Three Chechens suspected of Islamist terrorist activity were arrested in France this week in a joint French-Spanish operation, Spain's Interior Ministry said Friday.
The arrests Tuesday were a follow-up to raids last August in southern Spain when police broke up a suspected three-man terrorist cell that planned attacks in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, the ministry statement said.
The August 2012 raids, in the town of Linea de la Concepcion, on the Spanish border with the British colony Gibraltar, turned up evidence that the suspected terror cell had links in France and other European countries, the ministry said.
That eventually led to the arrests Tuesday. The suspects were identified as Ali Dokaev, arrested in Noyon, 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Paris; Elsy Issakov, arrested in Les Lilas on the east side of Paris; and Mourad Idrissov, arrested in Genevieve des Bois, on the south side of Paris, the ministry said.
The alleged ringleader of the group charged with terrorist offenses in Spain, Eldar Magomedov, is from the Russian republic of Dagestan. Western intelligence services had located him in France along with a Chechen associate in the first half of 2012, according to Fernando Reinares, a senior terrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.
Magomedov, a former Russian special forces commando, had attended training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Reinares said, citing intelligence passed to Spain by other intelligence services. Between 2008 and 2011, he had operated in Dagestan and the Pakistani tribal territories of North and South Waziristan, transiting between them, Reinares said.
Western intelligence had established that Magomedov had ties to both al Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uzbek group affiliated to al Qaeda that in 2007 orchestrated a plot to kill U.S. soldiers in Germany, Reinares told CNN.
French security services tipped off their Spanish counterparts about the probable arrival of Magomedov and the Chechen associate, Muhammad Adamov, in May, according to Reinares. The French had been tracking the duo and monitoring their phone calls. At one point, they intercepted a phone call in which the two men described Spain as a "more easy country to get explosives," the analyst said.
While on French soil, Magomedov established a connection with individuals of North Caucasus origin who were under police surveillance for their involvement in a network of suspected Chechen jihadists, Reinares told CNN. He said the arrests in France this week were likely to be related to the connections Magomedov made while in France.
Magomedov and Adamov were arrested by Spanish police in August on a bus traveling toward France. Both deny the charges against them and await trial.
Reinares said the arrests in France and Spain show greater attention needs to be focused on Islamist militant networks originating from the North Caucasus.
A British counterterrorism official told CNN last year that one the most pronounced new challenges for Western intelligence services is the growing nexus between organized criminal groups from the region and terrorist groups operating on European soil.