In the midst of an arrest operation on Wednesday of 21 people for alleged misuse of public funds to assist the Catalan independence movement, the Spanish State issued a statement alleging that Russia had offered the movement 10,000 Russian soldiers to aid their struggle. It wasn’t the only Russian connection to the Spanish police operation, which they had named Operación Volkhov.
The arrests this week form part of measures by the State against Catalan independence activists since 2017. That year, a coalition of pro-independence political parties and a huge grassroots movement in Catalonia pushed for a referendum to vote for or against an independent Catalan republic, which the pro-Spanish union opposition called on people to boycott. The Spanish State sent its police to raid Catalan regional government offices, confiscate ballot papers, search for ballot boxes (unsuccessfully) and, on the day of the Referendum itself on October 1st, to storm polling stations and beat up voters.
Since then, the Spanish State has jailed seven Catalan politicians and two leaders of grassroots movements on charges of sedition, charged senior Catalan police officers with disobedience (recently acquitted), charged activists with possession of explosives (turned out to be fireworks), other Catalan politicians – including the former President — are in exile, the current President of the regional government has been banned from holding office, 700 local town mayors are under investigation and others are facing charges arising out of strikes and acts of civil disobedience such as blocking streets and a motorway (for which one activist was charged with terrorism). The raid this week comes in addition to all those legal processes.
There is something of an irony in charging Catalan activists with misuse of public funds in pursuance of independence, given that independence is what many of the Catalan public desire but even more ironic considering the rampant corruption endemic in Spanish political circles and the Monarchy itself, the former King Juan Carlos resigning amidst allegations of financial corruption and being allowed to flee the country ahead of an investigation.
Whatever about the charges of misuse of public funds it is unlikely that most political observers will take the allegations of an offer of Russian military intervention seriously and not only because it comes from Guardia Civil intelligence, a police force maintaining the fascist Franco dictatorship for four decades and, according to many, especially Basques and Catalans, not much changed since. The notion that Russia would risk a war with the EU and the US-dominated NATO, in order to help free a nation of 7.5 million people nowhere near its own territory, must be laughable.
For those facing charges, under investigation, in exile or already in jail, the situation is not humorous. And then there is the sinister name of the police operation. During WW2, General Franco, dictator of a neutral Spain sent fascist volunteers to aid the Axis in Europe, many of them fighting on the Russian front. Franco had quite recently led a successful military-fascist uprising against the Spanish left-wing Popular Front Government, for which he had been aided by Nazi German and Fascist Italian armament and men. His victory was followed by a repression that left Spain with more mass graves than anywhere else other than Cambodia. The Spanish volunteers to fight Soviet communism formed the Blue Division – blue, from the colour of the Falangist shirts and uniforms.
SPANISH FASCISTS ON THE VOLKHOV FRONT
Among the Nazi German forces in the Volkhov region were the men of the Blue Division and it seems they carried out a successful night crossing of the Volkhov River on 18th October 1941. A subsequent Red Army advance in January 1942 failed ultimately because not all the components of the operation had advanced according to plan. In August 1942 the Blue Division was transferred north to take part in the Siege of Leningrad, on the south-eastern flank of the German Army.
However in February of that 1943, operations on the Volkhov Front formed Part of the Red Army plan to first break the siege of Leningrad and then trap Nazi forces in encirclement. According to what seems a Spanish-sympathetic Wikipedia account of the battle at Krasny Bor, in the vicinity of Volkov, the Blue Division fought stubbornly from 10-13 February 1943. On February 15, the Blue Division reported casualties of 3,645 killed or wounded and 300 missing or taken prisoner, which amounted to a 70–75% casualty rate of the troops engaged in the battle. The remnants were relieved and moved back towards the rear.
Red Army casualties were much higher and, although forces attacking well-fortified positions backed by good artillery and tanks, all of which the Nazis had, can expect to lose three attackers for every one defender, Russian analysis later blamed bad leadership, ineffective use of artillery and clumsy use of tanks for their losses.
A Spanish police force evoking today the memory of Spain’s fascist troops in WW2 might seem ominous but to those who believe that the Spanish ruling class and their police force have never ceased to be fascist, the only surprise will be its effrontery. To the Guardia Civil, the fighting in the vicinity of Volkhov in October 1941 might seem the finest hour of the Blue Division but they might do well to remember that effectively it also met its end there in 1943: the Division ceased to exist and was reformed as the Blue Legion, soon afterwards to be disbanded, some soldiers absorbed into the Waffen SS and others withdrawn home.
