Until last week, Spain had been spared the recent spate of jihadi terrorism in Western Europe. Although the Islamic State and its followers had crowed of their ambition to re-conquer al-Andalus, the area of Spain dominated by the Moors until 1492, their threats were believed to be largely empty.

This perceived safety was shattered last Thursday when a white van swerved onto Las Ramblas, a tree-lined avenue in Barcelona visited by thousands of tourists every day, and zigzagged for close to half a mile, mowing down everyone in its path before crashing by the Liceu theatre where the driver fled. The attack claimed the lives of 14 people and left over 120 injured, with another woman killed in the town of Cambrils later that night.

It was later discovered that the group responsible had planned to bomb Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and had only been prevented from inflicting further carnage by an accidental explosion that had destroyed their bomb-making materials. These revelations, accompanied by rolling news coverage of a four-day manhunt that ended in the death of 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, presumed to be the driver of the van, became chapters in an episode that is still unfolding.

Eight years since its last experience of terrorism, Spain has recovered a narrative of “unity and strength against terrorism”. Indeed, Spain has long been acquainted with terrorism, however the familiar nature of those involved in this instance has made returning to normality incredibly difficult.

No stranger to terrorist attacks                                      

Spain has an extensive history of dealing with terrorism. The attack in Barcelona did not come as a surprise to counterterrorism professionals: according to Fernando Reinares, director of the global terrorism program at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, Spain became one of al-Qaeda’s first bases in Western Europe in 2001. This threat materialised on 11 March, 2004 with the bombing of Madrid’s Cercanías commuter rail network. The deadliest terrorist attack in Spain’s history, it saw 191 people lose their lives and injured over 2,000.

Even before al-Qaeda, Spain was already accustomed to frequent terrorist attacks by the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty, or ETA). Indeed, such was the regularity of ETA’s terrorism that they were the original suspects for the Madrid bombings. Since 1959, the paramilitary group – which had originally sought the preservation and promotion of traditional Basque culture – became involved in a violent campaign of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings throughout Spanish territory.

The painful memory of ETA’s terrorism

From its inception, the group’s main targets were politicians, police and military agents. The group famously assassinated Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s chosen successor and president of the government, in a car bomb in 1973. The images of the bomb, which detonated beneath the politician’s car, throwing it five stories into the air and over the top of a nearby building, gave ETA the ruthless reputation it holds to this day.

After Franco’s death, the group directed numerous attacks against conservative leaders of democratic Spain. Famous failed episodes include the car bombing of the then-leader of the Partido Popular (People’s Party, or PP) Jose María Aznar in 1995 and assassination plots against King Juan Carlos I in 1995, 1997, and 2004.

The act with the largest social impact took place on 10 July, 1997, when PP council member Miguel Ángel Blanco was kidnapped in the Basque town of Ermua. The separatist group threatened to assassinate him unless the Spanish government met ETA’s demand to begin transferring all its imprisoned members to penitentiary facilities inside the Basque Country within two days.

The Spanish government did not meet the demand, and Blanco was found shot dead when the deadline expired. This sparked the first mass reaction against terrorism in Spain when more than six million people took out to the streets to demand his liberation.

terrorism victims in spain
Graph credit: Sonia Cuesta

A history of terrorist attacks against civilians

ETA soon began targeting civilians, almost managing to induct attacks into a Spaniard’s daily routine. Bombs located in popular cafés, underground parking lots and cars became frequent headlines throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Barcelona itself was hit by terrorism on 19 June 1987, when the group set off a bomb in the basement of a supermarket. 21 people were killed and 45 injured, making this ETA’s deadliest attack. One of the final major attacks carried out by ETA was the 2006 Madrid–Barajas Airport bombing on 30 December, 2006. The group parked a van-bomb in the Terminal 4 parking area. Though only two people were killed, 52 were injured.

The group announced a cessation of its armed activity and operations between 2011 and 2012 before finally handing over their weapons on 8 April 2017. Now disarmed, its members have begun a process of negotiation to ‘reach a consensus’ with the government to change the penitentiary policy regarding ETA prisoners. During its active years, ETA killed an estimated 829 people and injured thousands more in a total of 2,472 attacks. Today there are more than 300 imprisoned members of the group in Spain, France and abroad.

The Abnormality of the Present

The sheer number of victims of Basque terrorism of course overshadows the death toll in Barcelona, however the proximity of the perpetrators to the community has made it extremely hard-hitting. The long lifespan of ETA’s terrorist activities contributed to a gradual separation of Basque extremists from the rest of Spain, making attachment to the perpetrator unlikely.

Yet the five terrorists shot dead in the early morning hours of last Friday morning in Cambrils, as well as driver Abouyaaquoub and the suspects currently in police custody, had all been brought up or lived in Ripoll, a town north of Barcelona. The group were all part of the community and active players in the town’s football team.

Despite their horror over the carnage, the people of Ripoll have affectionately describe the involved as “the kids” and claim they were completely integrated in Ripoll’s active life, a particularly worrying sentiment given the connection often drawn between non-integration and radicalisation. “These are terrorists but it makes my heart break, it’s a contradictory feeling” said social worker, Nuria Perpinya, who taught them when they were younger. The events of last week have left the community asking themselves, among other things, how and why those they knew so well could have been so swiftly and completely radicalised.

La rambla barcelona terrorism
La Rambla, the tree-lined boulevard in Barcelona where the attack took place. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Hallmarks of radicalisation

The key lies in the rapid radicalisation of the group at the hands of imam Abdulbaki Es Satty. Indeed, the terrorist’s families claimed that prior to the arrival of Es Satty to Ripoll, the group “barely went to the mosque” and even drank alcohol. “My sons couldn’t even speak Arab. They spoke Catalan, Spanish, and Berber” claims Brahim Aallaa, father of Said and Youssef.

Soon after that the group changed, they became quiet, secretive, and spent their days with Es Satty praying “all day and night”. The news of the attack left their families confused and hurt, many hearing about their children’s involvement for the first time via the media coverage.

Well integrated, with Spanish groups of friends, having attended their local school, the attack in Barcelona has left the country wary of potential violence by other seemingly assimilated members of the community. This has sparked an outpouring of racism rarely seen in Spain, with extreme right groups gathering in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant demonstrations.

Fearsome backlash

Associations and groups of Muslim residents in Spain have gathered in opposing demonstrations to show their repudiation of terrorism and to disassociate themselves and their religious beliefs from terrorism. In spite of this, whatsapp groups and Twitter have become an arena for Islamophobic videos and messages, increasingly vilifying the 2 million Muslims living in the country.

The streets of Barcelona have regained their usual bustling. People are gradually enjoying the last days of summer despite the British Government cautioning future visitors to beware of potential terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, the rampage along Las Ramblas has caused a certain disquiet to fall over the country. Although Spain may have seen terrorist attacks before, fear of an unseen ‘enemy within’ has taken hold of the country, and something that was once so grimly familiar has now taken on a new, altogether more disconcerting façade.


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