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Catalonia, like Belgium, is a weak link in Europe’s war on terror

Flowers, candles and signs at the Barcelona attack aftermath - Utrecht Robin/ABACAPRESS.COM/ABACA/PA Images

Flowers, candles and signs at the Barcelona attack aftermath - Utrecht Robin/ABACAPRESS.COM/ABACA/PA Images

August 22, 2017   5 mins

Friday’s murderous events in Catalonia triggered the usual belated concerns about security barriers on public thoroughfares, and rote professions of solidarity from mayors, prime ministers and presidents. Terrorism ‘experts’ delivered their pennyworth about bollards and blast-proof film on windows.

What should be discussed, urgently, is how Spain’s rich north-easterly province of 7.5 million people has long been a hub for radical Islamism, and how this relates to the secessionist movement and security in all would-be small states such as Belgium or Scotland.

Catalonia is home to half-a-million Muslims, more than a quarter of Spain’s total, many of them originally drawn to work in the region’s agricultural south-west, around Tarragona.  Many Muslims in northern Europe also regularly transit the region on their return visits to North Africa. Barcelona alone is home to 60,000 Pakistanis.

A quarter of those arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2017 for terrorism offences came from Barcelona or its surroundings, a figure that rises to 37.5% in the case of people jailed for jihadist crimes between 2004 and 20121.

A quarter of those arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2017 for terrorism offences came from Barcelona or its surroundings


This is no surprise.

Take this (Wiki)-leaked October 2007 diplomatic cable from the then US ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre:

“Heavy immigration – both legal and illegal – from North Africa and Southeast Asia has made Catalonia a magnet for terrorist recruiters… the threat is clear… the autonomous region of Catalonia has become a prime base of operations for terrorist activity. Spanish authorities tell us they fear the threat from these atomized immigrant communities prone to radicalism, but they have very little intelligence or ability to penetrate these groups.”2

Catalonia has a quarter of Salafist mosques in Spain, meaning the archaic Islam practiced in and propagated by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as noted by Spain’s National Center for Intelligence in 2011. The Saudis are financing a mega mosque in Salt for the town’s 12,000 worshippers. The Qataris are going one better by converting a defunct Barcelona bullring – La Monumental – into the world’s third largest mosque after Mecca and Medina3.

La Monumental – By Sergi Larripa, via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, most Salafist mosques are modest affairs, in basements or garages, and the sect’s dominance is often achieved through attrition and intimidation against the moderate imams that these zealots routinely defenestrate.


Wherever there is Salafism, there are invariably attempts to chill normal life, rather in the way that a draught under a door or window makes sitting in a room unpleasant. This is called ‘hisba’ meaning the self-arrogated right to command right and forbid wrong behaviour. The stern enforcers are often marginalised young men whose status is boosted by becoming self-appointed arbiters of public morality.

It means harassing non-Muslim children from bringing ham sandwiches to school, encouraging men to beat their disobedient wives, forcing girls to wear the hijab, kebab shop owners to refrain from selling beer, and in the case of Lleida, allegedly poisoning dozens of dogs on the grounds they are ‘unclean’.

All the better if the Salafist historical narrative also transforms its pious devotees into warriors engaged in the re-conquest of Al-Andalus, meaning the medieval Muslim caliphate that ruled Spain from 711 to 1492, even if Catalan experience of this was for less than a century (which is why the region lacks Islamic architecture) 4.

It means harassing non-Muslim children from bringing ham sandwiches to school, encouraging men to beat their disobedient wives, forcing girls to wear the hijab


We should also note a connection between Islamist activity and Catalonia’s drive to independence, which on 1st October will be tested in an illegal referendum on secession from Spain.

As we saw in the case of Belgium, small states are inexpert in dealing with Islamist terrorism, partly because they are often riven with distracting inter-linguistic conflicts, like those between Flemings and Walloons, which result in hopeless decentralisation of the police and intelligence services.

Spain actually has extremely capable national counter-terrorist forces, which practice early intervention in conspiracies, and due to experience of Basque Eta terrorism, it also knows how to deal with the dangerous by dispersing them through its prisons. The same cannot be said for Catalonia’s Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police force, whose main current preoccupation is what role they will perform in the illegal referendum.

Pro-independence Catalan parties have long promoted immigration from Arabic-speaking countries on the grounds that (unlike Spanish-speaking Ecuadoreans or Peruvians) these immigrants would automatically learn Catalan rather than Spanish, use of the regional language being integral to Catalan identity and future citizenship. This goes along with the usual flim-flam advertising Barcelona’s diversity or its role in an alleged Mediterranean multicultural society.  The Convergence and Union Party endeavored to scoop up a hundred thousand Muslim votes by saying that they would then license the Barcelona mosque in the bullring (the regional authorities having already banned bullfighting in 2012 to distinguish Catalonia from Spain)5.

One curious effect of this has been a remarkable number of converts to Islam among radical Catalan separatists. That includes two out of every ten members of the extreme Republican Left of Catalonia, which nowadays is part of Catalonia’s ruling coalition. “I’m learning Arabic, but I prefer to read the Koran in Catalan. I praise God in Catalan. It is the language I feel in,” said one such convert. Ditching Christmas, dancing the Sardana, and refusing to eat pork are small sacrifices as the far left and radical Islamists coalesce.

Separatists waving Catalonian flags – Jordi Boixareu/Zuma Press/PA Images


Until Friday, the (Spanish) authorities have managed to thwart major attacks, notably one in 2008 when ten Pakistanis were prevented from replicating the 2004 bombing of Madrid’s Atocha station which left 192 dead and over two thousand wounded in Europe’s worst terrorist atrocity. Their target was Barcelona’s metro system.

On Friday, the Catalans were not so lucky, since hiring a few vans to cause havoc does not leave much of a logistical trail, though a bomb factory in Alcanar should have done. The intent seems to have been to transform a hundred butane gas cylinders into a vehicle-borne bomb, with Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia as the target. By a fluke, the would-be bombers blew themselves up mishandling the explosives involved.

One obvious by-product of the crushing of the physical ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria will be compensatory terror strikes, not just in Europe or the US, but in Iran, China, Russia and many more places besides, as jihadists with combat credibility drift homewards. At the very least, the political authorities have a duty to ensure that nothing about the host culture conspires to provide a mulch in which these evil weeds can thrive. Though one is not optimistic looking at Catalonia.

  1.  Giulia Paravicini ‘Barcelona’s strong ties to radical Islam’ Politico.eu 18 August 2017
  2.  Soeren Kern ‘The Islamic Republic of Catalonia’, Gatestone Institute, 12 October 2012 for text of the cable.
  3.  Ignacio Cembrero ‘El CNI alerta de que Seis Paises Musulmanes Financianal Islamismo’ El Pais 31 July 2011
  4.  Lorenzo Vidonio ‘A Case Study: Catalonia’ in his Hisba in Europe? Assessing a Murky Phenomenon (European Foundation for Democracy 2013) pp. 45ff.
  5.  Soeren Kern ‘Catalonia to Muslims: Support Independence, Get Mega-Mosque’ Gatestone Institute 7 August 2014

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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