Spaniards Determined Not to Blame Muslim Community for Barcelona Attacks

Although Muslims are well integrated in Spanish society, jihadist immigration from Morocco is proving to be increasingly divisive

A woman cries as she holds a banner reading in Catalan 'we also suffer it' during a demonstration on Barcelona's historic Las Ramblas promenade, in Spain, Aug. 19, 2017.
A woman cries as she holds a banner reading in Catalan 'we also suffer it' during a demonstration on Barcelona's historic Las Ramblas promenade, in Spain, Aug. 19, 2017. Emilio Morenatti/AP

BARCELONA, Spain — A day after the deadly terror attack in this city, tens of thousands of locals and tourists flocked to the city center. A heavily guarded convoy made its way through the crowds. Out of one vehicle stepped Spain’s king and prime minister, who were joined by the Catalan regional president for a memorial rally. They stood in the first row, bowing their heads in a moment of silence. Utter silence reigned in one of the most densely packed places in Spain, until it was broken all at once by applause. Immediately afterward, the tens of thousands began walking down Las Ramblas, the site of the attack, singing as they went. The attempt to convey unity was palpable. Sporadic efforts by hotheads to blame Muslim residents met with determined opposition.

A man tried to raise a Spanish flag and call for Spain to close its borders. Citizens took the flag and the police demanded that he leave. “We have to show the rest of the sane people in the world that we are not afraid, that we will win because of the love we have for human beings,” one person said.

In contrast to Britain and France, Spain does not have Muslim-majority quarters, fertile ground for religious extremists. The country’s Muslims are well integrated, and many serve in the police and other security forces. And in contrast to other countries that have experienced terror, Spain did not identify the terrorists with the local Muslim community.

Naturally, the attacks were the main topic of public attention over the weekend, but when you ask people in Barcelona what they worry about, they talk about the economy. Spain is the fifth largest economy in Europe and draws some 75 million tourists a year, mostly to Barcelona. In recent years Spain has seen a rise in unemployment, which in 2013 reached an all-time high of 26 percent. But more recently the economy seems to be on the rebound and so concerns are not so much over the terror attacks themselves but over what they will mean for the economy and in particular for tourism.

That is also the reason that on Friday morning, Mayor Ada Colau could be seen walking among the stands and the shops on Las Ramblas. Merchants asked her to do everything possible to maintain peace and quiet and allow tourism to return. She pledged to open the market, and she did. Police patrol the area to bolster the sense of security. “Barcelona suffered a very severe blow but it is a strong city and we will know how to deal with it,” she told Haaretz.

On Friday night, after the rally, the crowds returned to the center city. Merchants on the street where the attack took place sold memorial candles and flowers for a pittance. In minutes the scene of the attack became one big memorial. People brought personal items, dolls, T-shirts and letters. In shop windows, new drawings by children asked “Why?”

Alcanar

The resort town of Alcanar, some 200 kilometers south of Barcelona, is a summer vacation destination for many Barcelonans. “It’s paradise here,” said Raphael, a local man who showed reporters the alleged home of at least one of the plotters. “It’s very quiet, beautiful; people come here for rest and good food,” he added. “These are people who just want to bring fear, but they won’t succeed,” he said of the terrorists.

Intelligence warnings

At the entrance to Alcanar, police officers checked every vehicle, while sappers dealt with cooking gas canisters the terror cell had collected to make a bomb. The road to the terrorists’ house was blocked by police; only members of the media were allowed through, to within a few hundred meters of the building.

“On Wednesday night there was a huge explosion here,” said a neighbor, adding, “I thought it was from the hotel or a truck but there was a lot of smoke from the nearby house and we understood there was an explosion that destroyed the house. Fifteen minutes later the police came, the firefighters, and medical teams. It was total chaos,” she said.

The fact that Spain’s security services had no concrete intelligence ahead of the attacks once again brought up the question of how to identify potential suspects, among other means by monitoring social media.

“We’re getting a huge number of warnings all the time at various levels,” a senior police officer said in an interview with the Spanish media. “Sometimes we can’t deal with all the cases and all the information coming in. We have 400 people on the radar we’ve received information about. There are names we get from nearby countries like Morocco. We are investing great deal in quality intelligence so we can be much more focused,” he said.

Spain, like the rest of Europe, realized that it must change its ideas about intelligence gathering. The attacks on the train in Madrid in 2004 were directed and financed by Al-Qaida, while in recent years, as in Israel, the perpetrator are “lone wolves” or small groups, incited by posts on social media.

But in Spain, as in France, it’s hard to prosecute individuals for posts on social media. Moreover, the authorities are at odds with Facebook, Twitter and other social media over the extent of their responsibility for their users’ posts. The companies say that since they don’t create the content, they are not responsible for solving the problem.

The weak links

Since the attacks in 2004, Spain has upgraded its security apparatus and its surveillance of potential suspects. A special agency has been established to collect information on suspects. That agency, with 3,000 employees, which after the attacks in France hired another 600 people, spearheads Spain’s security efforts.

The Spanish see two weak points by which terrorists can enter the country — Ceuta and Melilla, the two autonomous Spanish cities in Morocco. Since 2005, they have become a transit station for immigrants from Africa to Europe. A few years ago, Spain and Morocco signed an agreement to stop illegal immigration, but the agreement has not been implemented, and through this area, one of the heaviest traveled passages to Europe, jihadists make their way to the continent. According to Spanish estimates, some 400 people are under surveillance in Ceuta and Melilla. One of the terrorists who took part in the Thursday’s attacks was a resident of Melilla, and there are once again calls in Spain to enforce immigration laws.

In addition, according to assessments by intelligence officials in Spain reported in the Spanish media, in recent years between 200 and 450 Spanish citizens have gone to Syria and Iraq. Some, it is feared, could return when the Islamic State collapses.

All told, there are about 1,000 people under some level of surveillance by Spanish security forces. Legal proceedings have been launched against about half of them. Given this situation, a senior Spanish security official said this week that their working assumption is that another attack could happen at any time, anywhere.