BARCELONA, Spain — A Moroccan imam believed to have radicalized youths who committed a pair of terror attacks in Spain was confirmed dead Monday in an accidental explosion at the suspects’ bomb factory, police said.
Asked whether Abdelbaki Es Satty had died in the blast on Wednesday that precipitated the attacks, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero said: “It is confirmed,” adding, “the remains of the imam were there” in the house in Alcanar that exploded.
Confirmation of Satty’s death on Monday came as Spanish police shot dead Younes Abouyaaqoub, the suspected driver of the van that mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona, after a massive manhunt for the Moroccan national who was wearing what appeared to be a suicide belt when he was killed.
“We confirm that the person shot down in the incident in Subirats (near Barcelona) is Younes Abouyaaqoub, the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Barcelona,” police in Catalonia tweeted.
Four days after his van rampage on the tourist-packed Las Ramblas boulevard, police took down the 22-year-old, in the village about 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Barcelona.
Police said their operation on a winding road between two vineyards was ongoing as they were trying to determine if there were other suspects involved in the devastating twin attacks that claimed 15 lives last week.
They had removed the apparent suicide belt from Abouyaaqoub’s body, but had yet to confirm if it was real or fake.
Roser Ventura, who works at a nearby vineyard, told AFP she saw around 20 police cars drive by with sirens wailing while helicopters rattled overhead, as she heard the news about the shot man on the radio.
Arnau Gomez, who lives about a kilometer (nearly two-thirds of a mile) away from where the suspect was shot, described the village of 300 people as being an ideal hideout as “it is far from everything.”
“In the hills there are many homes of seasonal workers, it’s easy to hide,” he told AFP.
Earlier Monday, police had launched an appeal for information about the fugitive described as dangerous and likely armed, believed to be the last remaining member of a 12-man cell suspected of plotting last week’s deadly attacks.
The other suspects have been killed by police or detained after the vehicle rampages in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils. The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the terror attacks, believed to be their first in Spain.
Authorities on Monday raised the death toll to 15, confirming that Pau Perez, a 34-year-old man found stabbed to death in a Ford Focus outside Barcelona on Friday, was killed by Abouyaaqoub.
The police had fired at the car as it forced its way through a checkpoint shortly after the Barcelona carnage, and later found Perez in the vehicle.
Investigators believe the victim was the owner of the car, which was hijacked by Abouyaaqoub to make his getaway.
Describing Abouyaaqoub as around 1.8 meters (five feet, 11 inches) tall, police tweeted four photographs of the man with short black hair, including three pictures in which he was wearing a black and white striped T-shirt.
Investigators seeking to unravel the terror cell had homed in on the small border town of Ripoll at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.
Several suspects including Abouyaaqoub grew up or lived in the town.
Satty had also come under scrutiny as he is believed to have radicalized youths in Ripoll.
Police raided more homes in Ripoll on Monday, Catalonia’s regional interior minister Joaquim Forn said.
Police said the imam had spent time in prison and had once been in contact with a suspect wanted on terrorism charges, but was never himself charged with terror-related incidents.
In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told AFP that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen — next to the city’s airport — between January and March 2016.
On the other side of Brussels, the Molenbeek suburb has gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists, after the Brussels bombings in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.
In the Moroccan town of M’rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub have accused the imam of radicalizing the young man, as well as his brother Houssein.
“Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalize under the influence of this imam,” their grandfather told AFP.
A neighbor close to the Abouyaaqoub family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the imam “had recruited Moroccans of Ripoll and planned the attacks.”
But Ali Assid, president of the Annour Islamic community that runs the Ripoll mosque where Satty was preaching, said the imam “never sent a radical message, all he preached was really Islam. If he is behind all that, there he must be showing us one face in the mosque and showing another face outside.”
The imam had been missing since Tuesday and on Saturday police raided his apartment.
‘One or more attacks’
The suspected jihadists had been preparing bombs for “one or more attacks in Barcelona,” regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters, revealing that traces of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) — a homemade explosive that is an IS hallmark — had also been found.
The accidental explosion in the house in Alcanar, south of Barcelona, may have forced the suspects to modify their plans.
Instead, they used a vehicle to smash into crowds on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas boulevard, as it was thronged with tourists, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.
Several hours later, a similar attack in the seaside town of Cambrils left one woman dead. Police shot dead the five attackers, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knives.