Will Spain Prove to Be a Hotbed for Terror?

Will Spain Prove to Be a Hotbed for Terror?

People gather around tributes on Las Ramblas near to the scene of the August 17 terrorist attack in Barcelona.

SourceCarl Court/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because neither Europe nor we are yet immune to terrorism.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Spain is in mourning this weekend, having been targeted again by Islamist extremists. At least 14 people were killed, and dozens injured, leaving many in the West fearful that Europe is becoming a hot spot for tourist-targeting terror. We turn to OZY senior columnist and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin for insight on the latest twists and turns.

How did this happen in Spain, which has a long track record of battling terrorism, domestic and foreign, with considerable success?

John McLaughlin: The attack was a rare success against the Spanish intelligence and police services, achieved largely by using methods that are the hardest to detect and prevent: vehicle attacks. Information emerging suggests that terrorists might have had something more complex and damaging in mind but were unable to construct truck bombs successfully. This may have then led to a decision to do the vehicle attack as a fallback.

We have to be perfect every day; they only have to be lucky once.

Didn’t al-Qaida focus on Spain in the early days after the 9/11 attacks?

McLaughlin: The 2004 train attack in Madrid, carried out by a cell loosely tied to al-Qaida, killed close to 200 and injured 2,000. This was an early indicator of broader trouble coming in Spain. From the time al-Qaida rose to prominence, Islamic extremists have favored Spain as an operational nexus and target. Recall that the 9/11 hijackers had a logistical support cell there and that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and at least one other 9/11 planner spent several days there in the summer prior to those attacks — one of these planners visiting the site of last week’s attack, Barcelona.

Although Spain has not experienced many major attacks since the Madrid bombings, this is largely because the Spanish police and intelligence services are very successful at detecting and disrupting plots — with as many as 700 arrests of suspected jihadists since the 2004 bombings.


At least 198 people were killed and more than 1,400 wounded in bomb attacks on four commuter trains in Spain in March of 2004.

Source JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, we’ve heard mostly about the U.K., France, Germany and Belgium as terrorism targets in Europe. Where does Spain stand?

McLaughlin: In fact, in 2014, Europol declared Spain one of the EU’s most significant terrorist hubs, presumably because of the large number of arrests — only France and the UK were seen as being more at risk. It’s just that Spain was generally successful in finding and stopping terror cells before they attacked. This time police already had taken down a large cell in Spain’s North African enclave, Ceuta, where Moroccans and Spaniards were being recruited to fight in Syria. This group had ties to cells in Morocco, Turkey, Belgium and Syria.

But Spain seems more vulnerable in its proximity to terrorist activity — is that a factor?

McLaughlin: Good point — geography plays a big role. Even though fewer than 200 Spaniards are known to have gone to fight with ISIS, Spain’s proximity to North Africa exposes it to considerable jihadist influence. Neighboring Tunisia, for example, has contributed about 6,000 fighters to ISIS and is the world’s highest per capita supplier of ISIS recruits. Libya is also an ISIS hub, and much of North Africa is simply ungoverned, making it fertile ground for terrorist plotting, training and resupply.

Will Spain get the help it needs from the United States and other European countries?

McLaughlin: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement hold Spanish intelligence and police in high regard but, like other European services, they are hampered by a European sharing system that is still a work in progress dogged by cultural and security barriers. It is getting better, but recall it took some years for the U.S. to take down obstacles to sharing sensitive information — and we are just one country. That said, I’m confident that the U.S. is providing Spain ample support and helping with the analysis of data Spain acquires.

What are the Spanish doing at this point?

McLaughlin: They will try to determine whether the driver of the attack vehicle is still on the loose or was one of the terrorists killed in a bomb blast that apparently went awry in one of their “safe houses.” If Spanish authorities get their hands on the electronic media possessed by the suspects, this will be the most valuable guide to the network that supported the attack or, if this turns out to be an ISIS-inspired lone wolf, a guide to how that happened.

Are we going to see more of this in Europe or the U.S.?

McLaughlin: Such attacks will likely become the new normal as ISIS degrades in Syria and Iraq. Unlike al-Qaida, ISIS has a three-layer strategy — center, regional, global — and has prepared for this day by establishing nodes outside Syria and Iraq from which to plan and operate. They are strong in places such as Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and the Philippines. Meanwhile, al-Qaida is exploiting ISIS’s weakness in its heartland to take up the slack and plan for its own revival. As for the United States, we can’t rule out attacks here — especially things like vehicle attacks on soft-target gatherings — but we are probably better prepared to disrupt attackers than our European partners. Still, we always have to keep in mind the counterterrorism motto: We have to be perfect every day; they only have to be lucky once.


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