Spanish authorities arrested three men suspected of plotting terrorist attacks this week. Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz held a press conference to confirm the arrests. “There is a clear indication that those arrested could have been planning an attack in Spain or in Europe,” Diaz said, according to published accounts of the conference.
The trio has not been named publicly by Spanish authorities yet, although their pictures have been released. Press reports refer to the three — a Russian, Chechen, and a Turk — by their initials. But Diaz described one of the suspects as “extremely dangerous,” saying he is a “very important operative in al Qaeda’s international structure.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Diaz added that the three were “clearly not acting as lone wolves” and had received terrorist training. Diaz also told the Times that “documentation about flying ultralight aircraft” had been found, and they had also amassed enough explosives to destroy “a bus, but that doesn’t mean that more damage couldn’t have been done.”
The details of the trio’s training are not entirely clear. Some accounts say that they were trained in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there have been suggestions that they have some tie to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based terrorist organization closely allied to al Qaeda.
These purported details have not been publicly confirmed.
Al Qaeda in Spain
Al Qaeda has long had a presence in Spain. Beginning in the 1990s, al Qaeda’s cell in Spain was headed by a convicted terrorist named Imad Yarkas. In August 2001, according to the 9/11 Commission, Yarkas received a phone call from another operative, who said that he was entering “the field of aviation” and would be “slitting the throat of the bird.” After Sept. 11, investigators concluded that Yarkas therefore had foreknowledge of al Qaeda’s most devastating operation.
Spanish authorities and US officials have disagreed on the extent of Yarkas’s involvement in the Sept. 11 plot. Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on Sept. 11, met with Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda’s point man for the attacks, in Spain in July 2001. The meeting was highly suspicious, as it required Atta to leave the US and possibly trigger security alerts shortly before his secret mission. Spanish investigators concluded that Yarkas’s cell hosted the Atta-Binalshibh meeting, but the 9/11 Commission found no firm evidence that anyone outside of the pair was involved.
Another member of Yarkas’s cell, Ghasoub al Abrash Ghalyoun, traveled to the US in 1997 and videotaped various landmarks, including the World Trade Center. Spanish investigators concluded that Ghalyoun’s video was likely passed to al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan.
Members of the 9/11 Commission concluded in their final report, however, that “we have not found evidence that individuals in Spain participated in the July meeting or in the 9/11 plot.”
After Sept. 11, Yarkas and other members of his cell were rounded up. Some, like Yarkas, were imprisoned, while others were set free. Jamal Zougam was one of the members of Yarkas’s cell who escaped incarceration initially.
On Mar. 11, 2004, terrorists detonated backpack bombs aboard Madrid’s trains. The attacks killed 191 people and wounded many more. Zougam provided the cell phones used to detonate the bombs and was subsequently convicted by a Spanish court for his involvement in the attacks.
Some still mistakenly believe that al Qaeda played no part in the Madrid train bombings, even though Zougam’s accomplices included members of a known al Qaeda affiliate in Morocco at the time — the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, known by its French acronym, the GICM. And Zougam himself had numerous al Qaeda connections, including to Yarkas.
Spain has continued to arrest and investigate terror networks on its soil since the Madrid bombings. Earlier this year, Spanish authorities arrested other suspected al Qaeda operatives thought to be connected to the group’s international network. In March, a Saudi suspect described as al Qaeda’s “librarian” was arrested after he was found to be recruiting new jihadists and spreading the organization’s propaganda.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.