Spanish attacks exemplify Europe’s terrorist threat

© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly


2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 14


The Arab Weekly
Mahmud el-Shafey



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.


Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.


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