The Slatest

New Details About Terror Plot in Spain Show How Much Deadlier It Could Have Been

A policewoman walks with dozen of gas bottles in background in Alcanar during a search linked to the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks on the site of an explosion on Friday.

AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has released its first Spanish-language video, in which a Moroccan-Spanish militant praises the “brothers in Barcelona,” referring to the perpetrators of the attacks that killed 15 people last week; threatens more attacks; and vows that “al-Andalus will become once again what it was, part of the caliphate.” (Al-Andalus refers to the regions of Spain that were under Muslim rule from the eighth to 15th centuries.)

The attacks may have been the worst terrorist incident in Spain in more than a decade, but it appears they could have been much worse. One of the suspects arrested in connection with the attacks told a court in Madrid this week that the 12-member cell that carried out the attacks planned to detonate bombs at monuments in the center of Barcelona, including Antonio Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia church.

The cell, recruited by imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, mainly comprised young men from the town of Ripoll, north of Barcelona.* The group included four sets of brothers. Es Satty reportedly planned to blow himself up in the attack. That plan was foiled Aug. 16 when the group’s safe house in the town of Alcanar blew up. Police say the house contained 120 propane canisters as well as the makings of TATP, the explosive compound also used by the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks, the 2005 London attacks, and 2001 “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, among others. TATP is relatively easy to make and difficult to detect, but also highly unstable and dangerous, as the Barcelona cell learned.

The Aug. 16 blast killed Es Satty, as well as one other member, and forced the rest of the group to improvise. The following day, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove a van onto Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas pedestrian street, according to police, killing 13 people and wounding hundreds. Abouyaaqoub escaped the scene but was shot dead by police on Monday. Five other members of the cell, including Abouyaaqoub’s brother, were shot dead by police Aug. 17 after another attack in the seaside town of Cambrils. Court documents show they bought knives and an axe in between the two attacks.

Four men have been arrested in connection with the attack. Two have been charged, one is being detained, and a fourth—Mohammed Aalla, whose two brothers were killed and whose car was used in the Cambrils attack—has been released due to lack of evidence.

Questions are starting to be raised about the authorities’ handling of the incident. Catalan police, known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, didn’t put together that the explosion in Alcanar was terrorist-related until the next day, and no public alarm was raised before the van mowed people down in Barcelona. The Mossos also failed to promptly pass along information to the national police or the Guardia Civil, the country’s most experienced counterterrorism force. (Catalonia’s regional government is pushing for independence from Spain, and relations with Madrid have been strained.) It was reported Thursday that a Mossos official had received an informal tip-off about Es Satty from a colleague in Belgium. It’s not clear if Catalan investigators followed up on the lead.

*Correction, Aug. 25, 2017: This post originally misspelled the name of the town of Ripoll and inaccurately stated that it is south of Barcelona. It is north of Barcelona.