RUSSIAN TROOPS FOR CATALONIA?
Fast forwarding to the present, the Russians, at least in their Embassy in Madrid, treated the allegation of their offering troops to support Catalan independence as a joke. The following post in Spanish appeared on their electronic notice and comment board (translated):
Note: The information that appeared in the Spanish media about the arrival of 10,000 Russian soldiers in Catalonia is incomplete. It is necessary to add a further two zeros to the number of soldiers and the most shocking thing of all this conspiracy: the troops were to be transported by “Mosca” and “Chato” planes assembled in Catalonia during the Civil War and hidden in a safe place in the Catalan Sierra (mountain range) until they received the encrypted order to act through these publications.
A representative of the Irish (Fine Gael) Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade last night not only called for non-interference in the “internal affairs” of the Spanish State but defended the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the “independent Spanish judiciary”. She was answering a question regarding the Spanish State and Catalan independence movement and her stance was supported by representatives of the two other traditional parties of Irish Government, Fianna Fáil and Labour. Five Teachtaí Dála, elected members of the Irish Parliament, argued passionately against them.
THE VOICES OF THE ESTABLISHMENT
This was Minister’s Question time, when Ministers (or their representatives) appear in the Chamber to answer questions about areas of the remit of their Departments and earlier, Ministers had been quizzed about areas of childcare, social care funding, local government funding ……
The Dáil chamber looked mostly deserted but in the public gallery sat a score of Catalans and some Irish, listening intently. Normally, these sessions are attended only by the TDs asking the questions and the relevant Ministerial spokesperson – and only for the question being asked. And of course also in attendance is the Ceann Comhairle, the presiding person acting as Chair – and secretaries. Sometimes by members of the media but by no means always, since reporters can monitor the televised broadcasts of the session.
The Minister’s reply on the question of Catalan self-determination delivered by Minister of State Helen McEntee TD followed a predictable pattern – predictable because it is so often trotted out: the Irish and Spanish Governments have a long history of good relations and friendly links, lots of Irish people go there on holidays, lots of people from there come to Ireland every year, Spain is a democracy, its constitution must be abided by, it would be wrong to interfere in its internal affairs. Inclusions to that in litany in recent times are that the question of Catalonia is emotive throughout the Spanish State and that Catalan society is divided over it, that the rule of law must be upheld and that violence has no place in politics.
The Fianna Fáil representative, Seán Haughey TD, echoed that line, adding also that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 is unitary and does not allow any part to become independent. He also quoted some survey results that he claimed indicated that support for independence was now in a minority among Catalans.
The Labour Party representative, Jan O’Sullivan TD, went further and specifically supported the present Government of her “sister party in Spain”, the PSOE and suggested that the “inflexible” previous government of Rajoy (of the PP) had helped to bring the current situation about and that Sanchez, the Prime Minister, would help calm the whole situation down. The only concessions she made were to suggest that the lengthy jail sentences were perhaps not the best way to deal with the issue and to include the police by mention in her call for “end to violence by all sides”. However, she went further than others in the Establishment parties with a specific condemnation of the jailed activists when she said that “it is not acceptable for politicians to lead citizens into conflict”.
“Reactionary Spanish nationalism”
The first TD to speak in reply to the Establishment politicians was Eoin Ó Broin, a comparatively recent Sinn Féin Deputy (2016) for Dublin Mid-West. Ó Broin was in Catalonia as one of the international observers of the Catalan Referendum on Independence on 1st October, which was attacked by Spanish police with around 1,000 Catalans injured.1
Speaking about his experiences there, Ó Broin related his meeting with 83-year-old Antonio, bruised and with his fractured arm in a sling, beaten while trying to vote earlier that day, queuing again at a polling station in Barceloneta. The SF TD spoke about what he had seen there and the “increasingly reactionary Spanish nationalism”, then went on to list the elected politicians and their jail sentences. Denying it was an internal matter for Spain, Ó Broin said it was about human rights and required international independent mediation. The Dáil would be implicitly in collusion with the Spanish Government if it left the matter to internal resolution only.
“The working class are the incorruptible heirs …”
Paul Murphy TD, a socialist activist2 who has recently left the Socialist Party of Ireland to form a platform called Rise, shared speaking time with Eoin Ó Broin. Calling for a “reality check” he said that jailing politicians and activists for organising a peaceful ballot could hardly be the work of a normal democracy. Responding to the Labour Party spokesperson with regard to the Spanish PSOE Prime Minister, he said that “Sanchez is in Government” and that he was “sending thousands of troops and police” to suppress the Catalan independence movement and mounting “a publicity campaign” to blame the convicted leaders.
