Spain expands manhunt for Barcelona terror ringleader
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Spain expands manhunt for Barcelona terror ringleader

Moroccan national sought in twin attacks that killed 14; Madrid decides not to raise terror threat level to maximum

  • People stand next to flowers, candles and other items set up on the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona as they pay tribute to the victims of the Barcelona attack, a day after a van plowed into the crowd, killing 14 and injuring over 100 on August 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT)
    People stand next to flowers, candles and other items set up on the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona as they pay tribute to the victims of the Barcelona attack, a day after a van plowed into the crowd, killing 14 and injuring over 100 on August 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT)
  • Medical staff members and policemen standing in a cordoned-off area after a van plowed into the crowd on the Las Ramblas Boulevard in Barcelona, Spain, on August 17, 2017. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)
    Medical staff members and policemen standing in a cordoned-off area after a van plowed into the crowd on the Las Ramblas Boulevard in Barcelona, Spain, on August 17, 2017. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Candles and bunches of flowers placed by people rest on the ground in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. (Francisco Seco/AP)
    Candles and bunches of flowers placed by people rest on the ground in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. (Francisco Seco/AP)
  • A worker starts to tow away a car involved in a terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 75 miles south of Barcelona, on August 18, 2017. (AFP/Lluis Gene)
    A worker starts to tow away a car involved in a terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 75 miles south of Barcelona, on August 18, 2017. (AFP/Lluis Gene)

BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish police expanded a manhunt Saturday for a Moroccan national believed to be one of the perpetrators of twin terror attacks in Barcelona and another seaside resort that killed 14 and wounded around 100.

But authorities decided to maintain the country’s terrorist threat rating at level 4, declaring that no new attacks were imminent.

Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said the cell behind the attacks “has been completely dismantled.” He told reporters the group was believed to have consisted of at least 12 young men, many of them Moroccan, some teenagers.

He added that the country would nevertheless reinforce security for events that draw large crowds and popular tourist sites.

Early in the morning, police searched two buses in northwest Catalonia in the hunt for any remaining members of the cell. Nothing was found in the searches in Girona and Garrigas, police tweeted.

Police also announced a series of controlled explosions Saturday in the town of Alcanar, south of Barcelona, where the carnage was planned in a rental house destroyed a day before the attacks by an apparently accidental blast. Authorities had initially written off the Wednesday night incident as a household gas accident, but took another look on Friday and returned on Saturday.

Police believe the Wednesday night blast, which killed at least one person and injured one of the people currently in custody, actually prevented a far deadlier attack using explosives, forcing the extremists to use more “rudimentary” vehicles instead.

In a tweet Saturday, Catalan police urged Alcanar residents not to be alarmed by the controlled explosions.

With investigators working round the clock to identify the network behind the bloodshed, police said they were hunting for 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub without confirming reports he was the driver who plowed a van into pedestrians in Barcelona on Thursday.

Police officers walk by tributes left for victims of the Barcelona attack, on the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona on August 19, 2017, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100. (AFP PHOTO / Pascal GUYOT)
Police officers walk by tributes left for victims of the Barcelona attack, on the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona on August 19, 2017, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100. (AFP PHOTO / Pascal GUYOT)

Thirteen people died at the scene and scores more were injured in scenes of horror witnessed by terrified friends and relatives, with locals and tourists laying flowers, candles and teddies in their memory.

Investigators meanwhile were working furiously to unravel the terror cell of at least 12 young men — some of them teenagers — behind the Barcelona rampage and a second ramming attack with a car in the seaside town of Cambrils.

One woman was killed and six other people wounded, with police killing five “suspected terrorists” who were in the car and arresting four others.

The Barcelona and Camblis attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.

Police have also identified another three suspects linked to the attacks, two of whom are thought to have died in the blast in Alcanar.

As the hunt for Abouyaaqoub gathers pace, Spanish police tipped off their French counterparts about a white van linked to the attacks that may have crossed the border, a French police source told AFP.

Police in Catalonia said three of the suspects shot dead in Cambrils were Moroccan nationals, identifying them as Moussa Oukabir, 17, Said Aallaa, 18, and Mohamed Hychami, 24.

Moussa’s brother Driss is one of the four arrested.

A woman writes a message on a book of condolences at the Salo de Cent of the town hall of Barcelona on August 19, 2017, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100 (AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)
A woman writes a message on a book of condolences at the Salo de Cent of the town hall of Barcelona on August 19, 2017, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100 (AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)

Back in Morocco, their father Said was in shock, with tears in his eyes when he was told of the news while at a wedding, surrounded by relatives.

“We’re under shock, completely devastated,” he told AFP, saying Moussa had been studying “normally” at school while Driss worked “honestly.”

“I hope they will say he’s innocent… I don’t want to lose my two sons.”

Police said they believed the suspects were planning a much larger attack, possibly a vehicle bomb, with the use of gas canisters.

But they appear to have made mistakes, accidentally detonating Wednesday’s explosion.

Security forces removed dozens of gas canisters from the house in Alcanar, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

“They were preparing one or several attacks in Barcelona, and an explosion in Alcanar stopped this as they no longer had the material they needed to commit attacks of an even bigger scope,” said Josep Lluis Trapero of Catalonia’s police.

Medical staff and policemen stand in a cordoned-off area after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people, in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. (AFP/Josep Lago)
Medical staff and policemen stand in a cordoned-off area after a van plowed into the crowd in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. (AFP/Josep Lago)

Both attacks followed the same modus operandi with drivers deliberately targeting pedestrians in the latest in a series of such assaults in Europe.

In July 2016, 86 people were killed in the French resort of Nice when a man rammed a truck into a crowd. There have since been other deadly attacks using vehicles in Berlin, London and Paris.

Otso Iho of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center said the Spanish assaults appeared to have “a much higher level of coordination than has been typically present in previous attacks.”

It is believed to be the first time IS has claimed an attack in Spain.

Among the dead and injured were people from three dozen countries, including Algeria, Australia, China, France, Ireland, Peru and Venezuela, Spanish officials said.

The Catalan government said seven victims had been identified — five Spanish nationals, an Italian and a Portuguese.

Fifty-nine people are still in hospital, including 15 in critical condition, the Catalan interior ministry said.

The Spanish government will decide on Saturday whether to raise the terror threat level from four to five — the maximum — at the height of the tourist season.

The tourism sector is crucial for Spain’s recovering economy, accounting for 11 percent of GDP.

Until now, Spain has been spared the recent wave of extremist attacks that have hit France, Belgium and Germany.

It has even seen a surge in tourists as visitors shun other restive sunshine destinations such as Tunisia and Egypt.

But it is no stranger to jihadist attacks.

In March 2004, it was hit by what remains Europe’s deadliest attack, when bombs on commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people in an attack claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired extremists.

Spain has also had to deal with a decades-long campaign of violence waged by Basque separatist group ETA, which only declared a ceasefire in 2011.

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