Spanish police break up 'terrorist cell' in Madrid

Spanish police arrest one of the three suspects.
Spanish police arrest one of the three suspects. AFP

MADRID (AFP) - Spanish authorities said on Tuesday they had broken up a "terrorist cell" linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group with the arrest of three Moroccan men who aimed to carry out attacks in Madrid.

Police arrested the trio, legal residents of Spain between the ages of 26 and 29, in pre-dawn raids in two neighbourhoods of the capital Madrid, the interior ministry said in a statement.

"National police broke up in Madrid an active jihadist terrorist cell," it said.

It added that authorities acted quickly to detain the men because "their reactions were very unpredictable" and they had "manifested their clear willingness to carry out an attack in Madrid".

Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said that, unlike in other recent cases of suspected Islamic militants arrested in Spain, the men were "not devoted to attracting, indoctrinating, radicalising, recruiting" people to travel to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS.

"Their goal was to act in Spain," he said on Cadena Ser radio.

The suspects "were ready to conduct indiscriminate attacks", including knife attacks like those recently conducted by Palestinian militants in Israel or deadly assaults with rifles, he added.

The cell's leader recruited others by spreading ISIS doctrine while the other two detained men were "operatives" in charge of carrying out potential attacks, the interior ministry said.

One of the suspects was detained in a large shantytown in southern Madrid and "had easy access to an illegal market for all types of weapons".

No weapons were seized during the operation. The investigation remains open, the ministry said.

Like other European nations, Spain has been grappling with a growing number of jihadist cells on its territory and radicalised Muslims leaving to fight for ISIS or other Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria.

More than 100 people from Spain are suspected of having joined extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria and authorities fear they may return to launch attacks.

Some 171 suspected militants have been detained in Spain since December 2011, according to the interior minister, most of them accused of recruiting for ISIS rather than actually planning attacks themselves.

But in April, police arrested 11 people in the north-east region of Catalonia, suspected of links to ISIS and accused of planning local attacks.

In January, police arrested four men in Spain's tiny north African territory Ceuta, accusing them of belonging to a group "prepared" to launch possible attacks in Spain.

Spain raised its terror alert to four on a scale of five on June 26 following deadly attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

It is the highest alert level since Al-Qaeda-inspired bombers blew up four packed commuter trains and killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004.

The heightened alert calls for an increasing police presence on the streets of Spanish cities as well as at airports, railway and bus terminals, nuclear power plants and electrical installations.