At least 14 suspected members of a cell that recruited jihadi fighters for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria were arrested yesterday in a joint operation in Morocco and Spain, authorities said.
Morocco’s interior ministry said 13 people were arrested in raids in several cities, including Nador and Hoceima on the Mediterranean coast close to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, as well as Fez and Casablanca. One of those detained had previously been arrested under the country’s anti-terror law.
A Spanish interior ministry statement said one person was arrested in the central town of San Martin de la Vega, just south-east of Madrid. It said the members of the group, whose leader was among those detained, maintained close contact with each other in Melilla.
Both ministries said the network was aimed at recruiting fighters for the Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq and also to carry out IS-type actions in Morocco and Spain.
The two countries, separated by less than ten miles of sea across the Strait of Gibraltar, have previously carried out joint operations focused on the two Spanish enclaves in north Africa, Melilla and Ceuta, and the surrounding Moroccan cities.
In June, Spain raised the terrorism threat level from three to four out of a possible five, increasing the number of armed police at sensitive sites across the country.
Level four means the intelligence services believe there is a high risk of a terror attack happening, according to reports.
On Friday a Moroccan who had lived in Spain was arrested following a foiled attack on a high-speed French train.
Ayoub El-Khazzani, 25, originally from Tetouan in northern Morocco, arrived in Spain in 2007 and lived there for seven years, in Madrid and Algeciras, before moving to France.
He is suspected of having had contact with radical Islamists and had been put on a list marked as “potentially dangerous” by Spanish authorities. They flagged this up to French counterparts in February 2014.
Morocco is one of the main suppliers of fighters to the Islamic State and in July interior minister Mohammed Hassad said 1,350 Moroccans had joined the group, of which 286 had been killed. He added that 30 networks have been dismantled in the past two years, 12 of those just in the past six months.
Spanish police have arrested 50 suspected jihadi militants and recruiters so far this year.
Interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said last month that 126 people had left Spain to join the Islamic State group in recent years. Of these, he said 25 had been killed and 61 remained abroad. He said that of the 25 known to have returned, 15 were in prison and ten were free, and there are arrest warrants outstanding for 15 others whose whereabouts are unknown.
Spain said the continual dismantling of cells showed the Islamic group’s determination to attack those countries it considers enemies.