Sunday 22 July 2018

Police raid the home of imam linked to the Isil terror cell which carried out attacks in Barcelona

Wanted: Images released by the Catalan regional police shows four suspects of the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, from the left, Moussa Oukabir, Said Aallaa, Mohamed Hychami and Younes Abouyaaqoub. Photo: AFP/Getty
Wanted: Images released by the Catalan regional police shows four suspects of the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, from the left, Moussa Oukabir, Said Aallaa, Mohamed Hychami and Younes Abouyaaqoub. Photo: AFP/Getty

Hannah Strange and Harry Yorke

Catalan investigators yesterday raided the house of an imam in the town of Ripoll they believe may have overseen the cell which killed 14 people in twin terrorist attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils.

Police are trying to piece together how a cell composed of multiple sets of brothers from the same sleepy Pyrenees town came to carry out the devastating attacks, amid reports they planned to blow up the Sagrada Familia.

The home of Imam Abdelbaki Es Satty was raided overnight from Friday to Saturday, with officers reportedly seeking evidence including DNA samples which might link him to a building in the town of Alcanar, some 200km south of Barcelona - believed to be where the attack was prepared.

El Pais, a leading Spanish daily, said they were investigating whether the imam, who apparently left Ripoll around a month ago, might be one of two bodies discovered in the Alcanar house. Sources involved in the investigation said they believed he was a "spiritual or ideological leader" to the cell members, radicalising them and helping them to plan the attacks.

The sources cited the lack of previous terror links among the group, and said they had detected a number of trips by some members to France and Morocco. Police did not officially confirm or deny the reports.

A spokesman for the Catalan force told journalists that they were working on the "principal hypothesis" that the cell was comprised of 12 members, 11 of whom have been identified and hail almost exclusively from Ripoll.

The head of the Ripoll mosque at which Abdelbaki Es Satty preached told reporters that he had arrived just over a year ago and left at the end of June, when he asked for three months' holiday to visit Morocco and was denied.

The imam, said to be a father aged about 45, had never said or done anything to prompt concern, said mosque chief Ali Yassine.

"We never heard anything about him or received any complaint until this happened - and we don't know how this happened. It has fallen on us like a stone," he said. But, he added, no one could know what was happening "inside a person's head".

The suspected cell members rarely came to the mosque, but from their little interaction had seemed like "normal boys", Mr Yassine explained, adding that he had only ever seen Younes Aouyaaquoub "three or four times".

Mr Yassine said he was not aware of any lessons the iman was conducting outside the mosque, insisting that if he had learnt that was happening, he would have prevented it and gone to the police.

The mosque president emphatically condemned this week's attacks, saying terrorism were the acts of "crazy people".

Five members of the cell died at the hands of police in the attack on Cambrils late on Thursday night, which killed one woman and injured several others. Moussa Oukabir (17), Mohammed Hychami (23) and Said Aallaa (19), all believed to be of Moroccan origin, have been officially identified as among the attackers killed. The other two have been named by Spanish press as Omar Hychami, Mohammed's brother, and Houssaine Aouyaaquoub, who is presumed to be a family member of Younes Aouyaaquoub, the suspected driver of the Ramblas van who is still on the run.

Another four people have been detained - including Driss Oukabir, Moussa's 23-year-old brother, whose identification was found in the van that attacked Barcelona's Ramblas but who claims it was stolen by his sibling.

Almost all of the men lived in close proximity in Ripoll - Oukabir and Mohammed Hychami lived in the same building, while Allaa lived in the nearby town of Ribes de Freser.

What remains unclear is exactly what led the cell to Alcanar, a town 200km to the south, where police believe they were preparing an attack initially intended to involve explosives.

The towns of Alcanar and Cambrils both sit in a coastal area south of Barcelona that has gained a reputation as a Salafist hotbed after a number of terror arrests in recent years. It was in Salou, adjacent to Cambrils, that one of the 9/11 attackers, Mohammed Atta, held a meeting with a key al-Qaeda figure. But its connection to Ripoll is unknown.

Police have found two bodies in the rubble of the house after a blast in the early hours of Thursday morning, which was initially suspected to be caused by a gas leak in a drugs lab. One of the men injured in the blast - a Spanish national from the enclave of Melilla in Morocco - was later arrested as a suspected terror cell member.

Investigators at the site, where controlled explosions were carried out on Friday and Saturday, later discovered a stockpile of explosive material including more than 100 gas canisters.

Local media reported that a crude and unstable homemade explosive known as acetone peroxide was being produced in the house.

The bomb used last May by Salman Ramadan Abedi to kill 23 children and adults at Manchester Arena was based on a similar explosive.

Neighbours in Alcanar speculated that recent high temperatures in the heatwave afflicting the region might have triggered the explosion.

That may possibly have saved Barcelona from an even more devastating attack. Catalan police said they believed the group had been preparing to use the explosives - either against one target or in multiple coordinated attacks.

They could not confirm or deny reports in two Spanish newspapers that the cell's 'Plan A' was to blow up the Sagrada Familia - the iconic Barcelona cathedral designed by Antonio Gaudi.

Residents of Ripoll - a town of just 11,000 people, around a tenth of whom are of North African origin - said that Moussa Oukabir and the imam disappeared around the same time.

At the home of Younes Aouyaaquoub, an elderly neighbour said that she would not have believed the teenager capable of such violence.

"To me, he has always been a good boy, no trouble. I do not understand why he would do this. I am angry," she said.

Others in the neighbourhood also expressed disbelief that so many young men from the town could have been drawn into terrorism.

Speaking to journalists, an assistant at a tobacconist's shop close to where Moussa Oubakir lived said no one in the town had heard of anyone leaving to join Isil.

The woman, who would only give her first name, Ximena, added: "We don't get this here. We are a small town and we would know about it."

Spanish security services yesterday said that they would maintain the state of alert at level four, rather than raising it to the maximum of five, saying they did not believe a further terrorist attack was imminent.

Sites with high numbers of tourists, such as the Sagrada Familia which will today hold a special mass for peace, will also be closely guarded.

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