Police have arrested eight people in Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta on suspicion of acting as recruiters for Jihadist groups fighting in Syria, as part of a network linked to al-Qa’ida.
The ring is thought to have acted as a support group to enable would-be fighters to get to training camps, principally in Syria, providing funds, travel plans and indoctrination.
Discussing the arrests, Spain’s Minister for the Interior, Jorge Fernández Díaz - currently on a visit to Lisbon - said they had struck a “hard blow” against international terrorism. But he warned about the danger of ‘lone wolves’ returning from the Syrian conflict to Europe - ex-combatants who he described as “potential terrorists.” With four Tunisians arrested on suspicion of distributing Islamic extremist propaganda last week in Barcelona, Mr Fernandez Diaz added, “We will not let our guard down.”
“Different European ministries calculate that hundreds of people have now travelled to fight in Syria,” said Mr. Fernández Díaz. Independent experts estimate between 500 and 700 Europeans are amongst the rebel groups.
At least eight Spaniards, one of them a 16-year-old, are believed to have travelled from Ceuta, one of two towns, together with Melilla, belonging to Spain which were originally part of its former African protectorate, to join the rebels in Syria since April 2012, although an Interior Ministry press release said “dozens” of people had left Spain and Morocco to join resistance groups linked to al-Qa’ida there.
The ring is believed to have had twin headquarters in Ceuta and Fnideq, a Moroccan town close to the Ceuta frontier from where it organised the young fighters’ travel to Syria - those from Ceuta via Malaga, the Moroccans from Casablanca, with Turkey the last ‘stop-off’ point prior to entering in the conflict zone.
In 2006, al-Qa'ida announced Ceuta and Melilla, both with populations of around 80,000 of whom nearly 40 per cent are Muslim and with a total of 49 registered mosques, were legitimate terrorist targets, calling them "occupied Muslim territories". On December that year, a 300-strong police raid codenamed Operación Duna in the same area of Ceuta as today’s anti-terrorist operation arrested 11 members of an Islamic group said to be targeting the town’s fairground and ferries linking Ceuta with mainland Spanish ports. The case was dropped six years later for lack of evidence.
The four-year-old joint operation by Spain’s Civil Guard and National Police force against the recruitment ring continues with the search for two more people, including the group’s leader - believed to be a Ceuta resident.