Spain hunts van driver as larger gas attack plot comes into focus
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Spain hunts van driver as larger gas attack plot comes into focus

Police say Barcelona attacker may have left country, confirm 12-strong terror cell believed to have planned series of attacks with over 120 gas canisters

Spanish police officers block a road near Alcanar on August  20, 2017, as part of an operation to find a suspect of the Barcelona terror attack. (AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN)
Spanish police officers block a road near Alcanar on August 20, 2017, as part of an operation to find a suspect of the Barcelona terror attack. (AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN)

BARCELONA, Spain (AFP) — Spanish police said Sunday that the Moroccan man suspected of driving the van used in one of the devastating twin attacks that claimed 14 lives could be at large outside Spain, as official revealed the extent of an apparently aborted plot involving dozens of gas bombs.

“We don’t know where he is,” said regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero, referring to 22-year-old suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub, as officials confirmed that the cell behind the carnage had been preparing “one or more” assaults in Barcelona.

More than 120 gas canisters have been uncovered in a house where the suspects were believed to have been building bombs, Trapero said.

But the jihadists had accidentally detonated an explosive at the house on the eve of Thursday’s attack in Barcelona, an error that likely forced them to modify their plans.

This is an undated handout photo sourced from social media of 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaquoub. (Social Media via AP)
This is an undated handout photo sourced from social media of 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaquoub. (Social Media via AP)

He said authorities haven’t been able to positively identify the human remains at the house in Alcanar, complicating the manhunt.

Trapero told reporters that the radical cell of 12 people had rented three vans and also used a car and motorcycle in plotting their attack.

He said ingredients of the explosive TATP, which has been used by Islamic State extremists in other attacks, were found at the home in Alcanar that was destroyed Wednesday, along with more than 100 butane gas tanks.

“That makes us think this is the place where they were preparing the explosives,” Trapero said.

A picture taken on August 20, 2017 shows a crane in the rubble of a house,where suspects of this week's twin assaults in Spain were believed to be building bombs, in Alcanar. (AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN)
A picture taken on August 20, 2017 shows a crane in the rubble of a house,where suspects of this week’s twin assaults in Spain were believed to be building bombs, in Alcanar. (AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN)

Instead, a vehicle was used 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, there was another attack in the seaside town of Cambrils in which one woman was killed.

Police shot and killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knives.

Snipers on rooftops

In Barcelona, locals and tourists turned out in force on Sunday to mourn victims at the Sagrada Familia church designed by Gaudi, as snipers were posted on surrounding rooftops of the landmark building.

King Felipe, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont led the 90-minute ceremony, while heavily armed police stood guard outside.

Spain's King Felipe VI (C), Spain's Queen Letizia (R) and Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (L), (2nd row from L) President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa leave after a mass to commemorate victims of two devastating terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, at the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on August 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT)
Spain’s King Felipe VI (C), Spain’s Queen Letizia (R) and Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (L), (2nd row from L) President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa leave after a mass to commemorate victims of two devastating terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, at the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona on August 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT)

Catalonia resident Teresa Rodriguez said she came to pray for the dead and the wounded who came from three dozen countries, some as far afield as Australia, China and Peru.

“What happened in Las Ramblas is really hard for us, we go for walks there often, it could have happened to me, my children or anyone. And here we are. It’s huge, huge,” she said, fighting back tears.

Imam’s role?

Later Sunday, nearly 100,000 people are expected at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium for their team’s first game of the season, to be marked by a minute of silence for the victims.

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attacks, believed to be its first in Spain.

The terror cell was reportedly made up of at least 12 men, some of them teenagers. Police also confirmed that an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, was among the suspects.

A picture taken on August 19, 2017 with the shows the flat of imam Abdelbaki Es Satty after police officers carried out a search linked to the deadly terror Barcelona attack at the home in Ripoll, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100. (AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA)
A picture taken on August 19, 2017 with the shows the flat of imam Abdelbaki Es Satty after police officers carried out a search linked to the deadly terror Barcelona attack at the home in Ripoll, two days after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 100. (AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA)

Investigators are seeking to unravel the role of the imam, who is believed to have radicalized many of the youths in a small town called Ripoll at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Several of the suspects — including Abouyaaqoub — grew up or lived in the town of about 10,000 residents.

On Saturday, police raided the imam’s apartment in Ripoll, his flatmate, who would only identify himself as Nourddem, told AFP.

Investigators were looking for DNA traces to check if he had been blown up in an explosion at the house in Alcanar, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of Barcelona, where the gas canisters were found.

Radicalizing youngsters

The imam was reportedly known to police, with Spanish media saying he had spent time in prison.

El Pais and El Mundo quoting anti-terror forces said the imam had met prisoners linked to the Al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of Madrid trains that killed 191 people in March 2004 in what remains the worst terror attack in Europe.

Moha, 46, who lives in Ripoll, said the imam was initially part of the only mosque in town, but “later left and (set up) his own prayer hall in a garage.”

“There has been a change in the community since he arrived more than two years ago,” said Moha.

He said the youths used to frequent a Moroccan cafe near the first mosque where they would watch football matches but had stopped doing so more than a year ago.

In the Moroccan town of M’rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub also 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.

‘Brainwashed’

Most of the suspects are children of Moroccan immigrants, including Ripoll-born Moussa Oukabir, 17, one of five suspects shot dead in Cambrils. His older brother Driss is among the four arrested.

In Morocco, their father Said broke down on hearing the news.

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

A cousin said Moussa “loved playing football, having a good time, chatting up girls.”

“The last few months, he started to become interested in religion. He used to go to a mosque in Ripoll. Maybe that’s where he was brainwashed,” the cousin said.

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