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World

Police Search for Spain Van Driver and Missing Moroccan Imam

Catalan police said the manhunt was centered on Younes Abouyaaquoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan suspected of driving the van that plowed into a Barcelona promenade, killing 13 people and injuring 120

A woman cries at a memorial tribute of flowers, messages and candles to the victims on Barcelona's historic Las Ramblas promenade, where a van attack killed at least 13 people, Spain, photo: AP/Emilio Morenatti
4 months ago

BARCELONA, Spain — Authorities in Spain searched Saturday for a member of an Islamic extremist cell that staged vehicle attacks in Barcelona and a seaside resort, focusing on links with his Moroccan comrades, a missing imam believed to have radicalized them and a house that blew up days ago.

Catalan police said the manhunt was centered on Younes Abouyaaquoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan suspected of driving the van that plowed into a Barcelona promenade packed with pedestrians Thursday, killing 13 people and injuring 120. Another attack early Friday killed one person and wounded five in the resort of Cambrils.

But the investigation was also focusing on a Moroccan imam who is thought to have radicalized the cell and was believed to have died on the eve of the Barcelona attack, police said.

Even with Abouyaaquoub still at large, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido declared the cell “broken” after five members were killed by police early Friday in a shootout, four were in custody and one or two were killed in a house explosion Wednesday. He said there was no new imminent threat of attack.

The manhunt spanned Spain and southern France, with Spanish police searching nine homes in the northeastern town of Ripoll, where most of the suspects lived, and two buses in northwest Catalonia.

Across the Pyrenees, French police carried out extra border checks on people coming from Spain.

Police also conducted a series of controlled explosions Saturday in the town of Alcanar, south of Barcelona, where the attacks were planned in a rental house that was destroyed Wednesday by an apparently accidental blast. Authorities had initially thought it was a household gas accident, but took another look Friday and returned on Saturday.

Initially, only one person was believed killed in the Wednesday blast. But officials said DNA tests were underway to determine if human remains found there Friday were from a second victim.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators believed a Moroccan imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, might have been the second victim of the house explosion.

Police on Friday searched his home in the northern town of Ripoll. A search warrant seen by a news agency authorized police to extract any terrorism-related “weapons, ammunition, explosives, instruments, documents or papers” found.

Es Satty wasn’t there, and the president of the mosque where he preached, Ali Yassine, said he hadn’t seen him since June, when he announced he was returning to Morocco for three months.

In a notice Saturday posted on that Ripoll mosque, members of the Muslim community denounced the vehicle attacks and offered their sympathy to the families of the victims.

The Islamic State group initially claimed responsibility for the Barcelona attack. In a new statement Saturday, it also claimed the attack early Friday in Cambrils, in which five extremists mowed down people along the boardwalk before police killed them.

Authorities said the two attacks were related and were the work of a large terrorist cell that had been plotting for a long time from the house in Alcanar, 125 miles down the coast from Barcelona.

The name of the lone suspect at large, Abouyaaquoub, figures on a police list of four main suspects sought in the attacks. All on the list hailed from Ripoll, a quiet, upscale town of 10,000 about 62 miles north of Barcelona.

The list was issued throughout Spain and into France, according to a Spanish official and a French police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the document.

The French official said Spain had also flagged a Kangoo utility vehicle that was believed to have been rented in Spain by a suspect in Thursday’s Barcelona attack that might have crossed the border.

Also named on the list is 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, whose brother Driss reported his documents stolen to police in Ripoll. Ripoll’s mayor confirmed the documents were found in one of the vehicles used in the attacks.

The brothers were born and raised in Ripoll, where the family’s first-floor apartment was searched Friday. No one was home.

Neighbors said they were shocked by the news of Moussa Oukabir’s alleged involvement. One teenager, who identified himself only by his first name, Pau, said they played together when they were younger and he was “a good boy.”

The sheer size of the cell recalled the November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which trained Islamic State attackers struck the national stadium, a Paris concert hall and bars and restaurants nearly simultaneously. Since then, the extremist group has steadily lost ground in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, most recently with its defeat in Mosul.

“This shows there is no correlation between what is happening over there with Daesh and the operational capacity of the group,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French security analyst, using another name for the group.

The attacks unnerved Spain, a country that hasn’t seen an Islamic extremist attack since 2004, when al-Qaida-inspired bombers killed 191 people in coordinated assaults on Madrid’s commuter trains. Unlike France, Britain, Sweden and Germany, Spain has largely been spared, thanks in part to a crackdown that has netted about 200 suspected jihadis in recent years.

But Spain decided to maintain its terrorist threat alert at level 4, declaring Saturday that no new attacks were imminent. Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said the country would nevertheless reinforce security for events that draw large crowds — like concerts and sports events — and popular tourist sites.

Islamic extremists have made a habit of targeting Europe’s major tourist attractions in recent years. Rented or hijacked vehicles have formed the backbone of a strategy to attack the West and its cultural symbols. Barcelona’s Las Ramblas promenade, which was struck Thursday, is one of the most popular attractions in a city that swarms with foreign tourists in August.

The dead and wounded in the two attacks came from 34 countries. The Catalan emergency service said 54 people remained hospitalized Saturday, 12 of them in critical condition.

Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia visited attack victims Saturday and spoke with the medical staff of Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar. The royal couple talked with one family in which two children and their father were recovering.

The 14 people killed in the attacked spanned generations — from age 3 to age 80 — and leave behind devastated loved ones.

They included Francisco Lopez Rodriguez, 57, who was killed with his 3-year-old grand-nephew, Javier Martinez, while walking along the Las Ramblas promenade. His wife Roser is recovering from her wounds in a hospital.

“We are a broken family,” niece Raquel Baron Lopez posted on Twitter.

ALEX OLLER
JOSEPH WILSON
LORI HINNANT

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