Saturday 24 February 2018

Target: explosion in the cathedral

Spanish police fear 'dismantled' terror cell behind van and car atrocities was planning to use truck laden with butane bottles to blow up Gaudi's Sagrada Familia temple, writes Lizzie Dearden

Their target — la Sagrada Familia, the unfinished temple designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and one of the best loved landmarks of Barcelona
Their target — la Sagrada Familia, the unfinished temple designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and one of the best loved landmarks of Barcelona

Lizzie Dearden

Spanish officials said yesterday that the terror cell responsible for the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils had been "completely dismantled".

However, it is believed that an international manhunt is still under way for the man thought to be the driver of the van which rammed into pedestrians.

The cell behind the attacks was planning a series of devastating assaults, potentially including a large-scale truck bomb, investigators revealed yesterday.

A huge search was under way across Europe last night for at least one jihadist feared to be still at large after plotting the attacks, as reports emerged that the cell may have planned to target the Sagrada Familia.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona, in the immedaite aftermath of the van attack last week
Las Ramblas, Barcelona, in the immedaite aftermath of the van attack last week

Police were last night still hunting for four suspects involved in the attacks, which left 13 dead in Barcelona and another victim dead in the seaside resort of Cambrils after they were ploughed into by a van and car. Five terrorists were also shot dead by police.

Plans for numerous attacks involving explosive gas canisters were abandoned by the terrorists only after the house in which they were being stored was accidentally blown up last week, police believe.

The revelation came as the suspected driver of the van who launched the assault in the Las Ramblas district of Barcelona was named as Younes Abouyaaqoub (22).

The identities of the victims of the attacks also started to emerge, including a Spanish father run down in front of his partner and young children. The family of a seven-year-old British boy who remains missing launched desperate appeals for information about his whereabouts.

The remains of the house in Alcanar where the Isil cell was preparing a bomb
The remains of the house in Alcanar where the Isil cell was preparing a bomb

The two attacks, launched eight hours apart, injured more than 130 people from 34 countries. But investigators said the assaults were "rudimentary" compared with the original aspirations of a terror cell that had spent months plotting multiple massacres.

Josep Lluis Trapero, the head of Catalonia's police force, said a group of extremists had been preparing multiple assaults for "some time" before their base was destroyed by a gas explosion that killed one person on Wednesday night.

Around 20 bottles of butane were discovered in the ruins of a house in Alcanar, which analysts said could have been loaded into a vehicle and blown up in a ramming attack.

A second van found in the town of Vic in Catalonia is also being investigated by police amid reports that the attackers had tried to hire a lorry, which was foiled when the driver failed to produce the necessary permit.

Bruno Gullotta
Bruno Gullotta

The destruction of the gas canisters in Wednesday's explosion appears to have disrupted the plot further, rushing jihadis into the unsophisticated attack in Barcelona and a second ramming in Cambrils.

Thousands of tourists and locals were packed into the famous La Rambla street when a hired white van started ploughing into crowds, zig-zagging in a deliberate effort to mow down pedestrians.

The driver fled the scene, sparking a huge manhunt. Last night there were conflicting reports about whether he had been shot by police or was still on the run.

Security services are examining forensic evidence, including DNA from terrorists in Spain, France, Germany and the UK to investigate the possibility of links between perpetrators across Europe. No connection has yet been established with the terror attacks on the UK so far this year.

Elke Vanbockrijck
Elke Vanbockrijck

As investigators continued to piece together the events of a bloody 24 hours, Barcelona's residents gathered at a vigil to remember the victims.

The King of Spain and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were among thousands who crammed into the iconic Plaça de Catalunya to observe a minute's silence.

It was followed by sustained applause that has become customary as a sign of respect following terror attacks across Europe, before crowds burst into spontaneous chants of "No tinc por!", meaning "We are not afraid."

Jared Tucker and his wife Heidi Nunes
Jared Tucker and his wife Heidi Nunes

Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, praised the show of defiance, telling a press conference: "We will win this battle against terrorism... with solidarity, freedom and respect.

"These terrorist attacks have tried to break the way we understand and live life but the answer we have seen this morning has been the return to normality, without fear."

But life is not normal in Spain, where barriers are being installed around pedestrian areas in Madrid and other major cities and tourist attractions, and the government holding emergency meetings.

Mr Rajoy said all of Spain's political parties were uniting to combat terrorism and will "have the same attitude of victory towards vanquishing terrorism... we have had enough attacks".

He added that the "global battle" would be fought by all countries that defend democracy, freedom and human rights.

