MADRID, Spain (CNN) — Spanish police have arrested 20 suspected Islamic terrorists for alleged recruitment and indoctrination of so-called “holy warriors” to be sent to fight in Iraq, according to Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso.
The suspects are believed to have formed two cells, one based near Barcelona that recruited and sent would-be suicide bombers to Iraq and another based in Madrid that sent so-called “holy warriors” to fight as insurgents, the Interior Ministry said in a statement issued after the minister’s news conference in Madrid.
The cell near Barcelona allegedly was in charge of recruiting and sending an Algerian man to carry out a suicide bombing at Nasiriyah, Iraq on November 12, 2003. That attack killed 12 Italian military police, five Italian troops, two Italian civilians and nine Iraqis, according to the ministry statement.
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Spanish and Italian police collaborated on this part of the investigation, the statement said.
In addition, investigators think a Moroccan man possibly recruited by a Spanish cell fought in Iraq for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of al Qaeda in Iraq. The Moroccan was subsequently detained in Syria and sent back to his home country, Alonso said.
The suspects arrested include 16 Moroccans, three Spaniards, a Turk and an Algerian, Alonso said.
The Algerian is the suspected leader of the Madrid cell and he earlier received terrorist training in Afghanistan, the statement said.
“They were in an organization dedicated to international terrorism and linked to al Qaeda,” Alonso said at the news conference, held at Interior Ministry headquarters.
He said some of the suspects also allegedly provided financing, forged documents and other logistical support to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group — which authorities say had a key role in the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed 191 people — and also to the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat.
The Spanish cells also had links to terrorists in France, Belgium, Holland, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, Alonso said.
Police arrested 16 of the suspects near Barcelona in the town of Vilanova y la Geltru, Alonso said, the location of one of the suspected terrorist cells.
Spanish media reports said the imam of the town’s only mosque was among those arrested but Alonso did not immediately confirm that.
The other suspected cell was based in Madrid, where police made three arrests. The final suspect was detained in the town of Lasarte, in Spain’s northern Basque region.
The Madrid cell, Alonso said, not only recruited so-called “holy warriors” to be sent to Iraq, but also facilitated the transit of suspected terrorists from North Africa through Spain to Iraq, and back.
Police searched 30 homes and locales after the arrests. They found no immediate evidence that the suspects were planning an “imminent attack” in Spain, Alonso said.
But Alonso added that investigators “can’t rule out that they could have carried out attacks in Europe or in Spain,” because the cells disrupted Tuesday had a “higher level” of preparation than other suspected terrorist cells disrupted in Spain in recent months.
Last month, police arrested 18 suspected Islamic terrorists – also on suspicion of recruiting “holy warriors” to fight against Western forces in Iraq. A judge later filed preliminary charges against all of them but ordered only six of the 18 to remain in jail.
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