- - Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The coming year is shaping up to be make or break for the Catalan independence movement, which spent much of 2018 clashing with Madrid after regional authorities declared their intention to break away from Spain.

With violent street protests rocking Barcelona, concern over security in Catalonia grew only more complex this week when U.S. officials issued a terrorism-awareness alert for the region’s largest city.

The alert warning of potential for a renewed terrorist attack on Barcelona’s Boulevard of La Rambla, which was struck by the Islamic State last year, wasn’t tied to the political protests there.

But it underscored U.S. unease over lacking law enforcement cohesion between Spanish and Catalan authorities that’s festered since they reportedly ignored a confidential CIA warning prior to the August 2017 La Rambla attack in which a jihadi drove a van into pedestrians. Thirteen people were killed, over 100 others were injured.

Away from such concerns, police in Barcelona face strain from violent political protesters pressing their demand for Catalonia’s independence.

The latest demonstrations broke out last week as Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez flew to the city to try and strike political deal with Catalan regional President Quim Torra.

Mr. Torra is demanding Spain turn over control of the international airport, the central railway station and the customs service at the Barcelona sea port as minimum conditions for any deal.

The Sanchez-Torra talks on Dec. 21 fell short of any solution to regional schisms that analysts say threaten to Balkanize Spain.

But some believe Mr. Sanchez is developing a tactical alliance with Catalan secessionists, who’ve provided key support for his populist agenda at the national level.

On the same day Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Torra met in Barcelona, representatives of Catalan independence parties in the Spanish congress voted to raise the national ceiling on deficit spending — effectively allowing the Sanchez government to proceed with plans to increase the national minimum wage and plow ahead with new social programs opposed by conservatives.

Conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado claimed Mr. Sanchez was guilty of “selling out Spain,” while other opposition leaders cried “treason” over the appearance of collusion the prime minister and the secessionists.

Catalan-born former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, an outspoken secession opponent currently running for mayor of Barcelona, lamented that Mr. Sanchez is treating Mr. Torra like a head of state.

Others argue Madrid is losing whatever leverage it once had toward reimposing direct rule provisions on Catalonia, which Mr. Sanchez lifted upon taking office in June.

“Catalonia has since fallen under the control” of separatist Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDRs), according to Inez Arrimadas, regional head of the center-right Ciudadanos Party.

The CDRs are accused of vandalizing homes of local judges and anti-succession Spanish unionists, and were recently blamed for throwing a man wearing a Spanish flag down the stairs of a metro station, fracturing his spine.

The committee’s reportedly have some high-profile individuals among their leadership, including Mr. Torra’s own son, as well as heads of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — a far-left, pro-Catalan independence party.

The CUP’s four representatives in Catalan parliament, currently give the secessionists a razor thin governing majority in the regional legislature.

Members of a group linked to CUP called ARRAN are believed to have trained with Basque supporters of the terrorist organization ETA, in the execution of low-grade campaigns called “Calle Borroka” to enforce separatist control at local street levels.

Security officials are worried about the emergence of Autonomous Rapid Action Groups (GAAR), structured in small cells that are hard to penetrate.

A GAAR website that police say has some 6,000 subscribers has called for the “sabotage” of electrical transformers, public metros, trains, truck parking areas and other “logistical nerve centers” to cause mass disruptions.

GAAR computer hackers blocked the websites of rising Spanish far right party Vox, whose leader Santiago Abascal, has called for making any separatist organization illegal. Mr. Abascal’s strong stance for national unity and against Islamic immigration has gained him considerable following in Spain.

Conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado, meanwhile, has warned about the “ulsterization” of Catalonia, comparing the current situation to that which once triggered decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

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