Two days after a devastating vehicle attack on one of Europe’s most iconic tourist destinations, many questions remained as Spanish authorities continued a manhunt for a 22-year-old missing member of the cell of suspected terrorists responsible for the brutal assault that killed 14 and injured more than 100 others.
Unlike other vehicle attacks Europe has endured in the last two years – in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm and London – Thursday’s in Barcelona and the one early Friday in the nearby seaside city of Cambrils displayed an unusual degree of sophistication and coordination. Authorities are investigating what they believe to be a terrorist cell of at least 12 members with possible bases in different locations across the region of Catalonia.
But the Spanish government was quick to insist on Saturday that the situation was under control. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido Álvarez said that the 12-person cell had been “dismantled,” and the government ultimately declined to raise the national alert level from four to five, the highest-possible classification.
Inspector Albert Oliva, chief spokesman for the national Catalan police, said the local police force spearheading the investigation here, however, cast doubt on the government’s proclamation. “We must remember who is the leader of the investigation,” he said in a news conference, highlighting the work that remains to be done. Oliva then said that police home raids had failed to produce the missing suspect. When asked about the potential for another attack still to come, he said the prospect was unlikely but could not be deemed impossible.
Although police shot dead five suspects early Friday morning and have since arrested four others, many loose ends still remain.
For one, there is the rare social uniformity of the suspects’ backgrounds: most of the 12 people identified as members of the cell come from the same small town near the French border, almost all are of Moroccan immigrant origins and all are under the age of 35.
Then there are the puzzling logistics. The suspects ultimately struck three different locations in quick succession – one by accident. Propane and butane canisters that police believe the suspects intended to detonate in Barcelona exploded prematurely in the city of Alcantar on Wednesday, killing at least two and injuring 16. On Thursday, the driver who then struck Barcelona’s most famous promenade was somehow able to escape from the scene on foot. The same suspect may then have been among the group of five that committed a second vehicle attack just hours later in Cambrils, police believe – a distance some 70 miles to the southwest.
The missing suspect is Younes Abouyaaqoub, according to Catalan police officials cited in Spanish media. Police believe he left Las Ramblas after the rampage, hijacked a car after killing the driver, and drove out of the city. Police found a dead body with multiple stabbing wounds in an abandoned Ford vehicle outside the city, which they believe to be connected to the attack.
Finally, there is the question of motive. Shortly after the twin attacks, the Islamic State, through its Amaq News Agency, claimed responsibility for the carnage, heralding the suspects as “soldiers.” On Saturday, however, the terrorism group issued a second, expanded statement – a statement that ultimately contained glaring factual errors. Many security analysts interpreted the mistakes as evidence that the caliphate, in the midst of major territory losses in the Middle East, may have been trying to overstate its influence overseas.
For answers, all eyes have now looked to Ripoll, the quaint, picturesque town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where the majority of the young suspects were based.
Interviewed on Saturday in Ripoll, Ibrahim Aallaa is the father of two young men implicated in the attacks: Said Aallaa, 18, and Youssef Aallaa, 22.
He said he had seen media reports that Said was among the five shot by Spanish police early Friday morning in the midst of the Cambrils attack. He assumed his older son, Youssef, was killed, as well. A third son, Mohammad, was the registered owner of the Audi A3 used as a weapon in the Cambrils attack and has since been taken into police custody, his father said.
Aallaa told The Washington Post he believed Youssef may have been radicalized by a local imam. Early Saturday, police reportedly raided the home of an imam in Ripoll whom they suspected to be among the dead in the Alcanar explosion, according to the Spanish newspaper El País. Oliva, the police spokesman, did not provide details on that raid.
“He changed,” the elder Aallaa said. “My son would tell me, ‘Father, you have to pray. You have to follow Islam.’ ”
Youssef, he said, was a “problematic” child. The boy was aggressive and fought in school, Aallaa recalled.
Youssef would disappear for days at a time, his father said, adding that he last saw his son a month ago. He suspects that Youssef got his brother Said involved in the attack, the father said.
As to the question of Islamic State inspiration: “I never heard them speak of the Islamic State or Syria,” he said.
So far, the degree of real involvement by the terrorist group remains unclear. In recent months, the Islamic State has asserted responsibility for international attacks that it did not actually orchestrate, as investigators concluded was the case with the attack on a Manila casino in early June.
In the group’s expanded statement on the Barcelona attacks, for instance, the text notes that the attackers “stormed a bar with their light weapons near Las Ramblas square, torturing and killing the Crusaders and Jews inside.” No “bar” was stormed, the “weapon” employed in the attack was a van and victims were attacked indiscriminately rather than selected on the basis of religion or race.
For some analysts, the errors indicated that the Islamic State may not deserve credit. Others said that the group has made mistakes in the past, and has corrected them in due course, which may still be the case regarding Barcelona. Spanish investigators also reportedly uncovered traces of triacetone triperoxide (TATP), a trademark explosive of the group, while investigating the site of Wednesday’s explosion in Alcanar.
Jean-Charles Brisard, a leading security analyst and the director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, said the important point was the potential for the group to inspire future attacks even as its own territory crumbles from within.
“[Barcelona] states for me that the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq is clearly disconnected from the capacity of the Islamic State and its militants abroad,” he said in an interview. “There’s no correlation between the two. What we see in Spain is specific to Spain, but it tells us that the threat is intense all over Europe.”
In Finland, two people were killed and six others wounded in a stabbing Friday in the southwestern city of Turku, police said. On Saturday, authorities began investigating the incident as terrorism, after Finnish intelligence services had joined the investigation.
Aallaa said almost all of the suspects in the recent Spanish attacks were teens and young men of Moroccan descent from Ripoll, noting brothers from three local families appear to have been involved. In the Finish case, the lone suspect fit a similar profile: he was 18, and also Moroccan.
Aallaa said that his son Youssef also had books he kept hidden that he would often study with friends. Youssef and others rented a small apartment in Ripoll, which Said apparently left Thursday afternoon a few hours before the Barcelona attack, the father said. Said has been unreachable since.
Meanwhile, Barcelona and the nation beyond continued to mourn the diverse, multinational group of 14 victims – including at least one American – massacred in the heart of this city and in nearby Cambrils.
On Saturday, Spain’s King and Queen visited victims of the attack in hospital, and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau opened a book of condolences at city hall, where residents could pay their respects.
“We are closer than ever,” she told reporters Saturday. “I stand with all officials and citizens to condemn this terrorist attack, and we are together with all families of the victims, as well as those who remain in serious condition fighting for their lives.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · James Mcauley, William Booth, Souad Mekhennet