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Terrorism: The Lessons of Barcelona

Albert Gea/Reuters
A journalist pointing to the name “Mohamed El Hichamy,” one of the suspected terrorists in the Cambrils attack, on a table of voluntary payments for the expenses of the mosque where the radical imam Abdelbaki Es Satty preached, Ripoll, north of Barcelona, August 20, 2017

As I walked home on a sunny August day in Barcelona, I took in the mingling of tourists, locals, and expats so typical of the cosmopolitan city that I’ve called home for the past few years. This was interrupted by the sound of terrified screams from behind me. When I turned and saw throngs of people running my way, I immediately knew my fears had come true. I’ve spent the last three and a half years conducting fieldwork on radicalization in Barcelona. From everything I’ve seen and learned, I knew a day like this was inevitable. I just didn’t expect to witness it myself.

Barcelona has a long, complicated history with radical networks. In 2001, Mohammad Atta had a meeting with an aide in Cambrils (one of the locations of the Barcelona attacks) before continuing his journey to the US to lead the September 11 attacks. Radical networks from various Moroccan cities and from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have recruited from the Barcelona area via connections to family and friends. Terrorist groups from Pakistan were linked to a large thwarted terrorist attack on the Barcelona metros in 2008. Drugs that have been trafficked through Barcelona can be traced back through the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa and have allegedly helped fund terrorism. The Spanish authorities have made approximately two hundred jihadist-related arrests since 2013; over a quarter of those arrested between 2013 and 2016 for ISIS related-activities were residents of the province of Barcelona at the time.

But to call the greater Barcelona area a radicalization hotspot would be an overstatement. There are hundreds of thousands of Muslims living there, and only a fraction of a percentage point of them has had any relationship with a radical group. In many cases, those who were involved in terrorist cells were reported to the authorities by their Muslim neighbors or family members. While there are many Salafist mosques, the majority of adherents are known as quietists, meaning they practice a nonviolent version of orthodox Islam.

All of this is what made my job difficult when I first arrived in Barcelona. I was given a complicated task by Artis International, the group researching violent conflict to which I belong: find radicalized people, conduct interviews, surveys, and psychology experiments with them, and then get them in and out of a brain scanner in order to run neuroscience experiments on them. The overarching goal of the organization is to conduct field-based scientific research in conflict zones on combatants and their supporters to help find strategies for reducing violence. Much like journalists, Artis researchers protect our contacts’ personal details, and this is part of what convinces people to speak with us. However, if we ever were to learn of an imminent threat to public safety or an opportunity to directly intervene to prevent violence, we would take the appropriate action.

Most terrorism researchers conduct their work from behind the safety of a computer screen. The very few field researchers get used to noting all the possible escape routes when we meet face-to-face with actual terrorists. But usually you know exactly whom you are meeting. When I met members of ISIS and al-Nusra along the Turkish-Syrian border, they made no attempt to mask their affiliation. Conducting fieldwork in Western cities poses the extra challenge of never really knowing if you’ve made contact with an actual terrorist cell.

I did begin to feel that I was on the right track when I noticed myself being photographed by the same Spanish “tourists” in various locations. At first I found these paparazzi annoying, but after having escaped a few dicey situations by jumping out of windows, and having narrowly avoided being kidnapped by an informant, I began to appreciate knowing the authorities could be nearby.

With the help of a team of assistants, we interviewed and surveyed more than eight hundred people of Pakistani and Moroccan origin. We could approach some subjects in public areas, while others were referred to us by previous interviewees. They were mostly eighteen to forty years old and a mix of first- and second-generation immigrants. The majority were not radicalized but we did eventually tap into clusters of avowed supporters of jihadist groups and some former members. The political preoccupations of these two ethnicities differed in minor ways. The Pakistanis were far more concerned with the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, whereas the Moroccans focused more on Syria. Pakistanis were far more strongly identified with Islam, Muslim people, Spain, and their country of origin than were Moroccans. An area of agreement was in each group’s perceptions of the other. Moroccans saw Pakistanis as docile and a bit hypocritical when following their religion; Pakistanis saw Moroccans as hot-headed. “We Pakistanis like to talk a lot. The Moroccans, they don’t talk, they just do,” said one Pakistani local.

Unsurprisingly, most of those surveyed felt that the West was at war with Islam. More surprising were the elaborate conspiracies that supported this idea. The majority of Pakistanis and Moroccans felt that groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban were created by the intelligence agencies of the US, Israel, and India in order to malign Muslims, and to divide and conquer them. Such theories are spread both person-to-person and by fake news online—one article that went viral in this community provided “proof” that the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was not only Jewish but also an operative of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. But our survey research found no correlation between a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories and jihadist radicalization. Endorsing fabricated realities that preserve one’s beliefs is as much a tendency of moderates as of radicals.

