Spain facing Daesh: theory and practice of the National Security Strategy

Spain is one of the most experienced European countries with matters relating to terrorism and security.

At the national level, among other armed groups with less impact, it had to face Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) for more than fifty years, first considered as a revolutionary movement opposing Franco’s dictatorship and later auto proclaimed defenders of the Basque Country independence, leaving about 800 victims between the process of democratization in 1975 and its end in 2011. Internationally speaking, Madrid went through the bomb attack carried out by Al Qaeda in March 2004 after its participation in the Iraq war, causing 190 victims. Nowadays, along with many European and non-European countries, Spain is facing a threat represented by Daesh, and the previous experience has, in generally, proved to be effective.

The National Security strategy: features and resources against terrorism

Due to the emergence of Daesh, in 2013 the Spanish government renewed its National Security strategy in order to update the existing risks and threats, redefine the strategic lines and make the available resources more effective. Chapter four, Strategic Lines of Action, includes “combating terrorism”, whose operation is articulated through four basic precepts: prevention (acting against terrorism at its source both in national and international operations); protection (improving the internal and external capabilities as well as the virtual space); pursuit (good coordination, direction and supervision); and response (measures and plans both to dismantle the threat and giving support to victims when the attack is carried out)[1]. This approach is obvious in theory but non-effective only by its own, being necessary a deep review of its practical operation.

Specific areas such as the strategic, the operative and the normative ones have improved. In the strategic, Spain has internally adopted the Strategic National Plan of Fight against Violent Radicalization[2] (a way to prevent extremisms with risk to become terrorist activities), has  created new organisms such as the National Security Council (a direct connection between them and the head of government)[3], has restructured the National Intelligence Centre and has adopted the platform Stop Radicalisms[4] (a virtual reporting platform with which denouncing extremist behaviours or suspicious activities)[5]. Externally, it has reinforced its coordinated efforts in the fight against terrorism both with the EU and the UN and has signed the Agreement for Terrorism Prevention of the Council of Europe, aiming to avoid comes and goes of jihadists to zones under conflict.

In the operative area, Spain increased the terrorist threat to level 4 in June 2015 after attacks or terrorist actions in Tunisia, Kuwait and France and since then the level has remained immovable. At the same time, the army plays a continuous role by participating in external operations in Iraq, especially in Mosul and Bagdad.

Finally, in the normative area, the country has created the Intelligence Centre against Terrorism and Organized crime and has implemented the law 36/2015[6] of National Security, with the aim of improving the coordination and organization of different administrations.

Despite the importance of these measures, the most significant change in media and the society was the signature of an anti-jihadist pact between the Popular Party and the Socialist Party in February 2015, later joined by other political forces. The pact had eight referent points[7]: modification of the penal Code in order to redefine the new emerging threats; application of the maximum penalty of deprivation of liberty when the terrorist crime causes mortal victims; impulse of legislative reforms which make more efficient the work of judges, prosecutors and Security Bureaus, including for instance the control of telephone and telematic communications; preserving the memory of the victims of terrorism; warranty of human and material resources in the fight against terrorism; active and effective policies on the eradication of violent forms of radicalization, including expressions of racism, xenophobia or discrimination; advising about prevention, pursuit, cooperation and sanction policies against terrorism within the EU and international institutions (for example with a strict registration of the fly passengers criminal record);  and promotion of all measures within the Spanish General Courts, reaching a wide consensus between all political parties.


Involvement: detentions and profiles

The work of the Spanish authorities is not negligible: 571 people related to jihadist terrorism were arrested in Spain between 2004 and 2015[8]. Besides, the important step of increasing the Spanish terrorist threat to level 4 on June 2015 had 181 more detentions in a short time between national and international operations. Deepening in the profile of the involved people, a study by the think tank Royal Institute Elcano[9] highlights important revelations: 83% of the arrested were men and 17% were women; among men, the average age was 31.6 years, mostly married and among women, 22.6 years, mostly singles. According to PhD in political science Carla García Calvo[10], the civil status of women corresponds to the will of marrying them with young jihadists and being mothers of future Daesh fighters.[11]

In terms of religion and nationality, on the one hand 86.1% of individuals had a Muslim origin and 13.9% were converts, but in general terms with a very basic understanding of Islam. On the other hand, in a sample of 124 arrested people, 45.3% were Spaniards, 41.1% Moroccans and 13.6% from different nationalities, with one of every three attempting to attack in Spain and 44.6% of them with criminal record and enough operative capacity to execute their plans, both in company (94%) and alone (6%).  At the same time, 51.7% were first generation immigrants, 42.2% second and further generations and 6.1% Spaniards with no immigrant ancients.

Regarding the place of detention, the cities with a higher volume of arrests were Barcelona (27.3%), Ceuta (20.3%), Madrid (16.7%) and Melilla (10.6%), with 29,7% operating through the national network and 70.3% internationally. From the detentions, 28.9% had radicalised offline,18.4% online and 52.7% in both ways, having 62.8% ideological motivations, 23.2% identity or existentially and 13.7% affective and emotional. About the accusations, 100% were of recruitment and radicalization, 78.8% of material shipments, 61.9% of financing and 55.8% of propaganda diffusion, among others.

