The cell that murdered in Catalonia must have had accomplices. The people around the perpetrators are stunned.
Mourning and horror in the Muslim community in Ripoll, Catalonia Photo: ap
It is clear almost a week after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils that the terrorists actually wanted to blow up several landmarks in the Catalan capital and kill as many people as possible. It is also known that in addition to the six bombers who have since died, there were at least three other co-conspirators, including Abdelbaki Es Satty, the imam of the terror cell.
Es Satty and another man were killed the night before the murders at the group’s retreat in Alcanar, southern Catalonia, when their arsenal of bombs accidentally went off. As the police in Barcelona now announced on Thursday, the second dead man was Youssef Aalla, a brother of one of the terrorists shot in Cambrils. A third man survived the accident.
But who, apart from Es Satty, whose age is sometimes given as 34, sometimes as 42, sometimes as 45, is responsible for the radicalization of the eight young men – three of whom lived to be only 17 – from the northern Catalan town of Ripoll, remains as much a mystery so far as who helped the terrorists prepare their acts.
In addition to the Alcanar survivor, the investigating judge of the Special Court of Madrid on Tuesday detained Driss Oukabir, also a resident of Ripoll, for an indefinite period on suspicion of belonging to the terrorist cell. The 28-year-old had rented the murder car for his 17-year-old brother Moussa and his co-conspirators – but claims the terrorists told him something about a planned move.
The search continues
Oukabir turned himself in to police shortly after the attack when he heard his name on television. He claims to have nothing to do with the plot; he called Imam Es Satty, who allegedly recruited the killers, a "son of a bitch" during police questioning, according to the regional newspaper Ara.
After three days in custody, Sahl Ek K., the operator of an Internet cafe who had bought airline tickets for some of the assassins in the past, was released yesterday. He was able to prove that he regularly made such purchases against payment for people who did not have credit cards.
Nine terrorists have thus been identified. It is clear, however, that the search for accomplices must continue. On the one hand, there are the connections abroad: the weekend before the attacks, some of the attackers drove to the Paris area in the car that was then used in Cambrils. Two of them had been in Zurich in December. Imam Es Satty, considered the group’s mastermind and instigator, stayed from January to March 2016 in Vilvoorde, Belgium, considered a stronghold of terrorist Salafism.
Arrests in Morocco
Equally significant is arguably the link to Morocco, where some of the attackers were born and where all eight were from. According to the newspaper El Mundo, one of them had asked a friend in Morocco during a phone call in May if anyone from the city of Meknes had inquired about him. It was probably an agitator who was baiting poor young Moroccans with videos of the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS), among other things.
In Morocco, according to media reports, three people were arrested on Tuesday in connection with the attacks in Catalonia: an underage cousin of the Oukabirs who had approved of the acts, and a man who until recently lived in Ripoll, where he is said to have delivered butane gas. He is said to have lived in the same house as the driver of the Ramblas. He is also suspected of having been found in the terrorist group’s base in Alcanar, which was accidentally destroyed, with around 120 butane containers. They would have immensely increased the explosive power of the bombs, which according to police were almost ready.
There may also have been further support in or around Barcelona. After committing his crime on the Ramblas, 22-year-old death driver Younes Abouyaaqoub fled five kilometers on foot through the city, then stabbed a motorist to continue driving his car, but left the car still in the Barcelona area. When he was recognized and shot about 30 kilometers away as the crow flies on Monday, he was not only wearing different clothes than on the day of the crime, but also a dummy explosive belt. That suggests he had support in the meantime.
A "good example"
Meanwhile, in Ripoll, the perpetrators’ place of origin, friends, relatives, former teachers and socio-educational support staff are stunned by the act of the young men, whom they perceive as completely normal. The attackers are described as "very well integrated," speaking both Catalan and Spanish very well, having local friends, participating in the social life of their community, playing soccer, liking cars and hip-hop music, being nice and rather reserved, not bad students, and not even particularly poor.
From an early age, the terrorists benefited from local recreational and integration programs, and later from a government aid program for integration into the labor market. Most of them had or had training in the mechanical field, including Abouyaaqoub, the driver who was killed. Shortly after he was identified as the main bomber, friends described him to a journalist as "un tIo de puta madre" – a cool guy. He was one of the best at school and in his training, and most recently worked for a metal processing company.
"My parents always held Younes up to me as a good example," says a former classmate. A social worker who knew the fatality driver from an early age posted a text to express her shock: "How can this be, Younes? My fingers are shaking. I don’t know anyone as responsible as you. My heart is broken."
Ripoll has only about 11,000 inhabitants. The proportion of those who knew the attackers or their families is correspondingly large. Since the attacks, mayors and local associations have organized rallies and offered psychological counseling. Nevertheless, there are increasing reports of anti-foreigner and specifically anti-Moroccan statements and behavior. Behind this is the thought: If even such model boys are not immune to terrorist ideas, it is not a Muslim at all.
Behavioral changes since a year ago
In fact, at least some of the initial statements about the supposedly perfectly integrated assassins seem superficial. For example, none of them is said to have stood out for their particular religiosity. Spanish newspapers now report that friends and relatives in both Ripoll and Morocco, where some of the assassins visited from time to time, have been observing changes in behavior for about a year. The young men had desisted from alcohol, music and nightlife and occasionally appeared unusually serious, they said.
Driss Oukabir, who is now in custody himself, reports that his younger brother Moussa accused him of drinking alcohol and not going to mosque often enough. He says this started after Abdelbaki Es Satty became imam in 2015.
Es Satty is described in Ripoll as an obscure but intelligent loner. He kept quiet about his biography and information about his family circumstances, but never attracted attention through radicalism – or almost never. The newspaper El PaIs reports of two people to whom he expressed radical views. In addition, a resident of Ripoll claims that he was warned about Es Satty from Morocco. A cousin of one of the terrorists says that the assassins have been meeting Es Satty secretly on and off for about a year, especially in his minibus. Three apartments in a cheap apartment building, apparently rented specifically for occasional meetings, are also now known. There, the young men are said to have had their brains washed.
Radicalization in detention?
Ara, referring to investigative authorities, writes that Es Satty was present at a meeting of Salafist leaders in Catalonia – where there are said to be 80 Salafist communities – years ago. Other media, however, report on the basis of similar sources that Es Satty was not radicalized in Catalonia. The fact that he came into contact with an Islamist terrorist between 20 while serving a prison sentence for smuggling hashish is irrelevant. He only turned to religion after that.
This is strange, given that Es Satty had lived with a later Iraq bomber in 2003 and had contact with terror suspects in 2006, according to the online magazine El Independiente. In any case, a notebook with the imam’s name on it has now been found in the rubble of the terror cell’s base in Alcanar, containing a martial handwritten text in the name of the Islamic State.
How Es Satty turn the young men into terrorists has yet to be fathomed. It is already known that the then 15-year-old Moussa Oukabir wrote in an Internet forum two years ago – at that time the imam had not long been active in Ripoll – that if he were to rule over the world, he would "kill the infidels and leave only those Muslims alive who follow the religion."