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Spain: Proximity To Maghreb Region Brings Risks, Opportunities

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Spain has traditionally had strong relations with the Arab countries of North Africa. These ties will be tested in the wake of the bloody Madrid terror bombings, in which Moroccans and also an Algerian are suspects. But with the European Union seeking to improve its counterterrorism efforts, perhaps Spain's links to the Maghreb region can be of special significance.

Prague, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Although nothing is certain yet about who carried out the bloody terrorist bombings in Madrid, attention has focused firmly on suspects from Spain's north African neighbor, Morocco.

Three of the five men initially arrested in connection with the train bombings last week are Moroccans. Several more North Africans, including some Moroccans, were reportedly arrested yesterday by Spanish authorities on suspicion of involvement in the bombings. An Algerian has also been questioned.

The attacks in Madrid killed more than 200 people.

Analysts say Spain's proximity to North Africa -- only the narrow Straits of Gibraltar separates it from Morocco -- means it is exposed to increased risk from Islamic terrorism.

"Spain is a country which is obviously very much affected by the inflow of people from North Africa, from the Maghreb countries."
Christoph Meyer is a regional expert for the Centre for European Reform in Brussels. He says, "Spain is a country which is obviously very much affected by the inflow of people from North Africa, from the Maghreb countries, and I think the terrorist acts have shown that this is really a problem which deserves European attention."

The European Union is beginning a series of urgent consultations aimed at improving its counterterrorism efforts, amid fears that other EU states are now threatened by similar terror attacks. Meyer says the EU should pay more attention to giving economic and political help to the Maghreb, a volatile region where support for extremism could grow.

"The European Union needs to have a more coherent strategy for countries involved in the Barcelona process [the EU-Mediterranean dialogue], including the Maghreb countries," Meyer said.

The vulnerability of the Maghreb to radicalization is shown by the results of a survey just carried out by a leading American polling institution -- the Washington-based Pew Research Center. The survey showed a majority of Moroccans believe the use of suicide bombers against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq is justified.

Spain has long had an interest in pushing forward the sluggish EU-Mediterranean dialogue, and -- as the name suggests -- played host to the initiative's founding meeting in Barcelona.

With sympathy for Spain running high among its EU partners, the Spanish are well placed to make a case for European help for their own security needs, and for an increased emphasis on Maghreb regional stability. As analyst Meyer puts it, "Spain will be pushing at open doors, and will receive considerable support."

Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says one of his foreign policy priorities will be to restore good relations with Morocco. Those ties have been strained in recent years by disagreements in areas like fishing and immigration, as well as issues relating to the western Sahara territory in southern Morocco. The two countries also had a brief military confrontation over a disputed islet in the Mediterranean.

Zapatero is playing down the notion that the latest terror attacks will further sour ties with Rabat. He says Spaniards and Moroccans continue to have close historical links and common economic and cultural interests. His first trip as prime minister reportedly will be to Morocco.

The two countries are already cooperating on the investigation into the Madrid train bombings. Spain sent a squad of antiterrorism experts to Morocco, and Rabat likewise sent a team to Madrid. The Spanish are interested in examining a possible connection between the Madrid events and blasts apparently aimed at Spanish interests in Casablanca last year, which killed 45 people.