The fact that a high number of people had radicalised lies especially in the non-pertinence to one or another social groups. It is about people who feel themselves discriminated in their own country due to its foreign appearance and who are rejected, at the same time, in their country of origin. These poor prospects of social and labour integration drive them to find a solution and in Jihadism they have the promise of becoming heroes if they fight and survive, all under a stalled vision of Islam[12]. In the case of Spain, almost 200[13] Spaniards have travelled to Syria and Iraq to combat under the Daesh flag and if the figure is not as high as other countries such as France, with 700 people[14], it is because in Spain there are almost no second immigrant generations, or at least not for the moment. From these almost 200 people, between May 2013 and June 2016, 129 were still there, 29 had died and 20 had been arrested.

Security: Obstacles and solutions

The Spanish strategy is well driven both in theory and in practice, but there are several obstacles. In the national sphere, since the beginning of the economic crisis there have been reductions in the regular budget. If in 2008 the figure was of 8494.11 million Euros, in 2015 it was of 5768[15], affecting not only the physical resources but the wages, with officers working overtime without compensation. At the same time, there is a lack of coordination between the judiciary and the police sector, disagreeing about how incriminating the evidences are. It is fair to say that now the police have the chance to have the suspect on file as a potential risk even if the evidences are not totally inclusive, but this process is sometimes long until proving no violations of human rights. Besides, there are external obstacles such as the use of social networks as a tool of propaganda, the difficult existence of a centralized European police due to the intergovernmental nature of the EU or a general lack of awareness of the Islamic culture.

Although complex, the director of the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies General Ballesteros highlights immediately measures to minimize the impact. First at all, the fight against the online propaganda. In the city of Malaga, in Andalusia, there are already teaching centres with the aim to dismantle the myth of the Islamic radicalism among youngers as a prevention. In fact, 34.2% of people starts their radicalisation between 15 and 19 years[16] and until today, 73.8% had been radicalised inside Spain. Secondly, giving every community a solution: understanding the nature of all groups, avoiding mixing each and proving that Islamism is not the enemy but Daesh. And thirdly, being proactive in the international sphere: the concept of security is nowadays multilateral and it is important to keep good relations with countries sharing the same values to safeguard the national needs.[17] Spain must have a strong bilateral relation with Morocco, mainly terrorist’s country of origin and a multilateral one with other friendly nations, especially inside the EU.

Extremism must be politically and ideologically discredited both with a social reinsertion and an active vigilance.[18]If we assume that radicalisation takes place more due to the social condition than due to a religious conviction, Spain must focus its efforts on integrating all groups: fostering the sense of respect and freedom from the school age, offering free language and  professional courses as well as social activities or programmes to promote employment. In other words, increasing hopes of social viability among the most disfavoured sector, the most affected by the economic crisis and therefore, more vulnerable to radicalization. The police and judicial activities must remain as proactive as nowadays and they must receive the economic support they deserve from the Government, insufficient in the last years due to the crisis. Spain has proved to be a good European ally in terms of fight against terrorism with a high effectiveness and its conscious, together with other Mediterranean countries, of its geographical and strategic position. The containment work of radicalism is in process, now is necessary to search for new formulas of eradication.


Lara Castro Navarro

Master’s degree in Contemporary History (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)




[1]The National Security Strategy: Sharing a Common a Project (2013), National Security Department, Govern of Spain, p 41.

[2] Plan Estratégico Nacional de Lucha Contra la Radicalización Violenta (PEN-LCRV), Ministry of Interior, Government of Spain.

[3] El Consejo de Seguridad Nacional, National Security Department, Cabinet of the Presidency of the Government.

[4] Stop Radicalismos, Ministry of Interior, Government of Spain.

[5] According to the Intelligence Centre against Terrorism and Organized crime, since its launch in December 2015, the Police had already in July 2016 about 36 opened investigations, with 2100 received messages from which 60% were very useful.

[6] Law 36/2015 of 28 September of National Security, Ministry of Presidency and Territorial Administrations, Government of Spain, 2015.

[7]Acuerdo Para Afianzar La Unidad En Defensa De Las Libertades y En La Lucha Contra El Terrorismo, Press release, Ministry of the Presidency, Government of Spain, 2015.

[8] Juan Antonio Moliner (2015): La política de defensa de España ante la amenaza del terrorismo yihadista, Revista de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-16. DOI:

[9] García – Calvo C. & Reinares F (2016): Estado Islámico en España, Royal Institute Elcano, pp. 15 – 73.

[10] Estado Islámico en España, Marca España platform, 2 August 2016.

[11] Ibídem

[12] Araluce, C: Entrevista al General Ballesteros, Diario El Español, 27 November 2016.

[13] Prevención y reinserción, las mejores armas para combatir el terrorismo yihadista (2016), Marca España platform.

[14] France is the biggest EU supplier of fighters to Daesh with 700 militants, Daily Sabah Europe, 18 January 2017.

[15] Villarejo E. & Callejo M: España sólo invierte un 0.9% del PIB en Defensa, con recortes del 32% por la crisis,, 15 May 2016.

[16] García – Calvo C. & Reinares F (2016): Estado Islámico en España, Royal Institute Elcano, pp. 15 – 73.

[17] Juan Antonio Moliner (2015): La política de defensa de España ante la amenaza del terrorismo yihadista, Revista de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-16. DOI:

[18]Prevención y reinserción, las mejores armas para combatir el terrorismo yihadista (2016), Marca España platform.

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