Counterterrorism Efforts In Spain As Spain reels from deadly attacks this week, NPR's Scott Simon talks to Juan Zarate from the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the Spanish counterterrorism approach.

Counterterrorism Efforts In Spain

Counterterrorism Efforts In Spain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

As Spain reels from deadly attacks this week, NPR's Scott Simon talks to Juan Zarate from the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the Spanish counterterrorism approach.


Spanish authorities continue to investigate the network behind this week's terror attacks there, the deadliest to strike the country in more than decade. A driver killed 13 people and wounded more than 100 in the attacks in Barcelona, when he rammed his van into the crowd on a famous tourist street. Hours later, police killed five suspected jihadis in another vehicle attack in a town to the south. The Spanish government now says it has dismantled the terror cell behind the attack. We're joined now by counterterrorism expert Juan Zarate. Mr. Zarate, thanks so much for being with us.

JUAN ZARATE: My pleasure, Scott, thank you.

SIMON: ISIS has claimed responsibility. Do you take that claim seriously?

ZARATE: I think we have to. I think what we've seen in Spain are cells that have been connected with ISIS. Studies show that the cells that have been disrupted - those arrested tied to terrorist activity in Spain between 2013 and 2016, three-quarters of those had ties to ISIS. ISIS has really tapped into what are long-embedded jihadi networks in Spain. And so I think we do have to take it seriously, even though we know ISIS is starting to take claim for just about any attack that takes - that looks like a hallmark of an ISIS attack, like this one.

SIMON: And how do you assess the representation of the Spanish government that it's dismantled the terror cell now?

ZARATE: Well, I don't have reason to dispute them, but just looking at the facts, I have to question that a bit. First of all, the authorities are still looking and engaged in a manhunt. There's an individual tied to this attack, may have been the driver in Barcelona who's on the loose. They're still looking for a rented van. They're still, no doubt, looking at the forensics.

They're still trying to put the pieces together of these different events, the explosion at the bomb factory that wasn't even recognized as a bomb factory until the Barcelona attack. All of this suggests, in addition to the Spanish cells that have existed in Spain for some time, seems to suggest that they may not have their hand on the full network just yet.

SIMON: And every now and then, a naive question might serve a purpose. Recognizing there may be no good answer to this, why does ISIS want to target Spain?

ZARATE: It's a great question actually, Scott. Spain has been in the crosshairs for obvious reasons. It's a Western European country. It's been engaged in counterterrorism activities in North Africa, in the Middle East. But the reality is Spain sits right at the heart and the crosshairs of jihadi lore.

Remember that Moorish Islamic rule controlled parts of southern Spain, known as Al-Andalus in the lore. And the jihadists actually want sort of a retaking of that territory. There are calls for attacks on Spain, call for attacks based on grievances dating back to the Inquisition. And so what they have is created Spain as a target not only for modern purposes, but for these historical and mythological purposes under their ideology.

SIMON: Of course, Spain suffered a horrific attack 13 years ago, the Madrid train bombings and by al-Qaida. How have their anti-terrorism efforts been ramped up since then? How have they changed?

ZARATE: Scott, I was at the White House in that period and then beyond, where I saw the Spanish ramp up their activities in three ways. I think the first was to amplify the amount of intelligence work they were doing and trying to combine the work of their various police forces. The problem in Madrid was that forces looking at elements of that cell for drug trafficking purposes weren't talking to the counterterrorism units. That was largely fixed, not wholly.

They began to cooperate more with international authorities, certainly European authorities. And what you saw over time were the disruption of cells, including a cell in Barcelona in January of 2008, when I was still at the White House, including April of last year with connections throughout Europe. The Spanish have been generally very good at trying to disrupt these cells.

SIMON: Juan Zarate is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

ZARATE: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.