LONDON — Spanish police have arrested eight people they suspect of recruiting militants to fight in Syria. Security forces say the network their operation broke up Friday morning is linked to al-Qaida.
The police operation was launched in Ceuta, a Spanish territory in North Africa.
Interior Ministry Jorge Fernandez Diaz said it marks a "hard blow" against international terrorism.
Spanish authorities first began investigating the network in 2009. They say it is responsible for sending dozens of combatants to al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups operating in Syria.
They say the group engaged in “funding, indoctrination, and organizing and financing travel.”
A recent report published by King’s College London said between 140 and 600 European fighters have gone to fight in Syria since the conflict began. The report said Europeans make up about 10 percent of the foreign-fighters contingent there.
Shiraz Maher is from the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization, which has collated the data.
Maher says most of the fighters come from larger European countries, including Britain, France, and Germany.
“There have been a number of factors radicalizing people, beyond the obvious sense of the brutality of the conflict and the way the conflict has been catalogued so well on open-source platforms like YouTube. That has radicalized a lot of people who have been able to see the conflict for the first time," said Maher.
He says others are people who fought in the Libyan conflict and were prepared to return to the region to fight. He says Europeans have joined other conflicts in the past, including in Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Syria has attracted a much higher number. That’s in part, he says, because of relatively easy access to the country.
“We have the free movement of people across Europe, especially with the EU you can just move right across the continent. You get to Turkey and then from Turkey to get into Syria is very easy. The borders with Lebanon and Syria are also very porous. So there are a number of easier routes into Syria than there have been in previous conflicts," he said.
Earlier this month, the European Union’s anti-terror chief said he wanted European nations to take more action to prevent their citizens from joining the Syrian conflict.
Gilles de Kerchove said member states should vet social media and keep better track of suspicious travel.
Maher says the situation poses a problem for European countries in the long term.
“What you are going to have is a number of people returning to Europe who are heavily radicalized, who have probably been brutalized by their experience in conflict and who will also be highly trained in not just how to fight but also how to put together explosives as well," he said.
The eight suspects arrested in Spain Friday have been charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. According to the Spanish media, all the detainees are Spanish citizens.