It’s Sunday, and downtown Barcelona is buzzing with life — happy couples walking hand in hand, children playing soccer in alleyways, and flocks of tourists following their sweaty tour guides to the next tapas bar. Little do they know that only a few blocks away, several supporters of the Islamic State group were recently detained — the police say they were ready to attack.
The threat of jihad hangs like a dark cloud over this proverbially sunny southern country. Tucked between Europe and Africa, Spain is becoming fertile ground for jihadi recruiters and wannabe terrorists. Arrests of alleged jihadis are becoming routine here: Last year, more than 50 were taken into custody, and the Islamic State group has even produced a video in Spanish promising to “take Spain back.” The issue is only growing, especially among the sons of immigrants who feel pulled between two cultures, says Carlos Rontomé, an expert on jihad and a professor of sociology at the University of Granada in Ceuta. “The problem with jihadist indoctrination,” he adds, “is that by the time you see the signs, it’s already too late.”
Of course, Spain is no stranger to Islamist terrorism. In 2004, al-Qaida blew up a train in Madrid, killing almost 200 people and injuring about 1,800. Still, its number of jihadi arrests pales in comparison to other European countries like Belgium, Germany and the U.K. That’s probably because, despite being mostly Muslim for eight centuries, the percentage of Muslims in Spain today is small: 2.1 percent, compared with 5.8 percent in Germany and 7.5 percent in France.
Yet Spain has something none of its European neighbors do: a foothold in Africa. In Ceuta and Melilla — the country’s two African outpost cities — locals need no visa to go in and out of Morocco, and 60 percent of the Muslim population lives under the poverty line. So the Islamic State group’s recruitment networks are growing like mushrooms. They lure people in when they are young and are still struggling to find their place in the world, Rontomé notes. The bartender who served the professor coffee every morning was detained a week ago, accused of being a recruiter. “Nobody saw it coming,” laments Rontomé. “He was such a sweet kid.”
There was similar surprise in Sabadell earlier this year, when police took away a local hairdresser and 10 other men in handcuffs. The northern region has the largest Muslim population in Spain, and quiet residential cities like Sabadell have become jihadi hot spots. According to the police, the hairdresser’s cell was about to launch a series of deadly bombings. “He was a normal guy until he got depressed. It was then he grew a beard,” says his neighbor Abdeslam Charqaoui. The 31-year-old from Morocco says the fear of terrorism is making his life increasingly difficult in Spain. All he wants is peace.