The attacks in Barcelona on August 17, 2017, conducted by terrorists pledging their allegiance to Daesh, demonstrate that despite the loss of the Islamic State’s spiritual capital Mosul over the summer, its ideology still inspires violence.
The attacks also fit a wider pattern this summer of urban terrorism having returned to Europe this summer and over the last one year. However, unlike the attacks in the UK earlier this summer, the attacks in Spain have invariably evoked the nation’s Islamic history by the media, analysts, and terrorist themselves.
Whether it was the 2004 bombing of commuter trains in Madrid or these vehicular attacks in Spain’s Catalonia region in 2017, the terrorists legitimize their violence by invoking the eight centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula from 711 to 1492.
The symbolism of catalonia’s Islamic history
When reading about the vehicular attack on Barcelona’s pedestrian boulevard, Las Ramblas, I could not help but to analyze how a Spanish-Muslim terrorist was attacking part of Spain’s Muslim past. Barcelona was never under Muslim rule, although it was sacked by Muslim general al-Mansur in 985. Nonetheless, its most iconic thoroughfare, Las Ramblas comes from the Arabic word “raml” for “sand.” Las Ramblas was a wadi, a dry river bed.
The terrorists planned their attacks in the small seaside town of Alcanar, on the Catalan-Valencian border. The “al,” the definite article “the” in Arabic, is ubiquitous in Spanish town names. The town, once no longer under Muslim rule, was raided by Muslim pirates of the Mediterranean in the 1300s. It was here that terrorists constructed a bomb that prematurely exploded, killing the leader of their cell.
The original plan of the terrorists was not to conduct vehicular assaults, but place bombs in iconic Barcelona structures such as La Sagrada Familia, the half-finished church designed by Catalan architect Anton Gaudi who died in 1926.
While a devout Christian, Gaudi used Islamic motifs in his architecture, such as Casa Vicens, which he built with Moorish-inspired tiles, or Park Guell, decorated with Moorish-style tiles arranged in mosaics.
This exploration of Arabic places’ names, or Muslim influences in Catalonia is an exercise in nostalgia and had no bearing on the terrorists, even if they were aware of this legacy. Followers of Daesh demonstrated that they had no compunction in destroying the Mosul mosque housing the prophet Jonah or even the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, where Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, standing on the pulpit, declared his caliphate.
Destroying mosques and churches in Mosul, or seeking to destroy an iconic church in Barcelona, is a hallmark of Daesh.
A battle of two narratives
Nonetheless, an examination of the Islamic legacy in Spain still highlights the symbolic nature of the attacks in Catalonia. According to Lorenzo Vidino, an expert on the terrorist threat to this region, “Spain’s Islamic heritage, moreover, makes it a perennial target, and is no merely symbolic factor for organizations, such as ISIS, whose primary political goal is to restore the historical Islamic caliphate to its original borders.”
In the rubble of the Alcanar explosion, police found a book entitled, “Soldier of the Islamic State in the Land of Andalucia.” For these terrorists in Catalonia their attacks were justified in the name of using violence to restore Muslim hegemony over Spain, a narrative that evolved in the aftermath of the Madrid attacks in 2004, even though it was conducted by al Qaeda, Daesh’s progenitor and now rival.
It was narratives such as these that the prime ministers Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Jose Zapatero of Spain sought to counter by establishing the United Nation’s initiative, The Alliance of Civilizations, in 2005, and which was quick to condemn the Catalonia attacks.
While the terrorist narrative seeks to restore Muslim hegemony over the Iberian Peninsula, there is another trope worth noting, Convivencia or “co-existence,” which invokes the “Golden Age” of Spain where Muslim, Christians, and Jews lived in an “interfaith utopia” in the medieval era. This is a version of the Spanish past that groups like al Qaida and Daesh would find abhorrent.
Both narratives are problematic. Muslim armies will never march into Spain like they did under Tariq bin Ziyad in 711. Convivencia itself is also an example of using the present to project into the past. There was plenty of tension between these communities in the medieval era, and notions of religious “tolerance” did not exist then, as it is a modern construct.
However, the present belies a reality that mixes the two narratives. Muslims, particularly of Moroccan heritage, have co-existed in Spain since the seventies. The neighbors of the attackers interviewed by the media, were shocked, because these terrorists spoke perfect Catalan, the language of Catalonia, indicating they had absorbed both a Spanish and regional identity, and thus seemed to be perfectly integrated.
If there is a Convivencia or co-existence in Spain, it seems to be in the present. And that’s what the terrorists both rejected, and through their violence, threaten to undermine.