Spanish security forces have arrested eight members of a network suspected of having links to al-Qaeda and recruiting jihadists to fight in Syria and elsewhere.
The arrests took place yesterday morning in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish territory in north Africa that borders Morocco, and it follows an investigation by the police and civil guard that began in 2009. All of those held have Spanish nationality.
The interior ministry said the network had helped a large number of people from Ceuta and Morocco to go and fight against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Anti-terrorism sources told El País newspaper that over the last year at least three of these recruits died in suicide attacks and several others died while fighting for groups with links to al-Qaeda.
As well as recruiting potentials jihadists, the Spanish authorities believe those arrested yesterday indoctrinated their charges and financed their travel. Interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz described it as “a tough blow against a network that recruited jihadists and sent them abroad”.
Speaking in Lisbon, where he was meeting his Portuguese counterpart, Mr Fernández Díaz said the return of radical veterans from conflicts such as Syria's posed a big concern.
“This is one of the big worries that we have, not just in Spain, but across the European Union,” he said, adding that in Luxembourg earlier this month EU interior ministers had specifically discussed the issue of “lone wolves” who had been trained in conflict zones.
“On returning they are a potentially very serious focus for the commissioning of terrorist attacks, the spread of Salafism, or incitement to global jihad.”
The minister said that those arrested yesterday usually sent the individuals they had recruited to Syria via Turkey.
EU governments estimate that about 700 European citizens have travelled to Syria to take part in the fighting there.
Earlier this month Spanish media reported that a 32-year-old taxi driver from Ceuta had died in the Syria conflict, the first Spaniard to do so who had been publicly identified. In March, the parents of a 16-year-old boy from Ceuta who had gone missing discovered he had joined the fight against the Syrian regime.
Spanish authorities have been concerned for some time about radical Islam in Ceuta, about half of whose 80,000 inhabitants are Muslim. In 2006, 11 suspected terrorists were arrested there when police believed they were planning an attack in the city. Last year the High Court absolved them all due to lack of evidence.
Last year, Omar Haddouchi became the new imam of the city’s Al Tauba mosque after being expelled from Tunisia for his extremist views. Morocco jailed him for indoctrinating the suicide bombers who carried out the Casablanca attacks of 2003 that killed 45 people, but he was later pardoned.