Spanish police arrested 16 suspected Al Qaeda terrorists Friday during a predawn sweep aimed at an Algerian network that allegedly has plotted attacks in Britain and France.
Acting on a French judicial request, a 180-officer task force led by helmeted, heavily armed SWAT units raided 12 apartments in and around the northeastern cities of Barcelona and Girona in the Catalonia region. Police confiscated electronic equipment and remote-control devices used for making bombs as well as flasks containing suspicious chemicals, according to authorities.
The suspects are mostly young Algerians accused of giving logistic support to alleged terrorists arrested recently in connection with plotting attacks using bombs and chemical gas in Paris, the production of ricin poison in London and the killing of a British police detective during a raid.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said the men rounded up Friday posed an imminent threat.
"Those arrested were preparing to commit attacks with explosives and chemical materials," Aznar told a news conference in the northwestern Spanish city of A Coruna. He did not say anything about intended targets.
However, a high-ranking law enforcement official said investigators knew of no evidence so far that the suspects had planned attacks in Spain. It is more likely they were involved in plots in France and Britain, where the fear of Al Qaeda terrorism is intense and police have been working around the clock to head off violence, according to the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
"They had all kinds of equipment for making bombs, that is for sure," the official said. "They had chemicals that still have to be analyzed. This group had strong connections to the cells in France and also, in a more complicated way, to those in Britain. We must investigate more before we can say exactly what they were up to."
A strong link between the Spanish group and an attack plot is an Algerian named Mirouane Benahmed, according to investigators. Benahmed was arrested in a slum apartment outside Paris in December. French police accuse him of receiving chemical warfare training in Afghanistan and the Russian republic of Chechnya and of playing a lead role in a plot to commit terrorist attacks in Paris. Spanish police say Benahmed and three others now jailed in France recently spent time in Spain and had close contact with suspects in Catalonia.
Although Spain has not been hit by Islamist terrorism, the country figures prominently in Al Qaeda's organizational map. It is a hub of recruiting, financing and networks that deal in fake documents and other tools of the trade. Judging from the movements of fugitives and suspects in several cases, extremists consider Spain a good place to hide and to hold meetings.
Spanish police have arrested 35 people believed linked to Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Some are Syrian-Spanish merchants with wide-ranging international connections; they allegedly operated a cell accused of aiding the Sept. 11 hijackers and plotters, who held meetings in Spain or used the country as an escape route just before the attacks.
Other terrorism suspects jailed in Spain in recent years are working-class North Africans, mostly Algerians, who blended into the flow of travelers and immigrants across the Mediterranean.
The suspects arrested Friday, like many others captured recently in Europe, allegedly belong to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a network with a bloody reputation in Algeria that reportedly is part of Al Qaeda's multiethnic alliance.
The suspects had stockpiled radio communications equipment they intended to send to fighters in Algeria and Chechnya, police said. The Spanish network was divided into two groups, one based in Barcelona and the other in the provincial town of Banyoles, near Girona, according to authorities.
During his news conference, Aznar gave the case a political twist by referring to the danger represented by Iraq.
The Spanish prime minister, one of the Bush administration's closest allies in a Europe that is increasingly divided by the prospect of war, said the international pressure on the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein results from a U.N. mandate calling on Baghdad to disarm.
"When we talk about the fight against terrorism and its allies, and when we talk about guaranteeing the security and tranquillity of all, we are not talking about fantasies," Aznar said.
"We are talking about realities," the prime minister said. "And I hope and wish that what has happened today in Catalonia will help many people to take note that we are not talking about hypothetical dangers or remote dangers. We are talking about something in front of us, that we have to fight against."