In fact, radicals generally took full ownership of jihadist groups. As an imam who had been implicated in a thwarted terrorist attack on Barcelona metros told me, “Say what you will about al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or others. If our culture survives modernity, it will be precisely because of these groups.” A common self-perception in the general Muslim population was that they were a people under siege, with statements like “From Burma to Palestine, all you see is the humiliation of the Muslim people” thrown into most conversations about politics. Consistent with this sentiment, the survey data showed that individuals were significantly more likely to have a positive opinion of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda if they saw them as fighting a defensive jihad, as opposed to an offensive one.

However, the appeal of jihadist groups changed over the course of my fieldwork. When I first arrived in Barcelona in January 2014, I was hard pressed to find anyone who had even heard of the concept of the Caliphate. By that summer, after ISIS declared its Caliphate, the word was common parlance. Even a moderate imam in Barcelona who preached against extremism told me that the dream of the Caliphate had reemerged, except that he and his disciples envisaged it as a federation of Muslim nations much like the European Union. The survey data from both Pakistanis and Moroccans revealed that the majority endorsed a Caliphate, while opinions on whether it should be borderless or a federation were split.

The longer I stayed in the field, the more the opinions about who I was and what I was after diverged. Some regarded me as an American or Pakistani spy, while others began to open up to me in order to unburden themselves about their radical pasts. I heard dozens of stories from Moroccans and Pakistanis about how they almost got recruited by jihadist groups in their respective countries, or did get recruited but quit early on. What was remarkable about these stories was how similar they were.

Manu Fernandez/AP Images
Police and journalists near where Younes Abouyaaqoub, a suspect in the Barcelona attack, was killed by police, Subirats, near Barcelona, August 21, 2017

The process would often begin with a young man being confronted by some difficulty—often the loss of a job, or a sick family member with exorbitant medical bills, or anything that might call into question his ability to fulfill his duty as caretaker of the household. A period of despair would begin, with the young man passing days on end in cafés, on park benches, or sulking with his friends. It was then that, through an acquaintance, the man would be introduced to someone who could provide him with a steady income. The work would be mostly logistical, but all in support of “the cause.” While my informants would admit that they knew they were getting in bed with jihadists, they insisted that their support for the cause was given only minimal vetting by their recruiters.

It was only after the work started that their grooming began. Most insisted that it was a desire to lower their cognitive dissonance that led them to accept the ideology. “When you know who you’re getting involved with and what you’re helping, you have to convince yourself that you believe in it, that it’s not just for money,” said one former Moroccan recruit now living in Barcelona. In every case, my informants said that a better opportunity came along, such as coming to Europe, that allowed them to stealthily pry themselves away from these groups (sometimes at great risk).

These stories from Morocco and Pakistan were very different from those of the scores of people I met who were radicalized in Europe. The European youth were drawn in far more by a revolutionary spirit and a belief that they could change the world. For example, one young Pakistani man who grew up mostly in Barcelona began his radicalization over the time that I knew him. When we first met he was a brash youth with dreams of grandeur. Every week he had a different life goal, from wanting to be a professional athlete to being the first Pakistani-Spanish rapper. As every path to fulfilling these dreams was denied by his conservative family, he became more depressed. Until one day, he approached me with anger: “Foreign fighters from Europe were heroes during the Spanish Civil War, but now they’re considered traitors when they go to Syria! This is the hypocrisy of the West.” A radical imam in the area had begun to channel the young man’s stymied lust for glory toward jihad. (Luckily, after I spoke with his family, his parents intervened and he is now pursuing his athletic goals.) 

While these stories seem different on the surface, they do contain similar themes. Someone felt a loss to their self-worth, a member of their social network offered them a way to regain their significance, and the initial adoption of the ideology served to rationalize a choice made for deeper, more personal reasons. Consistent with this pattern, the survey data revealed that radicalized people from the greater Barcelona area did not identify more with Islam or the Muslim people, or attribute more grievances to the Muslim world, than did the non-radicalized. However, those who were radicalized did report greater personal grievances.

So what part does the environment of the greater Barcelona area play in radicalization? A common argument made by terrorism researchers and the police is that widespread Salafism is partly to blame. An area running from about sixty miles south of Barcelona up to the French border has been labeled by local police the “Salafist corridor,” because of a large network of Salafist mosques. While most experts acknowledge that these are largely nonviolent and quietist, many still argue that their presence creates an atmosphere that facilitates radicalization. However, the survey data showed no increase in support of jihadist groups, their goals, or their methods in areas of dense Salafist activity. Moreover, we found only a weak association between those who endorsed Islamist goals such as the application of strict sharia law and those who supported jihadism.

