Spanish attacks exemplify Europe’s terrorist threat
London - The Barcelona and Cambrils attacks exemplify the difficult task for European countries in predicting and preventing retaliatory attacks by so-called soldiers of the Islamic State (ISIS).
With all 12 members of the Ripoll cell accounted for — either killed or captured — it is clear those who carried out the attacks were radicalised and recruited in a way that raises questions about Spain’s counterterrorism policies.
“The executors of the Barcelona attack are soldiers of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting coalition states,” said a statement issued by ISIS’s Amaq news agency two hours after the August 17 attack.
The term “soldier of the Islamic State” has often been used by the group to claim responsibility for attacks by those inspired, not directly commissioned, by ISIS. It is not thought that any member of the Ripoll cell fought in Iraq or Syria, although investigators are checking into reports that members of the cell had recently visited Paris.
It is believed that all of those involved in the two attacks were radicalised in Spain — all can trace some connection to the picturesque Pyrenees town of Ripoll and particularly to local imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, whom Spanish authorities are investigating as the likely “ringleader” of the cell.
Many questions were raised about how the 42-year-old Moroccan-born imam — who died before the attacks in an explosion in a house in the Catalan town of Alcanar that was being used as a base of operations by the terrorist cell — radicalised so many young people without being detected.
Questions must also be asked about how he attained senior positions at two Ripoll mosques despite having a criminal background, no formal religious education and having previously been sacked from a Belgian mosque in 2016 over allegations of radicalism.
Satty was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 for smuggling cannabis. It was during his time in Valencia’s Castellon prison that Satty reportedly became close to Rachid Aglif, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement in the 2004 Madrid bomb attacks that killed 192 people.
People in Ripoll said they had not been aware of the imam’s criminal past, even if the authorities did know. In Spain, the appointment of a new imam must be communicated to the regional government.
“What surprises me is that they [the authorities] never told us that he had a criminal record. Why didn’t they warn us? If we had known we would never have allowed him to be imam here,” Hammou Minhaj, secretary of Ripoll’s Muslim community, told Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
The Ripoll cell bears many hallmarks to recent attacks in Europe.
The explosives manufactured in the attackers’ base in Alcanar contained triacetone triperoxide, the same type of explosive used in the Manchester bombing this year and the London 7/7 bombings in 2005.
After the explosion destroyed the attackers’ bombing capacity, they resorted to low-tech vehicle attacks such as those seen in London, Nice and Berlin.
The terrorists in the Cambrils attack were wearing fake suicide vests, like those in the London Bridge attack, most likely to ensure they would be gunned down by police and not captured.
The Ripoll cell was also made up of at least two sets of brothers. Family ties often form the bedrock of many terrorist cells. Brothers were involved in the Paris 2015 attacks: Salah and Brahim Abdeslam. Brothers were also involved in the 2016 Brussels bombing: Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui.
Surviving cousins and brothers of the terrorists told the media that Satty tried to speak to them about Islam, only to be rebuffed.
There is also the Morocco connection to consider. Six members of the Ripoll cell are believed to be Moroccan citizens and the others are second-generation immigrants from Moroccan parents. A large proportion of those who carried out similar attacks in Europe — including the Paris and Brussels attacks — were of Moroccan descent, with questions of integration and identity coming to the fore.
What is clear is that Europe in general and Spain in particular can expect similar attacks in the future, despite ISIS’s retreat in Iraq and Syria.
One week after the attack, ISIS issued its first Spanish-language video pledging more attacks in “Al-Andalus.” An ISIS jihadist, who identified himself as Abu Lais Al Qurtubi or Abu Lais “of Cordoba,” called on ISIS sympathisers in Spain to carry out attacks similar to those in Barcelona and Cambrils. “If you can’t make the journey to the Islamic State, carry out jihad where you are: Jihad doesn’t have borders,” he said.