Another capital city, another crowded promenade, another ordinary van commandeered for a terrorist rampage for which Islamic State has claimed responsibility. The attack that killed at least 13 people and injured more than 100 on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the tree-lined boulevard of shops, cafes and markets linking the city’s Plaza de Catalunya and the beach, is the latest guerilla incursion in radical Islam’s war on modernity and freedom. As always, the indiscriminate targets were people regarded by jihadists and their masters as kafirs (those who do not believe that Mohammed was the prophet of Allah). Much is yet to be learned about the perpetrators. While it caused shock, the attack was no surprise. Since Bastille Day 13 months ago, when 86 people were killed in a truck attack in Nice, vehicle attacks have been unleashed in London (twice), Paris (twice), Berlin and Stockholm. Ironically, as weapons become more sophisticated, it is the use of vehicles to commit mass murder that has made terrorism easier.
In the midst of a war without defined borders, being waged almost at random in civilian streets, near sporting arenas, at airports and in countless everyday settings, it is necessary to understand that for fanatical adherents lionised by their leaders as “soldiers”, Islam is far more than a religion. It is a political, totalitarian ideology. Kafirs, enemies who stand in its way, are to be mocked, plotted against, terrorised and killed.
The Barcelona atrocity and related incidents have occurred at a critical point. Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq is on its knees after victories by the US-led coalition, including Australia. The reported death of Australian jihadist Khaled Sharrouf is a recent breakthrough. But as ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis warned yesterday, the demise of Islamic State in the Middle East is likely to result in “almost an atomisation of the elements that are there” as fighters travel back to Europe and other places. A small number are likely to return to our shores.
At least some will be prepared to carry out so-called “martyrdom attacks’’ and to act on the injunction issued three years ago by Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. He told followers: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”
Spain has been relatively free from terrorist attacks since the assault by al-Qa’ida bombers on the Madrid train system in 2004 that killed 192 people and injured 2000. That attack prompted Spanish authorities to set up security structures that have served the country well. Despite being just 14km from North Africa at the nearest point, Spain avoided the brunt of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. But recently the UN’s International Organisation for Migration noted a surge of migrants entering Spain from Africa. Europe’s porous borders never help. Many of Spain’s five million foreign residents are from Latin America and poor European nations such as Romania. But 500,000 are from Morocco. Islamic State propaganda, translated into Spanish, intensified in response to Spain’s efforts in the coalition in the Middle East. But Islamists’ perceived grievances are far older. Islamic State gloated yesterday about “terror filling the hearts of the Crusader in the Land of Andalusia”, a reference to conflicts centuries ago between Islamic and Christian forces.
Like other nations that have learned painful lessons, Spain must do more to protect itself. Las Ramblas, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors, had no barricades despite the CIA reportedly warning Spanish police two months ago that it might be a target. Alerts were not raised when the van used in the attack was rented. Strong border protection, sharp intelligence and vigilance are our best defences. The end of the Middle East caliphate may be, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the “end of the beginning”, provided the formation of another caliphate in Afghanistan or elsewhere can be prevented. But sadly, tragic scenes of innocent men, women and children dead on the ground will be repeated.