Sometimes the broader environment can play a significant part in radicalization (as in a war zone), while at other times it plays little to none. For example, the city of Ripoll, from which most of the Barcelona attackers came, is not a particularly suspect community. It’s a picturesque town tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. Its population is around 11,000, with about five hundred Muslims. There is no marginalized neighborhood and the Muslims live evenly distributed among the non-Muslims, and work in the same factories and businesses. Many, including some of the attackers, speak not only fluent Spanish but Catalan as well.

Far from there being radicalizing sentiments “in the air” in Catalonia, interpersonal contact is more important; radical ideas cluster in networks of friends. These survey findings in Barcelona are supported by my research into transnational jihadist networks. Many of the current networks in Europe have roots dating back to the late 1980s through early 1990s, with members connected across countries like Belgium, France, and Spain and down into Morocco and other parts of North Africa. Often someone will start in one of these areas and traverse the others while meeting up with other recruiters and recruits.

Abdelbaki Es Satty

This is consistent with the picture emerging of the radical imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, who seems to be at the center of the cell that carried out the attacks in and near Barcelona last month. Es Satty served time for drug smuggling in Spanish prison, where he allegedly came in contact with Rachid Aglif, who was involved with the 2004 Madrid attacks. It has been confirmed that Es Satty participated in a nine-month anti-radicalization program while in prison. From January to March 2016, he lived in the Belgian city of Vilvoorde, which at one time boasted the highest per capita rate of Western foreign fighters in Syria. Allegedly, members of the community, including an imam, raised concerns about Es Satty with local officials. A Belgian security official sent a private email to a Catalan police official to inquire about Es Satty’s radical links; the Catalan official replied that Es Satty had no known links with radical Islam. This was because the Catalan official did not have access to the central government’s data on Es Satty’s radical ties. The Catalan official reportedly did not pass the concerns of the Vilvoorde security official on to Spanish central authorities. Once Es Satty returned to Spain, he took up a position as an imam in a non-Salafist mosque in Ripoll.

The details of the Es Satty case, the timeline of his activity, and how he recruited the members of his cell are still being investigated. But in my interviews with the mayor of Ripoll, social workers who worked with the cell members, the friends of the attackers, and fellow mosque-goers, all claimed to be ignorant of the allegations that had previously been made against Es Satty. They said that the attackers were normal kids in every sense. The neighbors and friends of Younes Abouyaaqoub, who drove the van down Las Ramblas in a killing spree, told me that he was a typical kid who liked to play soccer and hang out with his friends at night, and had a Spanish girlfriend.

They said that about six months ago his behavior changed. He stopped playing soccer and hanging out, and broke up with his girlfriend. But no one suspected that radicalization was the underlying cause. They told me the imam’s speeches were not radical (though it has been reported elsewhere that he may have delivered some speeches on jihad). They also claimed that the cell members only sporadically attended the mosque. According to one mosque-goer, there were roughly twenty-five young men who often attended, including the cell members. According to the friends of the attackers, there was no indication that the imam had a special relationship with the specific young men who would eventually carry out the attacks. As one said, “If [Es Satty] was meeting with [the attackers] it wasn’t in the mosque and it wasn’t any place that was visible to the rest of us.”

In discussions of counter-terrorism policy, we often hear of the need for national governments to better share information across countries. But further coordination must happen within countries as well. With this in mind, Spain released a new counter-radicalization plan in 2015 that aimed to improve coordination between local police and community leaders, municipalities, and national organizations. However, only thirteen out of eight thousand municipalities have implemented the scheme.

The program puts a large burden on the communities to do more to funnel information up toward the central government, which will then disperse it. The failure of the Catalan official to pass along the alarming email from Vilvoorde to Spanish central authorities highlights the need for this flow of information. However, my investigation into the Ripoll case indicated that the central government also failed to pass information down to the municipality. Had the mayor, social workers, or other community members been notified that Es Satty had previous radical ties, they could have been more vigilant.

As the day of the terrorist attacks unfolded, I witnessed ambulances rushing the injured to hospitals, police squads frantically racing through the streets, and the panic of onlookers. Then I thought, what comes next? The blaming of the Muslim community, the demonizing of the town the attackers came from, and vows from politicians to throw more money at the problem. But my time in Barcelona taught me one thing: radicalization is a local phenomenon. It happens on soccer fields, in parks and cafes. Local authorities cannot investigate every person, but if someone is already suspected, the local officials should know about it. Equipping them to solve local problems—and avoiding the distraction of easy, unhelpful generalizations about immigrant or local communities—is the best way to thwart the jihadists’ international aims.