The Spanish Government would one day come to be haunted, Murphy said, by the words of James Connolly in 19143 when he said:
“If you strike at, imprison or kill us, out of our graves or prisons we will still evoke a spirit that will thwart you, and perhaps, create a force that will rise up and destroy you. We defy you! Do your worst.”
Murphy said that the Catalan popular movement was impressive with their demonstrations, marches and the recent general strike. Against that, the Spanish police and army were carrying out “a campaign of terror” injuring hundreds and anyone who didn’t believe it only had to go on line and see the videos. “Francoism is baring its ugly head”, Murphy said and pointed out that the Spanish legal systems is riddled with a contempt for democracy, echoed by those at the top in the European Union.
The recent Catalan General Strike, according to Murphy, “showed the way forward” and he quoted again from Connolly, that “the working class are the incorruptible heirs of Irish freedom”. The Spanish State had a long history of suppression of national self-determination, including those of the Basques, Murphy said and the way forward would be for a voluntary socialist federation.
“The judicialisation of politics”
Next to speak was Thomas Pringle, Independent TD for Donegal since 2011, with a socialist Irish Republican background, a member of Sinn Féin for few years but who left the party in 2004. He opened his contribution by referring to “the judicialisation of politics” in the Spanish state and, in reference to the scale of the Spanish repression, mentioned the 700 Catalan town mayors who await judicial process due to their support for the Catalan Referendum in 2017.
Pringle said the Spanish Constitution purported to guarantee the rights of different people within the state, which would be a joke if the reality were not so grim. “The EU continues to ignore” what is going on in its member Spanish State, “as it did in the Six Counties,” he said.
“Catalonia in 2019 is Ireland a century ago”
“Self-determination is a human right,” said the next to speak: Peadar Tóibín, TD for Meath West since 2011, who left Sinn Féin in 2018 and went on to form Aontú in January 2019. Tóibín reminded all that the First Dáil had sent out a call to the world for recognition of Irish independence in 1919 and that most states had not done so then4.
“Catalonia in 2019 is Ireland a hundred years ago”, Tóibín said and went on to say that if the Irish Government remained silent on repression by the Spanish State then it shared culpability for it.
“ … a short memory in this House”
“We sometimes have a short memory in this House” said Mattie McGrath when it was his turn to speak, a TD since 2007 who has been an Independent since he left the Fianna Fáil party in 2011. McGrath referred to the recent long war in the north-east of Ireland and said that conflict resolution process was the only way to resolve the issue.
McGrath referred to Clare Daly (elected MEP this year after being a socialist TD for some years) and her statements on the issue. “Self-determination is a fundamental human right”, McGrath said, and went on to speak about “the right of freedom of assembly”, which was under attack by the Spanish State.
“Ireland is a small island nation”, Mc Grath said, “very sympathetic to the rights of people” (apparently contrasting this to the attitude of the Establishment in the Dáil).
In the time allowed by procedure for final response from the Minister, her representative reiterated the position she had outlined earlier and, though she conceded that most of the Catalan demonstrations had been peaceful, said that some recent “scenes of violence” had been “of concern”.
Fianna Fáil‘s origins are in the split with Sinn Féin led by De Valera in 1926 over the question of taking seats in the “partitionist” Irish parliament, the Dáil, and rapidly became the preferred party of the native Irish capitalist class, having been in government since more than any other Irish party.
The origins of Fine Gael, currently in minority Government at the tolerance of Fianna Fáil, has its origin in the setting up of the Irish State after the War of Independence and represents the victors of the Civil War against the Republicans. It was composed of a coalition of a right-wing Irish Republican party (followers of Michael Collins, Griffiths etc), a small right-wing farmer’s party and the fascist Blueshirts (a name by which FG are still often called by their enemies).
Hard to believe today, the Irish Labour Party was founded by, among others, James Connolly and is the oldest of the three parties. A progressive party in the early days, it was not a participant in the Civil War, during which its representatives criticised the Free State Government about its abuse of civil rights, repression, large-scale arrests, internment without trial, torture and murder. Over the years it lost more and more of its socialist credentials and has been in coalition government with the right-wing Fine Gael on two separate occasions. The main trade unions in Ireland retain connections to the Labour Party, with the possible exception of the rapidly-growing British-based UNITE.
