If you ask a Spaniard or a resident of Spain what is the greatest terrorism threat to the country and they would probably reply ETA. After all it is home grown and hardly a week goes by without an attack, arrest or the terrorist group gaining more than its fair share of news column inches.
If you go to Spain’s southern most coastline in Tarifa and stand on the hills you feel that you can almost reach out and touch Morocco – the very continent of Africa. As you gaze at its imposing mountains it is a staggering thought but you are also looking at an Al-Qaeda stronghold – here on our very doorstep. Suddenly this terror group which knocks ETA in to the shade is not far away in Pakistan or Afghanistan but on our doorstep.
In recent days the news has broken that Moroccan police have arrested several Islamists on suspicion of links to Jihadist cells. This news will have been studied with keen interest by the security forces in Spain and elsewhere in mainland Europe. The Moroccan Ministry of the Interior stated that some were suspected of plotting bank raids to finance the purchase of weapons.
It is estimated that Morocco already holds more than 1,000 Islamists in its jails on terrorism-related charges. The Government says it has broken about 60 terrorist cells since 2003, after a chain of suicide bombings in the commercial capital Casablanca.
Those terrorist bombings on May 16, 2003, killed 45 people, including the 12 suicide bombers. One of the main targets was a Spanish restaurant and social club, and four of the victims were Spaniards.
Whilst much relating to the latest arrests remains secret we do know that they were made in several cities throughout the country. Five of the arrested were suspected members of a jihadist cell which was preparing to set up a guerrilla training camp and plotting bank raids to fund arms purchases.
Spain’s leading anti-terrorism judge, Baltasar Garzon, has made it clear in the past that Europe’s biggest terrorist threat comes from Morocco. Security experts say it is the base for as many as 1,000 Al-Qaeda adherents capable of suicide attacks and skilled at slipping through the continent’s southern gateway, especially the port of Algeciras where there have been a number of terrorism related arrests.
Most of the 17 suspects jailed after the March 11 bombings in 2004, which killed 190 people on the Madrid railway system, are Moroccan. On the threat posed by the Morocco based cells Garzon stated: “They use every means and mechanism, and their activity can even be initially perceived as ordinary delinquency. In my opinion it is the gravest problem Europe faces today with this kind of terrorism.”
Those of us who live in the Campo de Gibraltar view Morocco as our closest neighbour. Ferries ply across the Straits at high speed, most of us have at least visited Tangier and the relations between Moroccans and the people of this area are very close. Yet the reality is that it is also home to the most feared terror group, whose murderous actions are not just restricted to events on TV, but have been witnessed on the streets of Madrid and one has to ask – where next?