Questions abound as Spanish officials investigate terrorist attacks

Two days after a devastating vehicle attack on one of Europe’s most iconic tourist destinations, many questions still remained as Spanish authorities continued an investigation into the cell of suspected terrorists responsible for the brutal assault that killed 14 and injured hundreds more.

Compared with other recent vehicle attacks in Europe, the two that took place in Barcelona on Thursday and in the nearby seaside city of Cambrils early on Friday displayed an unusual degree of sophistication and coordination. Authorities are now investigating what they believe to be a terror cell of with possible bases in different locations across the region of Catalonia.

The investigation continued throughout the night with few new discoveries. Early Saturday, Spanish police announced via Twitter that they had searched two buses in the northwestern Spanish cities of Girona and Garrigas overnight, but to no avail.

Currently, authorities believe that at least eight suspects were involved in the Thursday and Friday attacks on Barcelona and, hours later, on Cambrils, roughly 70 miles southwest of Barcelona. While police shot dead five suspects early on Friday — and later arrested three others — at least one suspect remains at large. The fate of the driver of the van that plowed through this city’s famous La Rambla boulevard remains unknown. Despite the visibility of the attack, the driver managed to flee on foot in the aftermath.

Late Friday, Spanish media reported that the driver could have been among those killed by police earlier. While police continued to investigate that possibility, it has not yet been confirmed.

Police in Barcelona separated nationalist demonstrators from anti-fascist marchers the day after an attack killed more than a dozen people. (The Washington Post)

As details slowly began to emerge, they painted a picture of an attack that local authorities believe could have been far worse.

Police said they believed the assailants were planning to use propane and butane canisters in an explosive assault against civilians across Barcelona. On Wednesday night, however, the gas ignited prematurely in Alcanar, a small town little over 100 miles southwest of Barcelona that is one of the bases the suspects used. The massive explosion killed at least two people and injured 16, including police officers and firefighters investigating the site.

On Thursday afternoon, one of the suspects in the cell then headed for the crowded Las Ramblas area of Barcelona in a rented white delivery van, which he then used to mow down pedestrians strolling along the scenic tree-lined promenade, packed with shops and cafes. Hours later, other suspected members of the cell struck Cambrils in a similar attack. One more victim was killed in Cambrils, and police shot dead five of the suspected attackers at the scene.

By late Friday, Spanish intelligence officials were circulating at least four names among their European counterparts, according to a Spanish intelligence official and a European intelligence official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation.

The four men, all holding Moroccan citizenship, ranged in age from 17 to 24. Three were born in the North African country: Said Aallaa, 18; Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22; and Mohamed Hychami, 24. The fourth was identified in a Spanish police document as Moussa Oukabir, 17, but the European intelligence official said Spanish officials had flagged someone with the same family name but a different first name. All lived in or near the Catalan town of Ripoll, close to the French border.

At least three of the men were killed in the attack in Cambrils, the Spanish intelligence official said, without identifying which of them were dead.

Two Spanish security officials said police originally sought Oukabir’s older brother because his identity card was found in the truck used for the Barcelona attack. The older brother, who is in custody, denies any connection to the attack and said his brother may have stolen his identity card, the official said.

“We cannot rule out further attacks,” Maj. Josep Lluís Trapero, a Catalan police official, told reporters in Barcelona on Friday.

Authorities were not aware of any previous connection to extremism among the detained men, he said.

All five men involved in the second attack in Cambrils were shot dead after plowing an Audi into people along the corniche at about 1 a.m., Trapero said. He added that authorities were not aware of any previous connection to extremism among the detained men.

Early Saturday, however, police reportedly raided the home of a local imam in Ripoll whom they suspected to be among the dead in the Alcanar explosion, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Meanwhile, the city and the nation continued to mourn the international group of 14 victims — including at least one American — who were fatally struck in the heart of Barcelona and in Cambrils on Thursday and early Friday. On Saturday, Barcelona’s Mayor, Ada Colau, opened a book of condolences in city hall, where residents could pay their respects to their slain fellow citizens.

