For some years following the unleash of internal wars in Mali and Syria, particularly between 2013 and 2016, a considerable amount of the jihadists residing in Spain were more inclined to go and become foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) in a conflict zone, or settle there with no operational aims, than to stay inside the country and engage in terrorism-related activities domestically. This remarkable inclination was neither yet evidenced on 2012 nor observed any longer on 2017. In other words, it was an expression of the unprecedent cycle of jihadist mobilization, prompted above all by the propaganda and actions of jihadist organizations based in Syria and Iraq – predominantly but not only by Islamic State (IS) — which affected Western European nations during that period.
From 2012 to 2017, police agencies arrested inside Spain slightly over 280 individuals for jihadist terrorism offences; some 75 others were apprehended outside the country and subsequently turned over to the Spanish authorities as a result of international arrest warrant orders previously issued by the latter; an additional eight individuals died over that six-year period as a result of their involvement in the preparation and the execution of terrorist attacks within Spain. Existing information on as many as 131 of all those jihadists – the eight individuals deceased plus 123 arrestees who were convicted at Spain’s Audiencia Nacional (National Court) by the end of 2018 indicates, on aggregate, that half of them had decided to go abroad as jihadists rather than to stay in Spain.
This preference to go abroad was not a constant among the jihadists convicted or deceased in Spain between 2012 and 2018. It tended to increase or decrease as a consequence of variations in the opportunities to travel to a conflict zone and in the mobilisation strategies adopted by jihadist entities. Numbers for 2012 were not yet significant, but between seven and eight of every 10 convicted jihadists arrested during 2013 and 2014 travelled, attempted to travel or planned to travel. Such proportion decreased to between four and five of every 10 among those arrested in 2015 and 2016. It went further down, to one of every 10 jihadists arrested in 2017, the year when the eight individuals already mentioned, members of the cell behind the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, were killed.
A majority of the jihadists convicted between 2012 and 2018 in Spain who underwent detention as from the first of these years and wanted to become FTFs or settle in a conflict zone but with purposes other than strictly operational, were arrested after having decided to travel, during preparation of the travel, at the point of embarking on their journey or already on the way but still in Spain. Approximately one-third were arrested in transit outside Spain – for instance, in Bulgaria, Turkey, Jordan, Luxembourg and Morocco — or upon their return, regardless of whether they had reached a conflict zone. Only six of these who were arrested when returning had reached a conflict zone. Actually, five of them had been in Syria and Iraq, whereas the remaining one had been in Mali.
These six jihadists are part of the total 234 known individuals who travelled from Spain to Syria and Iraq by October 2018. Most of them traveled initially with the purpose of joining the ranks of mainly Islamic State or, to a lesser extent, organizations related to al-Qaeda. But some traveled in order to settle within territories where these jihadist organizations had either managed to temporarily impose their control. Men in 89% of the cases and 11% women. As many as 77% aged 18 to 40, and 94% aged 18 to 50. A 62% of Moroccan nationals, 20% citizens of Spain and 18% having other nationalities. An ample majority resident of Ceuta, Melilla, Madrid and Catalonia. Some quarter of them died in the conflict zone, but a 56% remain in Syria and Iraq or moved to other areas.
About one fifth of the FTFs who departed from Spain since 2012 have already returned. There are currently 40 to 50 of these returnees. Among them there are men who did not prove capable of psychologically dealing with the situation in which they found themselves immersed. But there are also those who returned only to go back out again into the battlefield; or those who returned to help sending more FTFs recruited in Spain; and those who returned with the purpose of participating in the preparation and execution of attacks. Not all these returnees received terrorist training or engaged in actual fighting. This is the case, for instance, of some among the several women who were part of the jihadist contingent who left Spain for Syria and Iraq but have then returned.
About 20 of all those returnees are in prison, but only half of them are held in Spanish penitentiaries, where six were already serving sentences by the end of 2018. The rest are imprisoned in Morocco. Criminalisation is thus the first response in Spain to the phenomenon of returnees, given that they have committed criminal offences as defined by the national Criminal Code. Offences such as, precisely, travelling to a foreign territory controlled by a terrorist organization and establishing in a foreign territory to receive training or to collaborate with a terrorist organization. Yet this enforcement of the law can be modulated in specific cases, according to the characteristics of returnees and the circumstances under which they originally departed from Spain.
Furthermore, incrimination of returnees, tipically involving incarceration, does not exclude rehabilitation. Since 2016, an intervention program has been underway inside the prison system under Spain’s general state administration and has been introduced on 2019 in the penitentiaries under the Catalonia autonomous government, with the purpose of distancing radicalized prisoners from extremism and bringing them closer to pluralistic and tolerant values so that, once freed, they pose no danger to society. As expected, these radicalized inmates include returning FTFs who nevertheless remain adhered to the attitudes and beliefs inherent to Salafi Jihadism. Problem is that more than half of the returnees who initially traveled from Spain to Syria and Iraq are not in prison.
Indeed, some 20 to 30 of these returnees remain at large, inside or outside Spain. This typically occurs when, even though security forces or intelligence services are aware of the trajectory and whereabouts of such individuals, investigation into their activity fails to produce sufficient incriminating evidence, at least of the kind accepted in Spain by the Audiencia Nacional, sole jurisdiction in the country dealing with terrorism offences, aside from the Tribunal Supremo (Supreme Court) as appeal court. Such a situation implies potential danger, because returnees who remain radicalized are likely to pose a terrorist threat in the short or the middle term. Terrorists of such characteristics were among those making up the Jihadist network behind the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings.