MADRID — Spanish and Moroccan authorities on Friday arrested seven suspected members of an al-Qaida-linked extremist cell allegedly recruiting members to fight in Syria and other hotspots.
Spain's Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said the group leader, a Belgian-born Spaniard, and two French recruits were arrested in its North African coastal enclave of Melilla and another person, a Tunisian, in the southern resort city of Malaga.
A ministry statement said several of those arrested had spent time with groups related to al-Qaida and that the two French recruits were preparing to travel to Syria.
The Moroccan Interior Ministry said police arrested three others in the town of Laroui, not far from Melilla. It said the group leader had also previously lived in Laroui.
Spain said the group recruited members via the Internet for three al-Qaida groups for operations in Mali and Syria.
The leader had ties with a cell recruiting fighters for al-Qaida's North African branch fighting in northern Mali that was broken up in November 2012, and he also sent fighters to Libya and Syria and raised funds for extremist groups, the Moroccan statement added.
Moroccan authorities regularly report disrupting militant recruitment cells, including one on March 6.
Spanish police arrested eight suspected militants last year in Spain's other North African enclave, Ceuta. That group had allegedly sent 50 recruits to Syria.
While Morocco has largely been spared the al-Qaida-linked terrorist attacks found elsewhere in North Africa and the Sahara, there are fears that fighters returning from Syria could carry out attacks.
The Justice Ministry estimates that hundreds of Moroccans have gone to fight in Syria, including former detainees from the U.S.-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
An organization tracking the imprisonment of Islamists in Morocco said in the past year 70 Moroccans have been arrested under anti-terror laws after returning from Syria.