The supposed inviolability of the Spanish Constitution of 1798 is one of the questions at the heart of the matter. The boast of the Spanish Government and its supporters abroad is that the majority of the people within the Spanish State voted for it. Well, so they did, except in the Basque Country – but what of it? If in a wedding, one of the partners says “I do”, does that mean that person is forever forbidden from leaving? Do we not have the right to divorce acknowledged now in most states around the world and certainly in “the democracies”? If one agrees to join a club or organisation, does that mean one can never choose to leave? Well, maybe in the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra ….
Furthermore, that monarchist Constitution was put forward to a population that had endured four decades of fascist dictatorship, with the collusion of the allegedly socialist and republican PSOE and the allegedly communist and republican Communist Party of Spain, restraining their trade union and party members in the wave of state repression and murders during the Transition to “democracy”. Isn’t there something about the invalidity of agreements made under duress?
The issue of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state is a bogus one, since all governments do that at one time and another and Irish governments and political parties are no exception. In 1936, the representatives of Fine Gael loudly supported the military-fascist uprising led by Franco against the democratically-elected Government of the Spanish State. The Irish Government of Fianna Fáil did nothing to prevent the Blueshirts going off to fight for Franco and the Bishops of the Irish Catholic Church blessed them as they sailed off. The reality is that states that agree with one another generally do not interfere in one another’s internal affairs.
The constant mantra of reference to “the rule of law” and the condemnation of “violence in politics” is not only an irrelevance but turning truth on its head. It was not illegal according to the Spanish Constitution or laws to hold a referendum on independence 5. It is also against the Spanish law to use violence against others and even the police are not legally empowered to do so except in self-defence or in defence of others. On October 1st the actions of the Spanish police had 1,000 people requiring treatment and another few hundred have been injured in recent days. The Internet is full of videos of different incidents of gratuitous Spanish police violence, often the perpetrators showing no fear of being filmed – clearly because Spanish (and more recently, Catalan) police know they have impunity. Recently, however, it seems that some Spanish police have become sensitive to being filmed during their violent acts and have begun to target photo-journalists, both with personal violence and with rubber bullets.
A total of five people have now lost an eye from the impact of the rubber bullets of the Spanish police. Apart from the fact that these are banned in Catalonia, the bullets are supposed to be fired to ricochet and not directly at people, nor are they supposed to be fired at close quarters. Clearly, the rules are not being adhered to and nobody is enforcing them, granting impunity to the Spanish police.
When the representative of the Minister for Foreign Affairs acknowledged the overall peaceful nature of Catalan independence demonstrations but expressed concern over some recent scenes of violence, what was she really saying? It was this: that the violence of the police against the peaceful demonstrators could continue but the victims using force in defence or in retaliation is a cause for concern!
1 Eoin Ó Broin, often described as on the (small) left wing of Sinn Féin (a wing badly needed by that party) has in the past had relations with the Abertzale Left in the Basque Country and wrote a book on the movement there in his time, Matxinada – Basque Nationalism and Radical Basque Youth Movements. He is also author of Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism.
2 Paul Murphy has been, while a Socialist Party TD, dragged by police out of a housing protest and with others faced serious charges arising out of a protest about Irish water against a Labour Party Minister, of which he and the others were acquitted by the jury after an infamous trial. He remains in the PBP-Solidarity parliamentary coalition.
3 James Connolly (1868-1916) was at that time active in the Irish Labour Party and leader of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, which was struggling to recover from an 8-month fight against a group of employers that had set out to crush the union (Dublin Lockout). Connolly was a revolutionary socialist, republican, journalist, historian, author and organiser and was horrified by the very idea of the First World War which began in 1914. He was shot dead by British firing squad, along with other leaders and some others of the 1916 Rising.
4 This reference seems particularly appropriate. In January 1919 the majority of MPs elected in Ireland in the UK General Elections of December 1918, carried out the “Sinn Féin” platform’s election promise not to go to Westminster and convened a parliament in Dublin. This is known as “The First Dáil” even by the Irish State, which numbers its parliaments from then onwards. The First Dáil declared independence and called on the states of the world to recognise Irish independence (see References) but only the young USSR did so. Ireland had no legal right under British law to break away from the UK unless it were agreed by majority in Westminster (where the Irish MPs would always be outnumbered by the British). The First Dáil was banned by the British in September of that year and its members were arrested if they could be found.
5 Though possibly the declaration of Republic was – but that was suspended in less than five minutes.
The “Global Spain” initiative of the Spanish State to 215 Spanish embassies and its sub-title “Touch Democracy” was presented to a small audience at the Instituto Cervantes in Dublin on Monday while Catalan and Basque solidarity demonstrators picketed outside.
