“They Were Catalan Boys”

What drove a group of ordinary, small-town young men to commit a brutal act of terrorism?

A Police officer stands guard at a road control in Ripoll on August 20, 2017, as part of an operation to find a suspect of Barcelona's attack.
A police officer stands guard at a road control in Ripoll, Spain, on Aug. 20, as part of an operation to find a suspect of the Barcelona attack.

Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

RIPOLL, Spain—Núria Perpinyà, a city council employee in rural Catalonia, was descending the stairs outside her apartment when she ran into two teenaged brothers who lived in her building. Perpinyà had watched the boys grow up and was keen to know how they were getting on. “We talked about life, how things were going. They were normal kids,” she says. They said adéu and went their separate ways.

Three days later, on Aug. 17, one of those brothers—Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22—drove a van into pedestrians in Las Ramblas, a busy tourist street in Barcelona, killing 14 and injuring more than a hundred. The other—Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, 19—was shot dead along with four other members of the terrorist cell in the early hours of the following morning, after the group rammed a second van into pedestrians in the seaside town of Cambrils and then approached police wearing fake suicide vests.

Ever since details emerged over the identities of the Barcelona attackers, people have been baffled by how ordinary they seemed. Described as studious and well-behaved, they had no previously known links to terrorist groups or criminal activity. The small town of Ripoll where they were from is relatively affluent and well-integrated. So what led these normal young men to commit the biggest terrorist attack in Spain since the 2004 Madrid train bombings?

Perpinyà has been talking over just this question with an older Abouyaaqoub brother, who still can’t believe or make sense of what has happened. He conceded that Younes was more introverted, “But the youngest brother [Houssaine], he was completely normal,” Perpinyà says. “All his friends had Catalan surnames,” she adds. “I say Catalan surnames, but really they were Catalan, too. The press call them ‘Moroccan boys.’ But they were Catalan boys.”

Although their family roots were Moroccan, the young men had grown up in or were born in Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain with its own language and traditions. Yet both the local and English-language media have largely referred to them as Moroccan. It’s become a familiar narrative during the recent wave of attacks in Europe: young Middle Eastern or North African men alienated and eventually radicalized in response to a society that never fully accepted them. Yet the suspects weren’t raised in monocultural ghettos like those of Brussels and Paris blamed for breeding previous attackers. By all accounts, they were fully integrated into their communities. And so we’re left with a conundrum.

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The climb through heaving woodland toward Ripoll feels like entering the Catalan equivalent of Twin Peaks. The tiny town is buried in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 70 miles north of Barcelona, and has less than 11,000 inhabitants. There’s a Romanesque monastery, some pretty squares with pastel-colored buildings, and two rivers whose handsome bridges make for idyllic views. And that’s it. Shadowy mountains loom up between the buildings as you walk five minutes from one end of the town to the other. Crossing the confluence of the rivers just south of the town center brings you to the main road out of town, beyond which lies countryside.

It’s the last place you’d expect Spain’s worst terrorist attack in 13 years to have been hatched.

Naturally, the town is still coming to terms with what’s happened. In a bar on the edge of the main square, a group of old men discuss recent events. One with faded tattoos on his forearm gestures at the television behind him that beams live footage of the Catalan police chief giving a press conference about the attacks. People here are generally friendly, if lately a bit wary of outsiders. Ripoll was in no way prepared for the swaths of journalists who descended on the town in the aftermath of the attacks, not to mention the heavy police presence in the days following. This is a town where nothing much ever happens and everyone knows one another. On the morning of the attacks, one of the local paper’s top stories heralded an imminent visit from a circus.

Now the town is busy recovering from a tragedy it never dreamed possible.

“Our work has changed a lot, because there’s a social crisis when something like this happens,” says Perpinyà. “There’s a crisis of coexistence.” Despite her workload, Perpinyà has agreed to meet in the city hall, where she is responsible for programs promoting social cohesion and inclusion. Hanging over the building’s façade is a huge Estelada, the Catalan flag with a white-on-blue star symbolizing the campaign for independence, a reminder of the upcoming referendum in which the region will vote on whether to separate from Spain. Inside there’s feverish activity as the city council copes with the fallout of recent events.

