Two sources close to the investigation told The Associated Press that police arrested Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary and two other men at a rented apartment. Abdel Bary is the son of an Egyptian operative of al-Qaeda who was convicted for events related to the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people.
A media release from Spain's National Police didn't name Abdel Bary. It described him as an Egyptian national who left Europe to fight in Syria and Iraq. The police statement also called him “one of the most sought terrorists in Europe, both because of his criminal trajectory in the ranks of Daesh (Islamic State) and because of the high danger that he represented.”
He and the two other men were arrested overnight at the apartment in Almería, a port city in southeastern Spain, the AP learned from officials on the ground and interviews with local residents. The three were being interrogated on Tuesday and were scheduled to appear before a National Court judge in Madrid on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the court that usually handles terror-related case. The spokesman who was not authorized to be named in media reports.
Police said the operation was the result of “international cooperation" between agents specialized in fighting terrorism who suspected that the Egyptian suspect might be traveling through Spain as he tried to return home from the Mideast.
Abdel Bary, who is believed to be 29, grew up in London to become a rapper known as Lyricist Jinn and L Jinny. Music videos still available online show him performing raps with references to drug use, violence and his family’s experience as asylum-seekers in Britain.
His radicalization reportedly took place shortly after his father, Abdel Abdul Bary, was extradited in 2012 to the United States, where he was tried for the twin bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The father was convicted in New York and sentenced in 2015 to a 25-year prison term.
In a 2013 post still viewable on what appeared to be his Facebook account, the younger Abdul Bary left a message for his fans: “I have left everything for the sake of Allah," he wrote. One year later, in August 2014, a photo of him holding a man’s severed head was posted on Twitter.
British investigators initially suspected Abdel Bary as being “Jihadi John,” the IS militant who spoke with a British accent in the video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley. Foley, one of the Islamic State group's early foreign victims, was decapitated. The real “Jihadi John” turned out to be Mohammed Emwazi, who also grew up in London.
Britain’s Foreign Office declined to comment on Tuesday's arrests, referring queries to the Spanish police. Shiraz Maher, an expert on radicalization at London's King’s College, described Abdel Bary as one of the better known among a cluster of Islamist extremists that emerged in west London in the early 2010s. He was also one of the earliest so-called “foreign fighters” to become disillusioned with ISIS.
“Disillusionment kicked in at different stages for different people. He was known to have been disillusioned for quite a while. And he then just disappeared off the radar,” Maher said, suggesting that Abdel Bary's early departure doesn't necessarily signal that he was no longer a threat.
“He was a member of ISIS and clearly participated in all kinds of horrors the group was involved in and should face punishment for those crimes," Maher said. "But at this stage, he is more likely to be someone who was trying to save himself in Spain.”
Abdel Bary was no stranger to Spanish law enforcement. In 2015, a Spanish woman was arrested at an airport terminal in Madrid when she tried to travel to Turkey with a fake passport in order to meet up with and marry Abdel Bary.
At her trial, María de los Ángeles Cala Márquez said she had fallen in love with Abdel Bary after chatting with the former rapper online. In mid-2018 she was sentenced to two years of imprisonment with reprieve.
On Tuesday, Spanish police described Abdel Bary as having an“extremely violent” criminal profile. His arrest took place in Cerro de San Cristóbal, a historic neighborhood in Almería known for its narrow streets dotted with nightclubs and a mix of old and new buildings leading to the city’s Alcazaba, a 10th-century fortress of Arabic origin.
Taxi driver Ángel Vílchez told the AP that at least six police vehicles and about 30 officers, including many in plainclothes, had blocked access to several streets for most of Monday. Another neighbor, who asked not to be named in media reports, said police had showed up at 3 a.m. Monday and took away at least one person handcuffed from an apartment used for short stays by tourists.
Spain's Interior Ministry says police have arrested nearly 400 people connected to extremist religious groups since 2012. Many of the arrests have not led to judicial convictions.
Parra reported from Madrid. AP reporters Danica Kirca in London and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.