“We are closer than ever,” she told reporters Saturday. “I stand with all officials and citizens to condemn this terrorist attack, and we are together with all families of the victims, as well as those who remain in serious condition fighting for their lives.”

As the identities of the victims became known, the American was identified by his family as Jared Tucker, 42, of Lafayette, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, who was on a belated European vacation with his wife to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

In Washington on Friday, the State Department said that Spanish authorities still have not identified all of the casualties, so the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona is working with them to determine whether any more Americans were killed or injured.

The bloodshed prompted France to announce it was reinforcing its frontier with Spain, a sign of fears that further violence could spill beyond Spanish borders. Anti-immigrant Central European leaders seized on the suspects’ nationalities to call for tighter controls on migration.

In Finland, two people were killed and six others wounded in a stabbing Friday in the southwestern city of Turku, police said. On Saturday, they classified the incident as terrorism, and Finnish intelligence services joined the investigation.

The Islamic State claimed that its “soldiers” carried out the Barcelona attack, but the level of actual involvement by the terrorist group was unclear.

The nationality of the suspects was sure to raise alarm in European counterterrorism circles. Moroccan networks also were connected to major terrorist attacks in France and Belgium in recent years. Spain has a significant Moroccan population, and there has been a spike in arrivals of migrants from Morocco by sea this year.

Their background also prompted Europe’s anti-migrant politicians to condemn what they said was a connection between migration and terrorism, even though there was no evidence that the men were part of the waves of migration from Africa and the Middle East in recent years.

“It is evident to everyone that there is a correlation between illegal immigration and terrorism,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told his country’s MTI news agency. “Europe must protect itself, and the security of the people must be guaranteed.”

Less than 24 hours after the attack — and before many details were confirmed — a fierce debate erupted in Barcelona over the meaning of what had happened. Demonstrations materialized Friday evening over the place of Islam in Europe. A small group of far-right demonstrators gathered in Barcelona’s main square to protest what they called the “Islamicization of Europe.” They were met by thousands of counterprotesters who decried Islamophobia, waved rainbow flags and shouted slogans such as “Barcelona! Anti-fascist!”

In several tweets, President Trump said U.S. agencies were “on alert” and charged that court challenges and opposition from Democrats have made security “very difficult.” He gave no specifics.

“Radical Islamic Terrorism must be stopped by whatever means necessary!” Trump wrote. “The courts must give us back our protective rights. Have to be tough!”

[French mayor who witnessed carnage seek to make Europe’s streets safer]

The attacks Thursday and Friday marked the latest uses of vehicles in terrorist strikes against civilians, following attacks since the middle of 2016 in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden.

Spain’s civil protection agency said 120 people were injured in the Barcelona attack and an additional six in Cambrils. The casualties included people of at least 34 nationalities, underscoring the international draw of the cosmopolitan Las Ramblas area, which has long stood at the heart of the city. France’s Foreign Ministry said 26 of its citizens were injured, 11 of them seriously.

Residents of Barcelona said they had long feared an attack on their bustling city.

“This is a huge city, and somehow we were always expecting something like this, but of course you’re never prepared,” said Cristina Nadal, 44, an aide for the Catalan government, who came to Friday’s moment of silence.

The crowd was “exactly what we wanted to show — that although the terrorists want to beat us, we can show to the world that we can still stand strong,” she said.

Two longtime Muslim residents of Barcelona said they were furious about the violence.

“What Islam teaches us is that killing one person is like killing all of humanity,” said Nagma Jawed, 40, who moved to the city 20 years ago from her native India and runs a textile shop in the city.

“First of all, we are human beings. Our religion comes after that,” said Jawed, who was wearing a headscarf Friday as she stood in the square with her husband for the mourning ceremony.

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William Booth, Souad Mekhennet and Raúl Gallego Abellan in Barcelona, Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

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