While some people, perhaps in the know, were directed straight to the auditorium, a number of others, not regular users of the Instituto’s services, were asked to wait in another area but when the start time had been exceeded by 20 minutes without sign of the event, they went to make enquiries again at Reception and learned where the event was being held, entering to find it had already started.
Mr. Ildefonso Castro,the Spanish State’s Ambassador to Ireland was speaking and shortly launched the event with a showing of a short video which, he said, would bring out the main questions in the initiative. In this video, Lucía Mendez, journalist for the right-wing Spanish daily El Mundo seemed to be interviewing Gabriela Ybarra about the novel she had written (The Dinner Guest). But actually later in the film Mendez began a speech about how good was the Spanish democracy while her interviewee was left with little to say. The author had said earlier that though her grandfather (a Mayor of Bilbao who had fought in Franco’s Army and supported the Dictator regime, not mentioned in the video), had been killed by the Basque armed group ETA in 1973, this was not discussed in her family. She felt that the memory of “terrorism” was disappearing and that children in school were not being taught about it, which is why she wrote her book.
In fact, Spanish media constantly refers in negative terms to ETA and a 2016 case of a brawl between Basque youth and off-duty Spanish policemen in a late-night bar, in which no-one was seriously hurt and no weapons used, was being treated in the media and by the State Prosecutors as a case of terrorism! Although the judge rejected the accusation of “terrorism”, in 2018 the youth receive a range of sentences between two and 13 years jail. An important part of the silence and lack of teaching children history is in fact about the almost four decades of Franco dictatorship and the conduct of the victors in the military-fascist uprising against the democratically-elected government of the Spanish Popular Front in 1936. And of the State assassinations and torture of captured ETA fighters and arrested Basque activists. And of the continued legal battles to uncover mass graves of Franco’s victims and try to identify the remains for the relatives.
Considering that ETA ceased its armed activities in 2012 and has since dissolved itself, the relevance and intention of the film seems to be to show an embattled Spanish “democracy”, fighting against Basque independentist “terrorism” in the past as it is now embattled with the Catalan independentists (seven activists of which it has also accused of “terrorism” a couple of weeks ago).
DISCUSSION BUT NO DEBATE
There was no discussion on the content of the film and, after its end, Víctor Andresco Peralta, Director of the Instituto Cervantes, cultural body of the Spanish Embassy, took to the stage and invited five people by name to take chairs laid out around a table. Launching into a chatty monologue full of jokey self-deprecatory comments (so many that they were actually self-promotional), he eventually asked his questions of his picked panel.
Questions included what were their earliest memories of consciousness of being Spanish, what reactions they had received about Spain from people in Ireland, or in other countries (positive and negative), what they valued about Spain, what they thought about the coup attempt in 1981 (lots of jokes about that), etc.
Referring to his father’s recent stay in hospital, Peralta asked for comparison of the Spanish health service with the Irish one (apparently the former is far better, which would not be difficult) and for other comparisons.
The discussion was skillfully managed by the showmaster to bring his group to paint a picture of a wonderful pluralist Spanish State, of freedom of expression, and of a democracy which had been able to defeat the coup attempt without much difficulty but even so, some discourse arose at times to shake the equilibrium, as when one referred to a relative telling him about the horrors of the Francoist suppression as they entered Barcelona and when another referred to the perception (mistaken, of course!) of many people outside Spain that the State was undemocratic and had violent police.
One of the panel, who appears to be an employee of the Spanish State, said she was proud of the defeat of ETA by the “Spanish democracy”. Another said she was proud of Spanish history and culture, without explaining further. She might have meant the foremost writer of Castillian-language literature, Cervantes himself, who was exiled from the Spanish kingdom because of his anti-feudal views. Or the Andalusian poet Federico Lorca, who was executed by Franco’s soldiers; or the Malagan artist in exile Picasso, who created the famous painting of the Nazi and Fascist aerial bombing of Gernika (most of the poets, writers and artists of the era were against the military-fascist coup and the four decades of dictatorship that followed). Or about the dramatist Alfonso Sastre, whose distaste for the Spanish State’s behaviour towards the Basques was such that he moved to the Basque Country.
