Charon: the Mossos anti-terror op that was sabotaged by Spanish police

Surveillance and a tip-off by Spain’s National Police officers jeopardised the Catalan police probe

According to the Mossos d’Esquadra [the Catalan police force], a group of Islamic extremists were planning an attack on a synagogue in Barcelona, while engaged in spreading jihadi propaganda and recruiting fighters to send to Syria. The eleven members of the group were arrested on 8 April 2015 in Sabadell, Terrassa, Sant Quirze del Vallès, Barcelona and Valls. Operation Charon, named after the Greek god of the underworld, is the first and only instance of a jihadist plot to be foiled by the Mossos while the cell was actively engaged in the process of preparing attacks in Barcelona. It was also a clear case of the Spanish National Police sabotaging a terrorist investigation conducted by Catalan police.

The scandal came to light a month after the arrests, following the lifting of reporting restrictions: the Mossos claimed that one or more Spanish police officers had warned one of the alleged jihadists that they were under investigation. The then Interior Minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, responded to the accusations by saying that they were "sinking to a new low" and showing no "sense of state". His Catalan counterpart at the time, Ramon Espadaler, refused to back down. "We have clear evidence that said interference took place, in what is an extremely serious matter", he declared at a press conference.

The documents relating to the Charon case include a report by the Mossos’ Department of Information which is especially damning. It details how in October 2014 the surveillance team tasked with following the suspected terrorists became aware that the individuals were also being watched by Spanish National Police officers. They were spotted on four occasions, with their suspicions being confirmed when they checked the registration numbers of the agents’ unmarked cars: they were all owned by Spain’s Ministry of Interior.

A futile meeting

The report goes on to detail that as a result of these events, on 23 October 2015, a meeting was held between two commissioners, a deputy chief and two inspectors from the National Police and a commissioner, a superintendent, two sergeants and a deputy inspector from the Mossos. The representatives of the Catalan police explained that they were investigating a jihadist cell on the orders of Madrid’s National Court and asked the National Police not to meddle in the probe. Their Spanish counterparts agreed not to interfere, excusing the events by claiming that they were pursuing another case in Terrassa, which explained why their officers had crossed paths.

A week after the meeting, the Catalan police once again saw two Spanish police officers following one of the individuals they had under surveillance. What is more, the suspect realised that he was being followed. In November of the same year, the Catalan police officers spotted National Police officers four times and on two occasions the Spanish officers asked them to stop following the men which the Catalan operatives had under surveillance by order of a judge. According to the Mossos, on every occasion National Police senior officials were notified. In addition, since they had tapped the suspects’ phones, they also learnt that three members of the cell were aware they were being followed by Spanish police officers.

What finally forced the Mossos to act, however, was when on 7 November, two Muslim converts from Mataró attended a meeting of the alleged jihadists to warn them that "a police chief" had told them that the Mossos were investigating them and that they would all be arrested. The Mossos were informed of this fact by a mole working inside the group and who, as a result, was in danger of being exposed. According to the report, ten days later, the Mossos observed one of the two converts meeting with two National Police inspectors, one of whom had been present at the meeting between the two police forces.

Some of the individuals under investigation were spooked, causing them to change their phone number or to stop using it to discuss jihad. They ceased to hold meetings, and other individuals acted as lookouts to ensure they weren’t being followed when they were on the move. Three of the suspects involved in the case were arrested in Bulgaria as they tried to make their way to Syria. The National Court ended up shelving the Mossos’ case, since in its opinion the Spanish police had not interfered in the investigation nor had it endangered the life of the Mossos’ mole.