Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Spanish Mosque's Ties To Terror


Spain has suffered fewer Islamist terror attacks than some other European countries, including France or the U.K. But in both of Spain's deadly attacks, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and an ISIS attack in Barcelona last month, the suspects had ties to one specific mosque in the Mediterranean coast. Reporter Lauren Frayer went to that mosque and rang the doorbell.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The green-and-white stucco Al Furkan mosque is tucked away in a scruffy industrial park in Vilanova i la Geltru, a mile from the glittering Mediterranean and 30 miles south of Barcelona. The mosque's president, Youssef Aghbalou, welcomes me in. He's honest about what happened here.

YOUSSEF AGHBALOU: (Through interpreter) The previous imam followed a strict form of Islam called Salafism, but he took it too far and radicalized people. Seventeen people from our mosque went to jail.

FRAYER: When police arrested them, they found a pamphlet here entitled, Secrecy in Jihad, instructing radicals to go undercover by drinking alcohol, eating pork and appearing to be secular, all as cover for jihad. That's exactly what happened last month in Barcelona. Terrorism expert Jofre Montoto says the ISIS attackers were beer-drinking drinking youth radicalized by an imam.

JOFRE MONTOTO: This person, the iman, was like a guru, an older man with more knowledge about the Islamic religion, a man with experience in the world.

FRAYER: A man who, investigators believe, also had links to the Al Furkan mosque. Spain's northeast Catalonia region has made more jihadi arrests than anywhere else in Spain. Another terrorism expert, Lorenzo Vidino, says it started with a handful of Salafist imams, who espouse a conservative but not necessarily violent ideology.

LORENZO VIDINO: In the early '90s, you had a couple of very charismatic preachers that established the first Salafist mosques in southern Catalonia, partially because of the funding they received from Gulf countries. They built a narrative, which is fairly easy for a radical imam or a few young followers to take to the next level, which entails the use of violence.

FRAYER: On this same stretch of Spain's coast, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta held a planning meeting and police killed some of the Barcelona attackers.

ALBERT OLIVA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Police inspector Albert Oliva says authorities have undercover agents in Salafist mosques all along this coast. But there were also unlicensed mosques. The Catalan town of Reus has issued a permit for only one mosque for about 10,000 Muslim residents. On Islamic holy days, people can end up praying outside in the street, says Hilal Tarkou, a local lawyer and Muslim community leader.

HILAL TARKOU: (Through interpreter) When they don't get enough permits from mosques, mosques go underground into private homes, where there's no surveillance at all.

FRAYER: He wants the Spanish government to vet all imams and audit the finances of all mosques.

UNIDENTIFIED MU'ADDHIN: (Chanting in Arabic).

FRAYER: Back at the Al Furkan mosque, Aghbalou points at security cameras installed after the Salafist imam was arrested back in 2005.

AGHBALOU: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "These days, you don't know what's inside people's minds," he says, "but we want to do all we can to keep ourselves and our children safe."

AGHBALOU: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Vilanova i la Geltru, Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "BELA AND THE WHALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.