Having declared three days of national mourning, the prime minister announced a meeting yesterday where the country's terror threat level was assessed.

Luca Russo
Luca Russo

Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May were among the world leaders offering support to Spain following the latest Isil-related atrocities, which bring the number of people killed in attacks in Western Europe since 2014 to 330.

Mrs May said she had offered her "deepest condolences" to her Spanish counterpart over the attack, which injured several British tourists.

She added: "The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with Spain in confronting and dealing with the evil of terrorism and I have offered any assistance that we can provide. We must work together if we are to confront this evil of terrorism and the perverted, extremist ideology which drives it."

Officials have not publicly identified any of the dead suspects but Mr Trapero said investigators were looking into the possibility that the man who drove the van in Barcelona could have been among them.

"We are investigating whether one of the people shot dead in Cambrils might be the driver [of the van in Barcelona] but at the moment we don't have any confirmed information," he said.

The brother of another suspect, Moussa Oukabir, claimed the teenager stole his ID documents, which were found in the van after the massacre, in order to hire the vehicle.

Ian Moore Wilson
Ian Moore Wilson

Moussa's social media accounts painted a picture of an action film buff and football fan prone to violent and extremist outbursts.

During a question and answer session on a site where he went under the name 'Moussa Street Boy' two years ago, someone asked what he would do on his first day as king of the world.

"Kill the infidels and only leave Muslims that follow the religion," Moussa replied, later naming a country he would never live in as the Catholic Vatican.

His older brother Driss remains in custody after being stopped by authorities, who confirmed he has a criminal record and was imprisoned in Figueres until 2012.

He is among four men aged 21, 27, 28 and 34 who have been arrested so far, one in Alcunar and three in Ripoll.

Three are Moroccan nationals and one is a Spanish citizen from the coastal enclave of Melilla in North Africa, while none have a criminal background linked with terrorism.

Catalan police are also investigating whether another car ramming incident in Barcelona on Thursday, when a vehicle drove through a police checkpoint, is linked to the terror cell.

Julian Alessandro Cadman, seven, who is missing in the aftermath of Thursday's terror attack in Barcelona
Julian Alessandro Cadman, seven, who is missing in the aftermath of Thursday's terror attack in Barcelona

When police officers intercepted it several miles down the road, a man was found stabbed to death inside and detectives suspect someone was attempting to move the body.

A statement from Isil said the main attacks were carried out by "soldiers of the Islamic State" responding to calls to target countries in the US-led coalition bombing its territories in Syria and Iraq - wording frequently used to describe massacres inspired but not directed by its militants.

After the Las Ramblas attack, an Audi car was ploughed into pedestrians walking along the seafront in Cambrils, before overturning in a dramatic crash.

The five occupants of the car emerged wearing fake suicide vests and brandishing axes and knives, stabbing one person in the face before being shot dead by a police officer as tourists ran for cover in surrounding restaurants.

Footage showed one attacker appearing to taunt the officer and getting up before being shot, while making a hand symbol associated with jihadis.

Fitzroy Davies, from Wolverhampton, compared the scene to a "horror film" and described the attacker as behaving "like somebody who was on drugs".

"He then fell down and then within two seconds he stood back up," he said.

"He then stepped over the fence, charged the police again and the police then gave some more shots and then he fell down again."

A woman who was among seven people injured in the attack died in hospital, bringing the toll from both atrocities to 14, with American, Italian, Belgian and Spanish victims so far named among the dead.

The atrocities followed guidance issued by Isil on what it calls "just terror tactics", advising followers to hire lorries and other large vehicles to run over victims in crowded public places.

Updated orders issued earlier this year urged attackers to have a secondary weapon in the vehicle like a gun, knife or explosives to continue the massacre after crashing, and included instructions on how to make incendiary devices.

The advice has been echoed in the attacks in Nice, Berlin, Westminster and London Bridge.

A foiled plot in Paris last year saw Isil supporters load a car with gas canisters, while a man died in June after ramming a car full of explosives into police on Paris's Champs-Elysees, and a lorry attacker in Stockholm had put an explosive device in the front seat that failed to properly explode on impact.

Tom Wilson, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said the attacks were "another indicator that we have moved into a new era of terrorism".

"Distinct from the highly organised and rigid top-down approach of al-Qa'ida, we now confront a far more challenging threat," he added.

"This is the 'leaderless jihad' of Islamic State in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities."

As investigations into the Spanish atrocities continued news emerged of a stabbing attack that killed at least two people in Finland. Officials said they could not immediately confirm whether the rampage in the city of Turku was terror-related.

Sunday Independent

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