Eleven suspected Islamic extremists of South Asian origin have gone on trial in Spain over an alleged plot to stage suicide attacks on the Barcelona subway system. Spanish prosecutors allege that the defendants, nine Pakistanis and two Indians, were acting on orders from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani Taliban group linked to al-Qaeda, and were motivated by their opposition to the presence of Spanish troops in Afghanistan.
Although most counterterrorism experts familiar with the details of the case say the plot was very real, the case has been mired in controversy ever since the scheme was first uncovered in January 2008.
At issue is whether the attack was really as imminent as the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero initially claimed it was; or whether Spanish security officials, facing political pressure to secure a counterterrorism victory for the incumbent Zapatero just weeks before national elections in March 2008, acted too hastily, thus interrupting an ongoing intelligence operation and leaving Spanish prosecutors with precious little hard evidence as the case now goes to trial.
Spanish authorities initially said the plot was foiled after one member of the cell who was designated to blow himself up got cold feet and warned police. Most of the accused were arrested in Barcelona on January 18, 2008, in raids during which police found some bomb-making equipment but only 20 grams — about one ounce — of explosives.
Immediately after the arrests, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido said the Zapatero government had stopped an imminent attack, which was to have been carried out during the weekend of January 18-20. But just a few days later Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said that given the small amount of explosives seized by the police, “there are doubts” about how close the cell actually was to acting.
A few days after that, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that the “informant” was really a French intelligence operative, now identified as F1, who had arrived in Barcelona on a train from France in order to infiltrate the cell. Although Spanish authorities kept F1’s name secret, they passed information about F1 on to El País, effectively outing F1’s identity to the others involved in the plot. This, in turn, infuriated French counterterrorism officials, who said Spanish haste made waste of the entire operation and also destroyed a valuable intelligence asset for future probes into Islamist activities in Europe.