Perhaps the woman was proud of the defeat of the learned and tolerant Moorish colony of Al Andalus and its replacement by the racist Spanish Christian Inquisition, along with the expulsion of Arabs and Jews? Or of the centuries-long suppression of the governments of the Basques, Galicians and Catalans, along with their languages? Or of the invasion, massacre, enslavement and plunder of the indigenous people of America, the Caribbean and the Philippines? Or the invasion and colonisation of the Rif in North Africa, when the French saved the Spanish colony after the Spanish army had been wiped out by lesser-armed (and often less numerous) Berber guerrillas.
Of course she might have been referring to the revolt of the Reapers in Catalonia or of the Comuneros in Castille; or of the resistance of Spanish, Catalans and Basques to the military-fascist coup and the four decades of dictatorship …. We don’t know because she did not say.
WHAT ABOUT THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION?
The event had been advertised as a debate but no debate took place. Nor was there a question-and-answer session, nor engagement with the audience except to send them witty asides from Peralta and to thank them at the end.
This was too much for at least one of the small audience, an Irishman who interrupted the concluding remarks of the Director by saying, in Castillian (Spanish) that it was a pity that the question of self-determination had not been discussed. The event was taking place in Ireland, he commented, where another state had denied the people the right to self-determination on grounds of that state’s constitution also. Denied permission to exercise their right, the Irish people had to fight for it and eventually won part-independence.
Peralta commented that the Spanish people were cognizant of Irish history and appreciated it.
The Irishman replied that in the Spanish state things were the complete opposite.
Peralta commented that unfortunately there was no time left for that debate, thanked participants and audience and brought the event to a close.
WHAT WAS THE POINT?
Outside the meeting up to dozen protesters had taken up positions on both sides of the street. On the Trinity College side a couple of protesters stood beside portraits of the Catalan grass-roots activists and politicians who are in jail awaiting sentence or in exile. On the Instituto side, a larger group of protesters held two banners and a Basque Antifa flag.
One of the Catalan supporters, an Irishwoman, addressed several of the panel participants as they exited. It emerged that they had not understood the nature of the event and that they thought it had to do with October 12th, which is a Spanish State celebration of its former empire and spreading of the Castillian language1(and for which one of the panel, who seems to work for the Instituto, is organising an event in Rathmines). They said they had not seen the “Global Spain” publicity (81 pages of propaganda justifying the actions of the Spanish State and attacking the principle of Catalan self-determination and the pro-independence movement!).
There was in truth not much point in attending the event unless one wanted receive a smooth-talking patter about an imaginary State occupying most of the Iberian Peninsula. For the protesters, it was important to give a response to the paint-over job. For the producers of the show, the importance was to try to distract an Irish audience from the reality of what is an unreconstructed fascist state with a thin veneer of democracy that is constantly peeling away.
1El Dia de la Hispanidad was formerly called “El Dia de la Raza Española” (Day of the Spanish Race). It is also the Spanish Armed Forces Day, obviously not inappropriately in context!
Recently the left-wing Spanish on-line newspaper, Publico, got a scoop on other media when it broke the story of the Spanish secret service and the terrorist1 cell in Catalonia, the one that carried out the killing spree in La Rambla in Barcelona in October 2017. Publico revealed that the head of the cell had been recruited as an informant while in jail on drug smuggling charges and that the secret service had helped him become an imam, a Muslim priest, in the province of Girona. Not only that but that they had the photos and mobile phone numbers of a number of the Ramblas terrorists and had been following them up to days before the attack.
So why had the whole lot not been apprehended? It’s a question many people are asking, along with the Catalonian and many foreign newspapers – but, strangely, only one of the main Madrid newspapers.
THE LEADER OF THE TERRORISTS WAS WORKING FOR THE SPANISH SECRET POLICE
Abdelbaki Es Satty came to the Spanish State in 2002 and was around 44 years of age when he died in an explosion in Catalonia. According to Wikipedia,
“Es Satty was implicated in the 2006 Operation Chacal, in which five Islamists were arrested for sending jihadis to fight in Iraq.From 2003 he had shared an apartment with Islamists connected to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group(GICM) and the 2003 Casablanca bombings.
“In 2012, (he) completed a four-year prison sentence for drug trafficking in Castellón. While in prison, he is reported to have established a “special friendship” with Rachid Aglif, who was serving an 18-year sentence for his role in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
“He was convicted of drug smuggling in 2014 and was to be deported from Spain, but …… A successfulasylum application in November 2014 facilitated him moving freely in the 26 EU countries of the Schengen area.”
