RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco and Spain made seven arrests and dismantled an Islamist militant cell led by a Spanish citizen that sent fighters to “hotbeds of tension” such as Syria, officials from both countries said on Friday.
Hundreds of fighters from Morocco and other Maghreb states like Tunisia and Algeria have joined Islamist-dominated rebel forces in Syria’s civil war and North African governments fear they will pose security threats once they return home.
Spain’s interior ministry said the group’s leader, Mustafa Maya Amaya, a nationalised Spaniard born in Belgium, was arrested in Melilla along with two French citizens. Melilla is a Spanish enclave on the Mediterranean, surrounded by Morocco.
Also arrested was a Tunisian man based in Malaga, Spain and three Moroccans arrested in their own country.
Spanish Interior Minister Interior Jorge Fernandez said it was the biggest group in Europe recruiting jihadists for Syria. Some of its members had returned to Spain from conflict zones where they were involved with al Qaeda-linked organisations.
He said the cell was now completely broken up because all of its elements, including document forgers, logistics organisers and jihadists had been arrested.
“The cell was dismantled in coordination with Spanish security forces,” the Moroccan interior ministry said in a statement carried by official news agency MAP.
“Three Moroccans were arrested at the same time as the (Spanish) head of the cell and his acolytes have been arrested by the Spanish security services,” it said.
The Moroccan statement said Amaya, the Spanish head of the cell just broken up, had had close ties with another cell that was linked to al Qaeda’s North African wing, known as AQIM. That cell was dismantled last year as it planned to send militants to fight in Mali and Syria.
Spain said Maya Amaya used the internet to recruit jihadists and helped them join movements such as the Al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (IDIL), al Qaeda’s Nusra Front branch in Syria, and AQIM.
Morocco, a Western ally against Islamist militancy, often says it has broken up radical cells accused of plotting inside and outside the kingdom.
It has suffered numerous bomb attacks by suspected Islamist guerrillas, most recently in 2011 in Marrakesh, but militant groups have so far failed to gain any foothold in the kingdom.
Tuesday was the tenth anniversary of the Atocha train bombing in Spain, carried out by an Islamist cell, in which 191 people died. Islamist
Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi in Rabat and Emma Pinedo in Madrid; Editing by Tom Heneghan