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The historical backdrop to Spain’s terror troubles

Why was Spain targeted by terrorists? asked the Guardian on Friday, a question that is also being posed by other media outlets. After all, Spain has not participated in the Allied bombing campaign in Syria, which according to the Daily Telegraph ‘was seen as lowering the risk that the country would be targeted by Islamic State’.

So if foreign policy isn’t to blame, could it be social deprivation, the other favourite excuse trotted out by apologists whenever there’s an Islamist attack in Europe? The identity of the bombers hasn’t been revealed but initial reports indicate that one of the ringleaders was an 18-year-old with an older brother who, judging by his social media presence, seems well-integrated into European society. This may come as a blow to the police chief who last month told El Pais newspaper why Spain hadn’t suffered at the hands of Islamists the way the French have in recent years. ‘Here we don’t have ghettos as they do in France,’ he said. ‘The integration of the Muslim population is greater, the radicalisation is not so great.’

What the police chief overlooked was that most of the Islamists who have carried out attacks in France were given every opportunity to integrate, but they chose to reject the French way of life, as did the four British suicide bombers in 2005 and the young man who followed their example at the Manchester Arena in May.

The Guardian touched on the real reason for Thursday’s attack in a brief sentence, explaining that ‘some jihadists find Spain a peculiarly atavistic target because of the country’s 700-year-long period of Moorish occupation’. The invasion was led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, who marched his army into the Iberian peninsula from North Africa in 711 and defeated Roderic, King of Hispania, in the Battle of Guadalete. For the next 700 years the Iberian peninsula belonged to Islam until the Reconquista drove out the last of the Muslim invaders in 1492.

This still rankles in the Islamic world with some scholars regarding 1492 as the year that Muslim influence began it inexorable decline. Osama Bin Laden made frequent references to the ‘tragedy of Andalusia’, and Al Qaeda justified the 2004 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people by saying ‘this is only part of the settlement of old scores with Crusader Spain’.

The loss of Andalusia to the Reconquista has also heavily influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin laden’s right-hand man and now al-Qaeda’s leader. ‘The return of Andalus to Muslim hands is a duty for the umma [Muslim community],’ he has declared in the past. Spain was targeted by the Islamists because of a grudge that goes back five hundred years,  as articulated last year by Islamic State who warned Spain: ‘We will recover our land from the invaders.’

But all this talk of ‘Crusaders’ and ‘invaders’ ignores one crucial historical fact. Who invaded who first? 1492 wasn’t about Christian imperialism, it was a reconquest of land subjugated by the Muslim invaders of seven hundred years earlier. But the Islamists never let the truth get in the way of a good Jihad.

Gavin Mortimer is a writer and historian who lives in Paris

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