Three suspected Al Qaeda terrorists arrested in Spain last week could have been planning to launch a devastating attack on a busy Gibraltar shopping centre from the air.
Spanish security services suspect the trio – two Chechen Russians and a Turk – were planning to assault the British colony to the south of Spain from above.
The exact date of the alleged planned attack is unknown – but Spanish media today suggested launching it during the Olympics would have guaranteed maximum publicity for the terror organisation.
And El País newspaper has reported how the Turkish ‘facilitator of the cell’ Cengiz Yalcin was a keen paraglider and model aeroplane enthusiast and was learning how to fly.
He was also paying for the two Russians of Chechen descent – Eldar Magomedov, who is said to be a former member of Soviet Union Special Forces, and Mohamed Ankari Adamov – to learn how to pilot a small plane.
Yalcin is also said to have asked his paragliding instructor for aerial photographs of a Gibraltar shopping mall ‘whatever the cost’.
He said it was for works that his construction firm, for whom he had worked for several years, was about to embark on.
And Spanish investigators today also said they had found a video where Yalvin was flying a remote-controlled aeroplane.
At a prepared moment, the plane, one or two metres long, manouevres into a descent and lets a packet drop from inside. On the ground, El País reports, Yalcin is seen celebrating the feat.
Despite today’s press coverage, no mention was made in yesterday’s report by Judge Pablo Ruiz into whether the suspects may have been planning a terror attack using paragliders.
But the Judge did detain indefinitely the Russians yesterday and charged them with belonging to an unnamed terror organisation and possession of explosives.
He also said Yalcin, the Turkish engineer who worked in Gibraltar for years and was arrested in the same case, had paid for Spanish paragliding lessons for the men.
He said in a statement there was evidence linking them with ‘belonging to or forming part of a terrorist organisation’.
The terror group was not specified, but Spanish authorities previously said it was Al Qaeda, and the Islamic network has many affiliates.
The two Russians were driven to the court in dark unmarked government cars under tight security yesterday morning, escorted by police officers wearing masks to hide their identities.
Judge Pablo Ruz ordered both jailed incommunicado and indefinitely until a date is set for court proceedings, the court statement said.
Ruz said he decided to approve the charges after reviewing evidence provided by the U.S. Justice Department.
It included information from a witness currently under government protection, French judicial authorities and the police services of Gibraltar and Russia.
The Turk was charged Friday with the possession of explosives and a device that could be used in a terror attack. He was also placed under preventive detention under Spain’s anti-terror laws.
Yalcin worked for years in the construction industry in Gibraltar and the explosive material was seized at his property in the south-western Spanish city of La Linea, just across the border from the British colony and naval base. There was enough to blow up a bus, sources said.
The judge’s statement said the two Russians had also been living in La Linea, and that other evidence seized from Yalcin included passport photographs of the Russians and other videos that could suggest preparation for a terror attack.
Evidence provided by Russia linked Magomedov with international terrorist organisations and said that he had been in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2010, the statement said.
Ruz’s statement said evidence from the U.S. revealed that Magomedov may have acted under the pseudonym of Muslin Dost.
It said he had been involved in terrorist activity in 2010 in Afghanistan and Waziristan, a lawless mountainous region in the northwest of Pakistan known as a terror training ground.
Both men travelled to France before entering Spain in April or May this year, where they stayed in La Linea. While there both men allegedly took paragliding lessons paid for by Yalcin, the judge said.
The Russians were allegedly heading back to France when police moved in to arrest them in the central city of Ciudad Real.
Neither had any identification documents but each is known by several aliases, the statement said.
While Ruz’s statement did not reveal the name of the terror organisation the Russians are suspected of belonging to, it said both ‘partially acknowledged’ links to it.
Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz on Thursday described the Russians as suspected Al Qaeda members and said the Turk was suspected of being a facilitator for them.
Yalcin was arrested on Thursday in La Linea while the Russians were nabbed on Wednesday as they traveled by bus from the southern city of Cadiz toward the French border crossing at Irun.
Cadiz is very close to the large U.S. military base in Rota alongside the Mediterranean.
Fernando Reinares, a former senior anti-terrorism adviser to the Spanish government, said evidence uncovered so far shows ‘this isn’t a case of an independent home-grown radicalised cell.
‘This is a local facilitator and two operatives coming from abroad on a mission with a connection to Al Qaeda.’
Governments and experts in recent years have highlighted jihadists who radicalise on their own without direct connections to terror groups as a growing threat.
But Reinares said the Spain case underscores how organised cells with links to known groups are still dangerous.
‘The whole story is very serious,’ said Reinares, now a terror expert with the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid. ‘It shows they were trying most likely to target something from the air.’
Spanish police have arrested dozens of Al Qaeda suspects since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, and more after the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
Most Islamic-based terror arrests in Spain over the last several years have been of lower-level players and people trying to recruit jihadists.
But the detention of the Russians and the Turk was significant because of their apparent high level of training and capability, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terror expert at the Swedish National Defence College.