,000 officers in 2009, and to an annual average of 200 officers from 2010 through 2014. Finally, as the economy rebounded, the number of replacement officers in 2015 reached 1,400. The manning for Spain’s other main internal security force (Guardia Civil) is just as bad.

Furthermore, financial difficulties have also reduced the budget allocated to critical departments in the fight against the terrorist threat. For instance, the budget for the Spanish Ministry of Defense was €12,196 million in 2009 (1.13% of Spain’s GDP), but progressively declined throughout the economic crisis until reaching €10,104 million in 2016 (0.91% of Spain’s GDP). This represents a reduction of 17.1 percent, considerably below the two percent guideline set by NATO. The economic crisis has caused Spain to fall to the third lowest country in NATO, spending the lowest percentage of GDP on defense. However, the situation is improving around the European Union (EU) as a whole. Although EU defense spending fell at an annual rate of 0.4 percent in previous years, this trend has recently reversed as defense spending starts to grow again. Even with the recent growth in defense spending, the EU defense budget for 2015 is only 85.5% of pre-financial crisis levels. In light of this apparent underspend on defense, what is Spain doing to counter the terrorist threat?

Spain’s armed and security forces have adapted to these budget constraints, seeking efficient ways of doing more with less to counter both international and domestic terror threats. In the fight against terrorism beyond its borders, Spain has committed troops to a wide array of missions, with a special emphasis in the Sahel region, which is vital to Spain’s interest. Fragile states in this region, as well as terrorist groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine, are key sources of instability. Spain’s proximity to the Sahel creates a risk to Spain that this instability could spill over its borders. Presently, Spanish troops are trying to reduce this risk by collaborating with allies in several missions. For example, Spain provides the largest number of troops (118) to the EUTM-Mali mission, in which 24 European nations participate. Another example of Spain’s international efforts to combat terrorism is the Marfil Deployment in Senegal. The Marfil Detachment consists of a C-130 Hercules and 55 Spanish Air Force troops that support France and the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) in their fight against radical Islamic troops. Other international missions in which the Spanish armed forces contribute to fight terrorism include: the Active Endeavor NATO mission in the Mediterranean; the coalition in Iraq to fight ISIS; and the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. These examples demonstrate Spain’s commitment to fight terrorism beyond its borders, but the national response internally also deserves attention.

Spain’s security forces have become very effective in countering the internal terrorist threat mainly because of the experience acquired from combating ETA. The two primary police forces responsible for neutralizing the internal terrorist threat in Spain are the Policia Nacional and the Guardia Civil. These two organizations have had to counter the threat of radical activists born in Spain while simultaneously coping with large numbers of Muslim immigrants flowing into the country. Nevertheless, a high level of interagency coordination led them to the arrest of 120 radical Islamic terror suspects between 2013 and 2015. In the near future, the risk of radicalization of Muslims living in Spain will require the Spanish security forces to redouble their efforts to protect the population from terror attacks. Given the economic situation Spain is currently facing, the security organizations will need to accomplish its mission in a resource-constrained environment.

Increased resources would help keep an adequate balance between security and liberty. According to Félix Arteaga, a researcher at the Royal Institute Elcano of Security and Defense, a third decisive element in the fight against terrorism is the availability of resources, because “the availability of human and technological resources allows a simultaneous increase in the levels of security and liberty.” When a lack of resources prevents achieving that balance, political leaders are forced to choose between one and the other. The modus operandi that Radical extremist groups employed in the most recent attacks in Europe requires all European governments to maintain a significant increase in vigilance and deterrence. This translates into a considerably higher demand for urban police presence on the streets, especially during events involving large crowds. In the absence of increased human resources, security forces can only meet this security demand with measures that affect public liberties to some degree. When human and technological resources are limited, vigilance and deterrence measures must take priority. As a result, the capacity to conduct preventive operations and actual investigations that enable terrorists to be detained before they can execute their attacks is greatly reduced.

In regards to external terrorist threats, the Spanish armed forces benefit from increases in defense spending, mainly in two ways. First, it allows the Ministry of Defense a greater margin of flexibility when deciding on the numbers of forces it can commit to missions beyond Spain’s borders. In fact, one of the overarching limitations of these missions over the past years has been that they substantially increase defense spending. Second, it allows the acquisition and modernization of systems that are crucial to the fight against terrorism. For example, the Spanish Air Force recently purchased five MQ-9 Reaper (unarmed) UAVs. These ISR assets are not yet operational, but they provide indispensable joint capabilities to the Spanish armed forces deployed in the fight against terrorism. This acquisition, although welcomed, comes only after many years in which Spain’s military forces have had to rely on allied assets to bridge its own capability gaps. In the future, as terrorists find new ways to counter the Coalition’s technological advantages, increased resources will be necessary to stay ahead of the enemy.

In conclusion, once Spanish security forces defeated the terrorist group ETA, the continued rise of radical Islamic terrorism across Europe ensures that terrorism will remain Spain’s most important security threat. Looking ahead, there is strong evidence that this situation will not change in the short term. First, Spain’s commitment to international organizations will continue to make it a target of radical Islamic terrorists. Second, radical Islamic leaders will continue their rhetorical insistence that Spain is Islamic land. Third, instability in the Sahel will continue to affect Spain’s counter-terror operations to a certain degree. Finally, we may see the continued radicalization of Muslim migrants and Spanish nationals. Spanish authorities will have to place a great deal of importance on combating the terrorist threat. The need for increased resources in the short and long term is evident. Until economic growth allows for an increase in allocated resources, both Spain’s armed forces and its security forces will need to employ their limited human and financial assets in the most efficient way possible.

Lorenzo Bobadilla is a fighter pilot with over 3,000 hours in the F/A-18 Hornet and F-5B. He has held command at the squadron level on four different occasions including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 at Herat FSB. He is currently a student at the Air Command and Staff College, serving as the President of the International Officers.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the US Government, or the Kingdom of Spain’s Government.

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