While grief-stricken Barcelona mourned victims of the vehicular attacks in which 14 people were killed and nearly 100 others were injured days ago, Spanish police said Sunday that the Moroccan Muslim terrorist suspected of driving the van used in one of the attacks is still at large and could be outside of Spain.
“We don’t know where he is,” said regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero, referring to 22-year-old suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub, as officials confirmed that the terrorist cell behind the attack had been preparing to commit “one or more” assaults in Barcelona.
Younes Abouyaaqoub was part of a terror cell that was reportedly composed of at least 12 men, some of them teenagers. Police also confirmed that an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, is among the suspects.
Investigators are seeking to understand the role of the imam, who is believed to have radicalized many of the youths in a small town called Ripoll at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Several of the suspects — including Abouyaaqoub — grew up or lived in the town of about 10,000 residents.
On Saturday, police raided the imam’s apartment in Ripoll, according to his flatmate, who would only identify himself as Nourddem.
Investigators have been searching for DNA traces to find out if he had been blown up in an explosion at the house in Alcanar, which is located about 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of Barcelona.
According to Spanish media El Pais and El Mundo, the imam was an ex-convict who was known to police. Anti-terror forces told reporters that the imam had met prisoners linked to the Al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of Madrid trains that killed 191 people in March 2004 in what has so far been the worst terror attack in Europe.
Moha, 46, who lives in Ripoll, said the imam was initially part of the only mosque in town, but “later left and (set up) his own prayer hall in a garage”.
“There has been a change in the community since he arrived more than two years ago,” said Moha.
He said the youths used to frequent a Moroccan cafe near the first mosque where they would watch football matches but had stopped doing so more than a year ago.
In the Moroccan town of M’rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub also accused the imam of radicalizing the young man, as well as his brother Houssein.
“Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalize under the influence of this imam,” their grandfather told reporters.
Most of the suspects are children of Moroccan immigrants, including Ripoll-born Moussa Oukabir, 17, one of five suspects shot dead in Cambrils. His older brother Driss is among the four arrested.
In Morocco, their father Said broke down on hearing the news.
“I hope they will say he’s innocent… I don’t want to lose my two sons,” he said.
A cousin who described Moussa as a fun-loving guy said, “The last few months, he started to become interested in religion. He used to go to a mosque in Ripoll. Maybe that’s where he was brainwashed.”
More than 120 gas canisters have been found in a house where the suspects were believed to have been building bombs, Trapero said, noting that the jihadists had accidentally detonated an explosive at the house on the eve of Thursday’s attack in Barcelona, an error that likely forced them to modify their plans.
Instead, they used a vehicle to plow into tourists on Barcelona’s popular Las Ramblas boulevard, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.
Several hours later, there was another attack in the seaside town of Cambrils in which one woman was killed.
Police shot and killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knifes.
In Barcelona on Sunday, throngs of locals and tourists mourned the victims at the Sagrada Familia church. Snipers were posted on surrounding rooftops of the landmark building and heavily armed police stood guard outside, just in case.
King Felipe, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont led the 90-minute ceremony. Those killed and wounded represented three dozen countries; some from as far away as Australia, China and Peru.
“What happened in Las Ramblas is really hard for us, we go for walks there often, it could have happened to me, my children or anyone. And here we are. It’s huge, huge,” said one witness as she fought back tears.
Close to 100,000 people are expected to show up later on Sunday at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium for their team’s first game of the season, which will be marked by a minute of silence for the victims.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, believed to be its first in Spain.
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