The suggestion in the Publico articles is that Es Satty was recruited by the Spanish secret service (CNI) while in jail and that they ensured that he was not deported, also that they assisted him in getting employed as an imam (a Muslim priest) at the mosque in Ripol in 2015, a post he suddenly resigned in June of 2017. Ripol is a town in the province of Girona, Catalonia.
Publico now reports that the CNI file on Es Satty has been “wiped”!
On the evening of 16 October 2017, El Satys and another man were killed, presumably by a premature explosion while handling the material. There were over 120 gas canisters which appeared stored for a number of terrorist bombs. The explosion occurred in the town of Alcanar, the southernmost of Catalonia and almost on the border with the province of Valencia.
When other in the cell heard that El Satys had been killed and another with him while handling the explosives, it seems they decided on a ‘revenge’ spree to honour their ‘martyr’ and carried out the attacks on innocent civilians in Catalonia.
La Rambla is in Barcelona city centre, a medium-length wide street heading towards the port, with a tree-shaded pedestrian reservation down the middle, where stalls sell all kinds of ware and coffees, snacks etc. It is a favourite destination of tourists (and pickpockets).
On the late afternoon of 17 October, a member of the terrorist cell driving a van zigzagged down the Rambla, running down pedestrians and cyclists. During his escape from the scene, he hijacked a car and fatally stabbed the driver, bringing his total death-toll to 15 and injuring 131.
Later that evening, five men, apparently of the same cell, purchased knives and an axe and, at 1.00 am, drove into the Catalonian coastal town of Cambrils (not far from the popular tourist destination of Salou) and into a crowd of pedestrians, where they fatally stabbed a 63-year old woman and injured another six, before being shot by Catalan police. Four died at the scene and the fifth later of his injuries.
On 21st August, five days after the Alcanar explosion and four after the Barcelona massacre, the Rambla killer was fatally shot by the Mossos, the Catalan police, in Subirats, about 25 miles (40 Km) from Barcelona.
Initially, Catalan police believed the first violent event, the Alcanar explosion, had been caused by an accidental gas leakage but once they discovered the explosions and other events had occurred, connected them. Not only did the Spanish secret service, the CNI, fail to inform the Catalan police about the existence of this cell prior to the Alcanar explosion but it seems that at no time during the subsequent operations of the Catalan police did the CNI give them any information whatsoever.
THE DIRTY WORLD OF STATE SECRET SERVICES
Secret services penetrate cells and movements opposed to the status quo as a matter of course, whether they have an armed agenda or not. But when they do have such an agenda, typically they try to recruit some inside people for information, building up a wider and more detailed picture as time goes on. This takes time and meanwhile the informants’ ‘handlers’ will typically give their insider ‘asset’ money, protect him or her from prosecution, feed the informant’s fear or ego – or both.
As not-so-distant history shows with the British and US secret services (and probably all others around the world), these informants are permitted to break the law, even to kill, in order to keep up their cover. Yes and even to kill another, less-valued or more exposed informant, as the British had at least one informant do inside the Provisional IRA.
But it goes even further and informants or deep-cover agents also often act as agents provocateurs. They actually incite people around them to carry out armed actions. This can vary from encouraging them to attack where, unknown to the victims, the state forces are ready and waiting to kill them, as is believed happened at Loughgall, in occupied Co. Armagh in 1987. The informant can also be used to incite a group of political activists to carry out armed actions to facilitate the breaking up of the organisation2. Or to set off bombs that will, intentionally or not, kill uninvolved civilians, thereby losing insurgents popular support. Or that might set off inter-communal violence in an occupied country.
And religion-based organisations have long been recognised by secret services as useful opposition to leftist national liberation movements. Or against the USSR, for example, when the latter were invited into Afghanistan by the ruling circles. They may also be used to incite inter-communal violence in a country occupied by a foreign power or to help overthrow a ruling group which a foreign power wishes to replace with another more amenable to the power concerned — or in a country it wishes to invade.
The role of the Phalangist militias, Christian, in Lebanon is well-known, in their war against the growing power of the Muslim community. The CIA and Israel3 armed the Phalangists and encouraged them in their attacks Lebanese Muslims and on Palestinian refugee camps, not only against fighters but also massacres of the elderly, women and children. The CIA funded, supplied and even often trained Islamic fundamentalist jihadists4 and warlord bands in Afghanistan, Al Qhaeda among them, as they did also in Iraq. They did it in Syria too but ended up having to fight one such jihadist group, ISIS, which threatened to take the whole cake and the commanders of which were unpredictable in terms of future policy. But many of the war bands in the NATO-led Alliance fighting Assad and ISIS were themselves Jihadists too.
