MADRID—The center of the city is swarming with police and there have already been several moments when the streets were emptied by false alarms. The most serious came on Dec. 8, a holiday here, when the cops cleared the Gran Via, the epicenter of tourism and Christmas in the capital of Spain, in the face of a bomb threat that originated with an abandoned suitcase.
Police hustled people out of crowded shops and bars. They said the threat was “very serious.” And even though the alarm ended in 15 minutes, the collective bout of nerves continued. Coffee shops and other businesses lowered their steel shutters fearing a slaughter similar to the one at the Bataclán in Paris a year ago last November.
The alert was serious, but meanwhile served to test the deployment of police and emergency services. Experts agree that in those terms the performance was a success: Police forces and ambulances “invaded” the area in just a few minutes. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Let’s not forget that Spain has fought for decades against the terrorism of Basque separatist group ETA, which today fortunately is on the verge of extinction.
But is there really a specific threat this Christmas?
French police warned Spain in recent weeks that an attack similar to that in Nice last July was expected in some European capital, but it wasn’t clear which one. The so-called Islamic State had been pushing this terror tactic to its recruits and sympathizers for months.
Only four days after the slaughter in Nice, a young Afghan immigrant hacked and slashed at passengers on a train in Germany. His ISIS contacts reportedly had told him to use a car to kill people, but he had no license, no car, and may not have known how to drive.
Then in November, French police uncovered a plot to use vehicles against a number of targets around Paris, including the Christmas market on the Champs Élysées.
Madrid, which suffered a massive al Qaeda-linked terror attack at the Atocha train station in 2004, is increasingly prominent as an ISIS target. The jihadists have a long memory, and they believe their claim on what once was called Al Andalus dates back to the days before Columbus sailed for the New World.
In fact, in early December, a devastating attack in Spain almost took place. The intelligence services and the Spanish police managed to avert it when, on Wednesday, Nov. 25, they detained Allal El Mourabit in Irún, in the Basque Country, in the north of Spain.
Investigators alleged that he planned an attack in Madrid following the model of Nice, using a heavy truck to overwhelm the largest possible number of people in any of the multiple clusters that occur in the city around Christmas.
The clandestine services had been keeping track of El Mourabit for months because he was visiting a teahouse in Pamplona (Navarre, near the Basque Country) which was attended by people connected to the Islamic State. Mourabit also spent hours watching videos of ISIS on the internet, and aspired to become a member of this terrorist group. The detainee twice traveled to Turkey in recent times. On the last trip last June, Turkish police expelled him. Afteward, European police were able to keep track of him thanks to the trail he’d left handing out large amounts of money in the days leading up to his trip to Turkey.
Police sources are convinced that their intervention "thwarted an almost imminent attack," as they told The Daily Beast, but "the threat remains."
The Rajoy government gathered last week with top police officials to review the level of terrorist alert. They maintained it at 4 (on a scale where 5 is the maximum level) but "security will be strengthened," they reported, in particular during the holidays.
A police document that has been making the rounds in public in recent days proposes the installation of “bollards or large flowerpots” in the squares of big cities and in places large agglomeration of people gather during the Christmas season, in particular on Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
Spaniards celebrate the arrival of the New Year in the main squares, gathering thousands of people to listen to “the 12 bells” and eat “the traditional 12 grapes” at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 in places like Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. In addition, the whole country also celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men on the evening of Jan. 5, when thousands of families with their children take part in the procession of the Magi through the streets of Spanish cities and towns.
The Ministry of Interior has cautioned local councils and police to take into account the current threat to define the route of these “cavalcades” and to install or have ready various security devices.
Meanwhile, as I write, the shops are full and there is an atmosphere of tension, yes, but also of calm resolution.
Unfortunately, Spaniards already know what it is to live under the terrorist threat at Christmas: ETA terrorists carried out several of their massacres and kidnappings during the holiday season.
Maybe that's why none of these people who are queuing up again in the shops and bars of the Gran Via are ready to stay at home for fear of jihadists. Until now Spain has managed to win the battle against Islamic terrorism, preventing dozens of attacks in recent years. Now society is about to win as well as the end of the day: the battle of fear. And whenever fear of terrorists is overcome, freedom is victorious.