Unraveling Al Qaeda’s Plot Against Spain

Spanish authorities arrested three alleged al Qaeda operatives last week and have accused them of plotting a major terror attack. Spain’s preeminent authority on al Qaeda has now revealed new details on the terrorists and their plans. Spain has been the target of al Qaeda’s biggest success in Europe, in 2004, and remains high on its hit list.

The Spaniards arrested a Turkish citizen and two Russians, apparently Chechens, late last week. They found significant quantities of explosives near the arrest of the Turkish terrorist, enough to blow up a bus. Spain’s interior minister called the action “one of the biggest investigations carried out until now against the al Qaeda terrorist group at an international level.”

Now Madrid has briefed Fernando Reinares, Spain’s top al Qaeda expert and a professor at King Juan Carlos University, on some of the security-services suspicions about the three. Some of it reads like a James Bond novel, but it is consistent with al Qaeda’s previous activity in Spain.

The Turk, Cengiz Yalcin, lived in La Linea de la Concepcion, the town just north across the border from British Gibraltar where he worked for years at a construction company. The Russians also lived near La Linea but were arrested on a bus in northern Spain perhaps trying to get away. Three motorized paraglider machines were also found at the Turk’s home. The Spanish authorities suspect that the three were planning some kind of attack on the British colony, perhaps its shopping mall, which would have been a soft target. Home to 30,000 British citizens, Gibraltar would be a way to hit the United Kingdom via the back door. Nearby, in Rota, there is also a major U.S. base, another attractive target.

According to Reinares, one of the Russians was a former special-forces commando with the Russian Army’s Spetsnaz and had also been trained in Pakistan by al Qaeda ally, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that attacked Mumbai in 2008. Both Russians seemed to have been training for paragliding.

Al Qaeda’s largest terror attack in Europe took place in Madrid on March 11, 2004, when it exploded bombs on four commuter trains killing 191 and wounding 1,841. Reinares and other experts have since established that the 3/11 attack was linked to al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan. The attack lead to Spain’s abrupt withdrawal from the Iraq War, but its government still has 1,500 troops in western Afghanistan.

Both al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba have long had underground cells in Spain for recruitment and fundraising. In March, Spanish authorities arrested a Jordanian al Qaeda member in Valencia known as “the librarian” who worked for jihadist Web forums online. Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives have been arrested in Barcelona in 2004.

It appears the two Russians were the likely operatives and the Turk was more of a facilitator. What is clear, as Reinares has put it, is that “this is not a case of a homegrown radicalized cell. This is a local facilitator and two operatives coming from abroad on a mission with a connection to al Qaeda. The whole story is very serious.”

If the target was indeed intended to be at Gibraltar, then there is a clear possibility that it was planned to take place during the London Olympics. In any case, it shows the danger of an al Qaeda attack in Europe remains serious.