Attacks in Spain: operational questions and answers – by Maria Alvanou

Yesterday a terror attack in Barcelona caused the tragic death of people and once more put Daesh in the spotlight. A question started to be articulated in the media: “why Barcelona?” Well, this question has a simple answer: “why not Barcelona?” Evaluating a target of a terror attack, one must think in terms of operational success. Terror operatives choose where and how to hit according to assessments that have to do mainly with access to target, magnitude of the attack and impact of the deadly actions.

A city like Barcelona during summer high touristic season offers a fantastic operational deal for islamist terrorists. It is a big, open city, with intense social life, that could not be “sealed” with security measures disrupting the flow of everyday life. Finding a place where there are a lot of people, thus producing a possible high toll of dead and injured victims is a piece of cake. Moreover, the touristic character of Barcelona ensures victims of different nationalities, something that -as we know from previous attacks, for example in Istanbul- Daesh wants, so that it targets more of its “enemies” with only one hit.

Another attack followed in a city south of Barcelona, Cambrils, which is also touristic (of course not in comparison with Barcelona). So Spain was hit twice. The country was a likely target as it is an islamist favourite, to be cited as part of the islamic territory that needs to be recaptured and freed from infidels. It will always be “al Andalus” for islamists, who chose it as a target back in 2004, when Al Qaeda was expressing the menace of international islamist terrorism. Additionally, who could forget the speeches of Osama bin Laden, as well as the communication videos and pictures of the organization portraying the Spanish Caliphate as part of the islamist agenda?

The counter terrorism authorities of Spain are considered highly experienced. The country not only is not new to islamist terrorism, but has also experience of different types of terror activity and terror organizations. The ethno-separatist terror group ETA was notorious for its activity and Spain (along with Greece and Italy) is one of the very few european countries who also deal today with leftist and anarchist terrorism[1]. Reports show that terror attacks have been foiled and cells have been dismantled[2], proving that spanish counter terrorism officials know what they are doing and they are doing it well. In addition to intelligence gathering, the spanish legislation is one of the most draconian in Europe, with the “incommunicado measure”[3] (according to which communication of the suspect with his lawyer is banned), heavily criticized for breaching the rights of the accused and the presumption of innocence. Yet, the two attacks were possible and the explosion in Alcanas is linked by authorities with their preparation. So, why and how where the attacks possible? Because- simply put again- such attacks can happen and are very difficult to deter. The fact that Spain foiled previous terror operational and dismantled networks means that that there is fertile ground in the country for terror activity and unless counter terror agencies follow precisely the trail of actions of a specific suspect, then preventing a person from renting a vehicle, or using his one vehicle to attack others is extremely difficult-if not impossible.

The work of the spanish police is not finished and we still do not have the whole picture about what has happened with the explosion in Alcanas as well as with the vehicle attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. Also one of the main suspects arrested denies his involvement and claims that his data connected with the attack vehicle in Barcelona were stolen. His brother, of age 18, seems to emerge as primal suspect[4]. Nevertheless are some alarming indications about the qualitative characteristics of islamist terror operatives that should change the way we think of their capacity. And actually these indications could be found also in recent previous attacks. For example, the fake suicide vests (that we witnessed also used during the June attack in London). It could be that the operative choice of islamist fighters is not favouring “martyrdom” as much as in the past and it is using it only to terrorize. We see more and more terrorists using operational methods that are of very high risk, but not of suicide methodology. Terror actors prefer and try to flee the place of the attack alive. They put effort to escape (just remember the attack in Berlin with the wanted suspect ending up and getting killed by authorities in Milan). These terrorists prefer to stay alive than become shahids in Heaven.

“Have suicide operations come to an end?” could be a logical question. The simple answer is: “no, of course not”. Suicide attacks have been and are an operational methodology to be used strategically and tactically when and where they are suited best. Their operational advantages remain valuable for islamists. Yet the human terror resources for recruitment in Europe have been changing. Part of the “loose network”, “lone wolves” story is that people who engage in terror attacks are not connected physically with the core of Daesh. Some of them have been born and were raised in Europe, may not even speak Arabic or know the islamic scriptures very well. Reading the biographies of radicalized youth in Europe and even of terror perpetrators one often realizes that their lives are far from the islamist or even the islamic ideal. They drink alcohol, they have extramarital sexual relationships, and they live a western kind of life. And there is another parameter to consider: it is easier to brainwash someone to kill than to brainwash him to die. It is easier for someone to hate and kill than to hate and die. Though a suicide attack is mainly an offensive, homicidal act, dying is the essential operational part. The perpetrator dies in order to kill. Are the new operatives so dedicated and accordingly brainwashed to give up their lives purposely? Can such a brainwashing so easily take place solely through internet or under a loose ideological umbrella, without the individual been exposed to other conditions? We know from studies that took place in the ’80s in Lebanon that approximately a period of 6 months was needed at the time to prepare a suicide bomber. This period of time was cut down to a week and even less during the Second Intifada for palestinian suicide bombers ready to give up their lives in order to kill Israelis or for bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan ready to kill Americans. Yet in all those three cases pre-existing conditions of present conflict and socialization to violence pre-existed, so the suicide bomber to be, was actually in the “mood” and mentality, ready to kill dying. This is not the case with the present operatives of the islamist network of terror in Europe, especially when some of them are born and raised in the safe and peaceful conditions of european living standards.

“Is this operational choice less dangerous for security?” The answer is again, unfortunately “no”. Actually vehicle (and knife stabbings, another recent favourite of islamist terrorists) attacks can be even harder to detect while they are planned and to deter while they are carried out. No need to acquire explosives, no need to search for guns. Anyone can have access to a vehicle and drive against people. And while a bulky jacket (to hide an explosive vest) in the middle of August would raise awareness, driving a car is not suspicious regardless of the season. These simple car and knife methods are also more dangerous because- as it was argued above- they don’t demand a “martyr’s psychology”, so there can be more candidates ready to carry them out.

Concluding, among the many questions there is a pressing one that regards not only officials or specialists, but also everyday people: “Can we stop this terror?” A frank answer should be “no, not entirely”. Islamist terrorism was not created just yesterday and it is a phenomenon wit multiple levels of explanation. We are dealing with an ideology of hate and violence and a movement that expresses itself though certain groups (unfortunately it is not only Daesh) and is taking advantage of individual traits, vulnerabilities of people, social and economic parameters, historical grievances, international and political interests and their clashes. There are no easy ways and no simple solutions. In practical level, moreover, the new operational methodologies that require minimum preparation- and thus minimum preexisting evidence for authorities- make prevention difficult. In democratic societies that strive to safeguard the overall security (not just from terror) of citizens, providing free space and liberties is essential. There can be no true security without freedom. We cannot and should not imagine societies where all are under surveillance, in order to foil a possible terror hit. The work of the authorities is tough and tragically the cynical truth is that some attacks won’t and can’t be foiled. Can we do something? The answer is “yes”. Already authorities are doing what they can and they are succeeding, in the sense that they do prevent attacks. Not all of them, but a significant number of them. Striving for more cooperation between counter terrorism authorities of the different countries (inside and out of the EU) and better evaluation of information are vital and possible to pursue as further steps. We can make the work of terrorists more difficult, we can foil more attacks, and we can make our countries safer.

[1] See Europol report for 2017,

[2] See

[3] For “incommunicado” and human rights concerns against it, h

[4]For the situation and what information is circulated in the media,