Perpinyà didn’t just live in the same building as two of the suspects. She helped bring them up. The boys all attended an IT education program she used to run for youngsters without computers or internet access at home (back before smartphones became ubiquitous).

“They used to come to do their homework or to get help with school. If one day they weren’t feeling great, they would come to see you. They came here like any other kids,” she says. They went to the same schools, played soccer together, participated in the usual after-school activities. “Sure, there were differences,” Perpinyà says, adding that the boys were more independent than other children from the town. “In Morocco, from when they’re very small children play in the street on their own, they go home from school on their own. Before it was the same here—now Spanish parents go more with their children. Not to say one is good or bad—it’s their culture. Besides which, the boys had structured families. The parents worked, the children studied.”

Perpinyà remained in close contact with the boys after they grew up and stopped attending the program. “We were neighbors; we always ran into each other. We had a friendly relationship. They were always nice, helpful—there was nothing strange. They weren’t the typical gang smoking joints all day. They were young men who worked, had a good salary at the end of the month,” she says. Close friends of the suspects have said that they noticed changes in the last month or so—one had left his job suddenly, for example. “But that doesn’t make you think that they’re about to commit a terrorist attack,” Perpinyà says. “There was nothing to indicate they would end up like this.”

She wasn’t the only one who had known the young men who felt this way. When the first photo of one of the suspects circulated soon after the Las Ramblas attack, Maria, their former high school classmate whose name has been changed at her request to protect her privacy, immediately recognized him. “At first, I thought that it was a mistake,” she says. “I still find it hard to believe.” The photo was of Driss Oukabir, 28, whose documents were found in the van. Oukabir turned himself in shortly afterward, claiming to have had nothing to do with the attacks. “When he said that they stole his documents, I believed it,” Maria says. Oukabir has since changed his story, admitting that he hired the car for the cell but that he thought they wanted it for a move. Oukabir remains in custody. His brother Moussa Oukabir, 17, died in Cambrils.

Maria says that Driss Oukabir hung around with the gamberros, the naughty kids at school who played pranks and skipped class but never did anything seriously bad. Another schoolmate says that Oukabir could be edgy and was, for example, prone to confrontation during soccer matches. Friends say he was not remotely religious, with one saying: “He did what he did for whatever reason, but not for religion, because he never prayed.”

Maria says she saw Oukabir less after high school but still ran into him on nights out and often saw him and a group of friends at the bar next to her house. “When I came back from nights out, they were always there,” she says, adding that she saw him there as recently as a month before the attacks. “He was no saint,” she adds, “but he didn’t have malice in him. He was essentially a good guy.”

According to townspeople, the young suspects were very much part of the community. Youths of Moroccan background tend to split off together after they finish schooling, locals say, but there are no ethnically oriented zones in Ripoll. The Abouyaaqoubs’ apartment block is a bit out of town but hardly run-down, with a mix of families living there, not only people of Moroccan background. It boasts a dramatic backdrop of verdant hills.

Ripoll only has about 500 Muslim inhabitants, or 5 percent of the population. Luis de la Corte, a professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid who specializes in security and terrorism, can’t think of a single case in Europe, let alone Spain, where perpetrators of an attack hailed from such a small, rural town. “The smaller the place, the easier it is to detect something strange, because everyone knows each other,” he says. “It’s always easier to carry out clandestine activity in a big city.” Abdelbaki Es Satty, the 42-year-old imam and ringleader of the cell, had difficulties finding a position in mosques elsewhere and perhaps came to Ripoll because he thought he could avoid suspicion, says de la Corte. For now, though, this is only speculation.

While de la Corte believes that problems with integration can contribute to radicalization, he cautions against drawing simplistic conclusions. “If you apply the example of one individual being radicalized to the whole Muslim community, it’s an abusive generalization,” he says, pointing out that the vast majority of Muslim Spaniards do not turn into Islamist radicals, even those who are not well-integrated. “It’s true that second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants in European countries seem to have a confused identity,” he says, which makes them vulnerable to radicalization but still very unlikely to actually be radicalized.

