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How Spain Became a Terror Target

Madrid is effective at thwarting many potential plots, but now must counter Islamist ideology.

With each new Islamist-fueled terror attack on European soil, at least two things can be certain: that the intended devastation was to be much worse, and that it won’t be long before the next assault occurs.

Authorities investigating last week’s van attack in Barcelona, which left 13 people dead and scores more injured, believe it was the work of a 12-person terror cell. All 12 have now been either arrested or killed, including the final member, who was shot dead Monday just west of the city. Authorities believe the group had been planning a bigger, deadlier attack involving gas explosives.

As Islamic State continues to lose territory in Syria and struggles to maintain its relevance, there has been a rise in such low-tech, high-impact attacks on soft targets. Western governments have been doing a good job of adapting security systems to these attacks, helping to mitigate the damage. Yet there’s a difference between responding to and preventing acts of terrorism.

Spain as a terror target may have come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t have. For 700 years, the territory of al-Andalus, which included what is today modern Spain, remained under Muslim rule. It wasn’t until the Reconquista of 1492 that the Islamic Empire lost its prized territory in the European heartland and began its slow decline.

In the Islamic world, this loss has lingered as a point of contention, with Osama bin Laden justifying the deadly 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people, by saying “this is only part of the settlement of old scores with Crusader Spain.” As recently as last year Islamic State warned Spain: “We will recover our land from the invaders.”

On a practical level, experts have long considered the country a terrorist hub linking Europe to Iraq and Syria, not least because of its geographical location. Though physically distant from the main fighting in Iraq and Syria, its proximity to North Africa and easy links to Western Europe make it an ideal center for jihadist activity. It’s also a major finance hub for terror networks in Iraq and Syria.

Since the 2004 Madrid bombing, Spain’s security apparatus has been intensifying its efforts to uproot and disrupt the underground networks operating on its soil, and to a large extent it has been successful.

In February 2016, authorities arrested seven members of a cell responsible for sending goods to fighters in Iraq and Syria. In April this year, Spanish police arrested nine people with possible ties to the recent attacks in Belgium and France. A day later, police arrested two men suspected of recruiting for Islamic State and helping fighters travel back into Europe.

At present, 700 suspected terrorists have been arrested, 120 imprisoned and a further 259 investigated by courts, all while Spanish police are monitoring more than 1,000 high-risk individuals. Close to 500 phones are being tapped. Between 1996 and 2013, nearly 29% of people sentenced for jihadist-related terrorism offenses were arrested in the province of Barcelona.

Perhaps in response to Spain’s crackdown, earlier this year jihadists warned they would be intensifying their campaign of terror in major areas of the Mediterranean. The CIA warned Spanish police two months ago that Barcelona was a potential target, even highlighting Las Ramblas, the street where last week’s attack occurred, as a particularly vulnerable location.

But it’s not enough just to prepare for the next terror attack and minimize the death toll. More must be done to tackle the root of the problem and challenge the Islamist Salafi ideology that has been behind the recent spate of senseless violence. Salafism is arguably the most puritanical brand of Islam, with adherents adopting the most fundamentalist reading of the Quran. These are the fanatics who populate al Qaeda and Islamic State.

To undermine this ideology, we first must address the myopic political correctness that appears to tolerate views contrary to everything the Western liberal world stands for, all for the sake of protecting minorities. The West must realize that it commits a grave injustice to mainstream Muslims when it fails to name and shame and challenge this Islamist ideology and refuses to isolate the extremists in their midst.

The Muslim community in Spain is among the most well-integrated in Europe and has some of the lowest rates of radicalization on the Continent. Not only have Muslim communities lauded Spanish authorities’ efforts to eradicate the terror networks in the country, but they insist on more being done.

According to Laarbi Mateis, the secretary of the Islamic Commission in the Spanish city of Ceuta, “The police are doing things well, with recruitment slowing down. But all of the efforts are related to security and not to education. We need social measures.”

Mr. Mateis is right. Until we address and debilitate the fundamentalist ideology that is the root cause of Islamist extremism, we cannot hope to be safe from terror on our streets, no matter how exceptional our intelligence and security apparatus.

Haras Rafiq is the CEO of Quilliam International, where Muna Adil is a researcher.