How did terror cell behind Spain attacks avoid detention?

The jihadist cell behind last week's twin attacks in Spain was built around a "guru" and went completely offline to avoid detection by anti-terrorist police, experts said.

How did terror cell behind Spain attacks avoid detention?
Police patrol the seafront in Barcelona. Photo: AFP

The group managed to evade authorities so well that even a giant explosion at their bomb factory in Alcanar, where police later uncovered massive quantities of ingredients to build TATP, was not at first linked to the jihadists. Investigators only made the connection after their vehicle rampages in Barcelona and the nearby seaside town of Cambrils.   

Experts say the key reason was the way the group was formed.   


Armed police at the Sagrada Familia. Photo: AFP

The “propaganda and recruitment techniques” are like those of a cult, said Lurdes Vidal, director of the European Institute of the Mediterranean.    

“The role of the family is emphasised, the group is a closed circuit, and everything is done to stop things from getting out,” she said.   

And at the heart of the group, “there is a central person who unites everyone, who provides Salafist answers to youths who may have lost their bearings,” said French former intelligence officer Alain Rodier.   

That key person in this case was the Moroccan imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, who was killed in the blast accidentally triggered by the jihadists themselves.    

He may have presented two different faces to people of Ripoll, the small town where he and many of the suspects lived, said Alberto Bueno, a member of the International Observatory of Studies on Terrorism.   

“He shows one face when he preaches at the prayer hall in Ripoll, and the other of radicalisation,” said Bueno, a researcher at the university of Granada, in Southern Spain.

The unity of the group is further compounded by the fact that many of its members are siblings, noted the expert, pointing out that among the dozen suspects are four sets of brothers.

Yves Trotignon, a former member of France's anti-terrorist authorities, noted that the set-up featuring relatives was also seen among the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York or the March 11, 2004 train bombing in Madrid.

Rodier, a former officer in French intelligence, said Spanish experts were fully aware that such groups formed around families are particularly tight, because, “you're not going to betray your brother”.

The family connections also ease the process of indoctrination, he said. 

'Reconquering Spain'

While Spain's attackers had prepared their assaults for months, it is likely that the process of radicalisation began a long time ago, he said.    

Alberto Bueno noted that the group had eschewed online social networks and stayed off mobile phones, at a time when anti-terrorist police scour the internet for signs of radicalisation among users.

“This classic model, with people who know each other and a guru who accompanies the development of the cell goes back 15 to 20 years earlier,” said Alain Rodier.

The experts also noted that the youth of many of the suspects — some of them as young as 17 — was no accident.   

This is a period of life that is potentially volatile, Vidal said, noting that “religion was used to get to the youths, in order to have a very strong emotional impact in the construction of their identity.

“These are Muslims, not converts. An imam is necessary, an incubator who comes from among them, and who convinces them that their faith requires them to take action,” said Rodier.

“They may have viewed themselves reconquering Spain as Muslims, … as suggested in the letter found in Alcanar,” he added.   

In the rubble of the Alcanar house, police found a sheet of paper slipped into a green-coloured book. It read: “A brief letter from the soldiers of the Islamic State on the territory of Al Andalous to the crusaders, the sinners, the unjust and the corrupters.”

Al Andalous is the name of the territories in modern Spain that until 1492 were by Muslims.

By Marie Giffard / AFP


Why has the expansion of Barcelona airport prompted mass protests?

Around 10,000 people demonstrated against the expansion of the El Prat airport in Barcelona on Sunday.

Why has the expansion of Barcelona airport prompted mass protests?
People march during a demonstration against the expansion of the Barcelona-El Prat airport. Photo: Pau BARRENA / AFP

Several ecological and agricultural organisations, have demanded that the expansion be stopped due to the fact nearby wetlands and farms would have to be destroyed.

The demonstration took place on Calle Tarragona in the Catalan capital between Plaça d’Espanya and Plaça dels Països Catalans.

The protests still took place, even though last week, Spain suspended the €1.7 billion airport expansion project, citing differences with the Catalan government, after president Pere Aragonès said he wanted to avoid destroying La Ricarda lagoon, a natural reserve next to the airport. 

Environmentalists decided not to call off the march, in case plans for the airport expansion still went ahead.

READ ALSO: Six things you need to know about Barcelona airport’s €1.7 billion planned expansion

Political representatives from ERC, En Comú Podem and the CUP also attended, as well as the leader of Más País, Íñigo Errejón; the Deputy Mayor for Ecology of the Barcelona City Council, Janet Sanz, and the Mayor of El Prat de Llobregat, Lluís Mijoler.

People from neighbourhoods across the city marched towards Calle Tarragona and could be seen holding placards that read Nature yes, airport no and shouting slogans such as “More courgettes and fewer planes” and “Fighting for the climate, health, and life”. 

One of the largest groups of people were those from El Prat de Llobregat, the municipality which is home to the airport, who were led by tractors. 

People march during a demonstration against the expansion of Barcelona-El Prat airport. Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP

In addition to protesting against the expansion of the El Prat airport, people were also demonstrating against the Winter Olympic Games in the Pyrenees and extensions to airports in Mallorca and Madrid. 

A representative of Zeroport, Sara Mingorría said “We are here to defend not only La Ricarda, but the entire Delta”. 

The philosopher Marina Garcés also argued that the expansion of the airport would mean “more borders, more mass tourism, more control and more precarious jobs.” 

The leader of the commons in the Catalan parliament, Jéssica Albiach, who also attended the protest, asked the PSOE for “coherence”: “You cannot be passing a law against climate change and, at the same time, defend the interests of Aena [the airport operations company]”, she said. 

She also urged the leader of the Generalitat, Pere Aragonès, to “definitely say no. 

If the airport expansion in Barcelona goes ahead, environmentalists say that CO2 emissions would rise by a minimum of 33 percent. These levels would surpass the limits set by the Catalan government’s climate targets.