Militants in Spain Accused of Fueling Iraq Insurgency
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Spain, some 200 suspected Islamist terrorists have been arrested since March 2004 when militants blew up commuter trains in the worst terrorist attack in the country's history. The most recent wave of arrests has broken up groups of militants who allegedly recruited suicide bombers for al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq.
Jerome Socolovsky went to a mosque near Barcelona where the Imam is now in jail.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY reporting:
Imam Mohamed Samadi had the only key. So when he and seven other members of the Al Furkin(ph) Mosque in Vilanova y la Geltru were arrested during the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice, nobody could get in to say their prayers. But now the mosque is open again. A volunteer leads the service while latecomers remove their shoes before entering.
The worshipers are nearly all young North African men. Like many of them, Mustafa Reyham(ph) came from Morocco several years ago to work in Spain's booming construction sector.
Mr. MUSTAFA REYHAM (Worshipper in mosque): (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: We all personally know these people, the ones who are in custody, he says. We know they have nothing to do with terrorism. They're like us. We come here to pray and that's all. The Al Furkin mosque is, in effect, a dank room in the basement of a tenement block. And the sound of the washroom sometimes drowns out the prayers.
(Soundbite of flushing toilet)
SOCOLOVSKY: Several years ago, community leaders started a drive to collect funds for a new mosque. But prosecutors say the suspects diverted that money to terrorist activities, which included recruiting fighters for the insurgency in Iraq. They were also allegedly planning an attack in Europe. Since November, police have arrested more than 50 suspected Islamist terrorists. One was the Imam of a mosque in Malaga. Others are alleged to have tried to obtain components for a radioactive bomb.
With so many suspects in custody, Spain's role as an operations base for Al Qaeda is being highlighted in the press. Inside the newsroom of the Barcelona paper, El Periodico de Catalunya, terrorism reporter, Jordyi Corachon(ph) says that for year, Islamist radicals felt they could operate here with impunity.
Mr. JORDYI CORACHON (Terrorism reporter, El Periodico de Catalunya): (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: Because the Spanish police had a rule which worked very well for them until recently, which was, we won't crack down on you as long as you don't carry out the pacts in Spain. It was an unwritten rule.
But the journalist says, that changed after September 11th 2001, especially when Spanish police discovered that final preparations for the hijackings in the U.S. were made at a resort near Barcelona. Terrorism experts believe Al Qaeda militants found it easy to blend in. Around 200,000 Muslims live in Catalunya, the region that includes Barcelona.
Jamal al Aduaqi(ph) is the coordinator of the Islamic Council of Catalunya and the prayer leader at a mosque in Barcelona. He says many Muslims are drawn to violent Jihad when they see what's happening in Iraq.
Mr. JAMAL AL ADUAQI (Coordinator of Islamic Council of Catalunya): (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: When someone kills a person from an Arab country, a Muslim country, whether it's Syria or Iraq or Morocco, the Muslim feels it in his heart. It's as though you've killed my brother. But Al Aduaqi says that when emotions run high, it's hard to convince some young Muslims that it's wrong to kill innocent people in Europe out of revenge.
Mr. AL ADUAQI: (Foreign language spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: When a Muslim is trying to live a normal life in his own country and a foreigner comes and ruins it, it can calm the pain that a fellow Muslim feels if he can inflict the same pain on another foreigner.
Back in Vilanova y la Geltru, the prayers have finished at the Al Furkin mosque, and some of the men go over to the Halal butcher shop next door. The proprietor was one of the detainees. Prosecutors say they've matched the DNA of the former butcher shop employee with a suicide bomber who killed nearly 30 people at an Italian military barracks in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah back in 2003.
For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky.