A house explosion in Spain probably saved hundreds of lives on Thursday when it was discovered that the terrorist cell which killed 14 people in Catalonia on Thursday was really planning to mount a bombing attack in Barcelona. However, the plan had to be changed when the terrorists accidentally blew up the house where they were stockpiling explosives.
Three men are in custody, five have been shot dead, and at least one remains at large following two deadly terrorist attacks in Spain in which 13 people were killed and more than 130 injured after a white Fiat van mowed down people along Las Ramblas in the Catalan capital on Thursday.
Then, eight hours later, a Spanish woman was killed and six people were hurt after a car thought to be carrying five members of the same cell ran down pedestrians in the coastal town of Cambrils. All five terrorists were shot dead by police.
Police and security services across the country are hunting for a Moroccan man, Moussa Oukabir, 18.
That attack was bad, but Catalan police said the cell had apparently been preparing a far worse attack in Barcelona.
Josep Lluís Trapero, a major with the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police, said that the gang had been collecting butane gas canisters at a house in the small town of Alcanar, 120 miles south of Barcelona. That building exploded on Wednesday night, killing two people and wounding 16.
“The explosion in Alcanar meant they no longer had the necessary material to plan larger-scale attacks in Barcelona,” said Trapero. “They were probably trying to carry out a different kind of attack.”
The lack of bombing capacity is thought to have led the cell to use two vans they had hired – possibly with the idea of loading them with the gas canisters – in the kind of pedestrian ramming attacks seen in Nice, Berlin and London.
One was abandoned on Las Ramblas. A second van, which was found later in the town of Vic, 50 miles north of Barcelona, is believed to have been intended as a getaway vehicle. Reports suggested the gang might have initially attempted to hire a much bigger truck, but did not possess the correct documentation.
Since the attacks, police have arrested four men – three Moroccan citizens and one Spanish citizen, aged 21, 27, 28 and 34.
On Friday night they named the five shot dead in Cambrils, who included Moussa Oukabir, 17, who had been reported to be the driver in the Ramblas attack. The others killed were El Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, 19, Said Aallaa, 19, Omar Hychami, 21, and Mohamed Hychami, 24. All were listed as born in Morocco.
Police are still hunting Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, who may have been the van driver in Barcelona, along with two other unnamed suspects. They are also seeking a white Renault Kangoo vehicle believed to have been rented by the suspects and which could have crossed the border into France, according to French media reports.
Oukabir, Hychami and Abouyaaqoub are thought to be from the small town of Ripoll in Catalonia, while Aallaa is from the nearby village of Ribes de Freser.
Javier Zaragoza, the chief prosecutor of the Audiencia Nacional, which deals with terrorism cases, said the attackers did not appear to have previous links to jihadism.
“As far as we know, there was no previous investigation that might have identified them,” he told the Cadena Ser radio station. “Zero risk doesn’t exist when it comes to these things. The anti-terror police services have done really good work for years and various attacks have been prevented.”
Moussa Oukabir’s older brother Driss was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of hiring the van used in the attack. He has denied any involvement, and reportedly told the police that his identity documents were stolen before they were used to rent the vehicle.
Jordi Munell, the mayor of Ripoll, said the town was in a state of shock following the events of Thursday and Friday.
“Ripoll is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else,” he said. “We don’t understand how people we’ve been living side by side with could be involved in terrorism, and nor do their families. These are people that people have been to school with and played football with.”
Little is known about Moussa Oukabir. However, comments he made on the social media site Kiwi show that when he was asked what he would do on his first day if he became absolute ruler of the world, he replied: “Kill the unbelievers and leave only Muslims who follow their religion.” Asked in which country he would never contemplate living, he answered: “The Vatican.”
The attackers’ plans to use a car, knives, machetes and axes to kill as many people as possible were thwarted when they accidentally crashed into a police car. One officer reportedly shot dead four of the attackers while another killed the remaining terrorist a few minutes later.
One witness, Fitzroy Davies, from Wolverhampton, saw one of the attackers being shot by police in Cambril. He said, “This guy came running up the road and was shouting something. I didn’t know what it was, so we said, ‘call the police.’ Within 30 seconds the police were already there, jumped out of the car, started shouting at the guy; the guy was then saying something else again. And then they – ‘pop, pop’ – did a couple of shots and he fell down.
“He stood back up and then he stepped over the fence and he started, he was taunting, smiling and he carried on walking to the police, and then they gave it to him again, a couple more shots and then he fell to the ground.”
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Las Ramblas attack, saying on a website: “Terror is filling the crusaders’ hearts in the land of Andalusia.”
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said the whole country stood in solidarity with Barcelona, blaming “jihadi terrorism”. People gathered in Barcelona’s main square on Friday to observe a minute’s silence to remember the dead. Then crowd broke into applause and chanted “No tinc por” (“I am not afraid”).
Authorities said on Friday night that 59 people injured in the attacks were still in hospital, with 15 in a critical condition and 25 in a serious condition.
Christian Estrosi, mayor of the French city of Nice – where dozens of people were murdered just over a year ago by an attacker driving a truck – called for a meeting next month to determine what can be done to improve security after the Barcelona attack.
Eighty-six people were killed in the jihadist attack in the French Riviera city, the first of several similar incidents in Europe.
“I am convinced that life will prevail over death and that we will triumph over barbarism and terror,” Estrosi told reporters after an event to honor those killed in Catalonia.
The mayors of several cities plan to meet in Nice at the end of September and discuss the issue with Julian King, the European commissioner in charge of security issues.
Estosi said they would talk about the best ways to improve the situation and review national and European legislation and proposals that were at times too restrictive.
“We won’t win the war with the rules of peace,” Estrosi noted.
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