In the view of de la Corte and others, the level of integration in Spain is strong—even superior to other European countries. There are nearly 2 million Muslims living in Spain, many of them with Moroccan heritage. Around half a million live in Catalonia, where the levels of integration are at least as good as elsewhere in Spain. Racism and Islamophobia certainly exist—the disparaging term moro is heard frequently to describe people with Moroccan roots—but there are few Muslim-only ghettos seen in other places in Europe. A 28-year-old from Ripoll of Moroccan heritage who grew up with the suspects casts doubt on the links drawn between discrimination and terrorism. “If someone says, ‘[They did it] because they called them moro,’ that’s a lie. Because Catalan, Moroccan—we all grew up together,” he says.

Wafa Marsi, 30, a friend of the suspects’ families, sees a more nuanced picture of integration and identity in Spain. “They were youths like any others,” she says of the suspects, “with the built-up conflict of living between two worlds and two cultures.” But she thinks that integration is the wrong word to use with regard to the young men “because they studied and spoke Catalan—they were as integrated as I am,” she says.

Marsi, who also speaks Arabic, previously worked for the city council as a mediator for Moroccan immigrants, helping them adapt to life in Ripoll and Spain. She recognizes that at a certain age young people, and especially those from immigrant backgrounds, start questioning who they are and where they’re from. “I’m practically sure that these youths were vulnerable because their personality and identity were still forming,” she says. “My identity is clear—Arab and Moroccan blood runs through my veins, and my culture is Catalan. They still lacked that forged identity, and so they were caught in limbo.”

Perpinyà notes that while youngsters like the suspects are called Moroccans in Ripoll, when they travel to Morocco, they are called Catalans. “The result is that they’re neither Catalan nor Moroccan. This affects you,” she says. “Everyone needs to feel like they’re from a place.” Perpinyà thinks that such conflicted identity creates a weakness that can be preyed upon, which partly explains how the young men were radicalized. Indeed, ongoing police investigations have suggested that Es Satty directed the terrorist cell much like the leader of a sect.

Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a psychology expert at Stanford, points to research that belongingness is key to people feeling significance. “And [that’s] extremely relevant to immigrants straddling cultural words,” she says. “My colleagues and I found that first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants in the U.S. who felt torn between cultures—marginalized or culturally homeless—felt this lack of significance in their lives. This was, in turn, associated with greater sympathy for extremist groups and causes.”

* * *

A week after the attacks, representatives from Barcelona’s different communities gathered at the assembly hall of the Maritime Museum in a show of interreligious solidarity. There were readings from the Bible and Quran, after which youths from more than a dozen religions (and no religion) paraded in pairs up to the stage to deliver flowers to a giant bouquet, all to the moving strains of the Arab Orchestra of Barcelona. Later, the multifaith congregation marched in unison toward Las Ramblas, leaving the bouquet among the many flowers and tributes to the victims that have accumulated there.

An hour-and-a-half’s drive away, Ripoll is also trying to come together after the attacks. Aside from solidarity demonstrations and a protest against terrorism by the town’s Muslim community, a concert was held on the steps of the monastery this weekend aimed at healing the town’s wounds. A new neighborhood network has also been set up called Som Ripoll, “We Are Ripoll,” designed to combat terrorism and Islamophobia and promote coexistence. Meanwhile, the mayor of Ripoll has announced measures to improve detection of radicalization in the town.

Back at the city hall, Perpinyà thinks that the attitude toward immigration hasn’t been right “since day one,” because the objective has been to assimilate immigrants rather than welcome them and try to understand traditions. “And I don’t just mean in Ripoll, but in the whole of Spain,” she says. “We’ve always lived together, but with two parallel rivers,” she says, reminding me of Ripoll’s twin rivers. “Now is the time to mix the rivers, to be proactive, to learn from each other,” says Perpinyà. “What we have to do is work towards a real coexistence, and work at it together.”