Between mid-July and mid-September, Spanish police monitoring travel across the Strait of Gibraltar detected 46 individuals suspected of being returning jihadists, according to a European Commission report. Part of a border control effort dubbed Operation Minerva, the 46 anti-jihadist alerts did not result in any arrests as there were no existing warrants against the suspects.
As part of Operation Minerva, officers from the National Police and Civil Guard were deployed at Spain’s busy seaports of Algeciras, Tarifa and Ceuta, a Spanish exclave city located on the northern coast of Africa. Law enforcement experts from 16 other EU states and observers from the United States were also present.
The European Commission report shows that for the nearly two months that Operation Minerva was in place, and during which time 1.7 million people returned to Europe in 372,000 vehicles, authorities found 220 undocumented migrants, recovered 21 stolen vehicles, confiscated 1,629 kilograms of drugs as well as weapons, and made more than 480 arrests.
The report underscores that the operation also served to open new lines of investigation into terrorist activities, after officers detected 46 individuals suspected of being returning jihadists, known by the police as foreign terrorist fighters.
Although no arrests were made, surveillance measures were introduced in some cases. “Often, databases alert us to the fact that another country is requesting information about the arrival of a suspect, or even ask us to have him discreetly followed. Sometimes we are simply asked for all possible information on the individual, to either follow up or rule out any further action,” explains a high-ranking counter-terrorism official. This source said that the 46 alerts were made because of information fed into shared databases by neighboring countries, not by Spain.
According to the counter-terrorism official, Operation Minerva triggered 53 alerts in 2018. “Among other goals, these operations aim to detect the movements of terrorists returning from combat zones following the defeat of the Islamic State,” he notes.
Operation Neptune 2
Another European surveillance operation, Neptune 2, identified 12 other suspects, nine of whom were headed for Spain. This operation, which was coordinated by Interpol and supported by Spain, France, Italy, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, focused “on the threats posed by suspected foreign terrorist fighters potentially using maritime routes between North Africa and Southern Europe during the busy summer tourist season,” according to a release by Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency.
During Operation Neptune 2, officers inspected passengers on ships, ferries and cruise liners departing or arriving at seven ports of the Western Mediterranean, including Alicante and Motril (Granada) in Spain.
“Officials carried out more than 1.2 million searches across Interpol’s databases for stolen and lost travel documents, nominal data and stolen vehicles. These resulted in 31 active investigative leads, with more than 12 of these linked to the movement of terror suspects,” said Frontex in a press release.
According to Spanish police sources, nine of these 12 individuals were headed for ports in Spain, but “they were not arrested because the countries that had sent in information about them had not issued arrest warrants.”