SUSPICIONS AND SILENCE
There are many people within the Spanish state territory that distrust the State and Catalans, due in particular to their recent experiences, would figure prominently among them. When Publico broke the story about the CNI and their close connection to the terrorist cell, it was inevitable that speculation would take off and that it would not stop at the secret service’s ineptitude.
Some thought that the original intention had been to discredit the Mossos, who were later accused by some Spanish politicians of not cooperating fully with the Spanish police operations against Catalan independence campaigners. Presumably the explosions planned by the terrorist cell would leave the Catalan police looking useless.
Another theory went that explosions would be blamed in some way on the Catalan independence movement, which has until the present been remarkably peaceful in the face of Spanish police violence. In fact Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time of the Madrid train bombing by another cell, immediately blamed the bombing on the Basque armed group ETA. When it was proven to be an Islamist fundamentalist cell, his false claim contributed to his party losing the elections soon afterwards.
No doubt there were other theories speculated also and the response from Madrid did not help to quell them.
Many commentators have wondered at the Spanish state’s silence on the matter but even more so at the silence of all but one of the Madrid main newspaper. Surely this is a really big story? If the Government says that “it’s not a big issue (for them) to investigate”, would one not expect the Spanish media to be hounding them? That media silence is, really, the most puzzling aspect. One can readily see that the Government might not want to expose the ineptitude and dirty work of their State’s secret service … but the media?
The only answer that makes any sense is its Catalonia connection, that all locations in which the events occurred are in Catalonia. And that the independence movement for Catalonia is locked in a struggle with the Spanish unionist State. Therefore reporting on Spanish secret service ineptitude in Catalonia could well go to justify separatist wishes in Catalonia.
Or have the editors been made aware that this terrorist cell had an important role to play in that independentist conflict and asked to keep quiet? What if a campaign of terrorist massacres in Catalonia gave a plausible excuse for the Spanish State to impose emergency legislation on Catalonia, an excuse that would be thought convincing not only within the Spanish state but abroad also?5 Of course, if that was the gameplan, it did not work out for the Spanish State since the cell messed up and it was finished off by the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Escuadra.6
So, to answer the question in the title of this piece: in my opinion it is incompetence – and something else. But probably not the various “something elses” that are being most widely speculated.
However, the Spanish media silence tells us something about the Spanish state too. In what other European state would its media remain silent about its secret service penetrating a terrorist cell but then failing to prevent attacks on its citizens by members of that cell?
1The word “terrorist” is frequently applied in the mass media to a wide range of organisations employing armed, from small cells to popular movements, of a wide variety of ideological motivation ranging from fascist to communist or just national liberationist. There can even be paid terrorists, such as the Contras run by the CIA against the Sandinista-run Nicaragua. Even some animal liberation organisations have come under this term and, indeed individuals without an organisation backing them (such as the Australian who carried out the massacre in New Zealand last year). In addition, some states have been labelled “terrorist” by others. Therefore the term cannot have a precise definition and I use it here only to describe small or larger organisations that target uninvolved civilians in order to cause terror among a population and instability among the rulers.
2British secret services did this in a case in England where they got a member of the local Sinn Féin branch (the party had branches in Britain at the time) to incite them to raise funds for the cause by carrying out a bank robbery, during which the robbers were arrested. Then he incited breaking them out of jail and that group got arrested too. After that he feared he was exposed and confessed to, strangely enough Jazz musician George Melly and then to the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). Very shortly after that he was killed, whether by the IRA or by his handlers is unclear. Though a famous case at the time several Google searches have failed to turn it up for me.
3The French may well have done so too as many of the Lebanon Christians had their origins in former French colonisation.
4From Jihad, a term meaning “struggle”, usually used in religious contexts. It can mean a moral struggle in society, within oneself or against “the enemies of Islam”, when it is sometimes characterised as a religious war, which may be defensive, or offensive (as with the Christian Crusades). In the political sense, especially when used in the West, it can be either defensive (e.g repelling or overthrowing a non-Islamic invader) or aggressive (e.g invading territories under non-Islamic rulers or under a different Islamic sect, or overthrowing such) but is always military and that is the sense in which I am employing it here.
5After the Twin Towers and other bombings by Al Qhaeda, US legislators were able to introduce the Patriot Act 2001 which gave the US State wide powers violating many civil rights.
6Whose Chief is currently on trial in Madrid, accused of undermining Spanish police operations against Catalan independentism through lack of cooperation.