Spanish security forces on Saturday named Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, as the ringleader and mastermind of the terrorist plot which killed 14 people and injured more than 100 in one of the busiest tourism hotpots in Spain. But his ambitions were much bigger.
It is now believed that the true focus of the plot was the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished masterpiece by the celebrated Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi, which attracts millions of tourists to Barcelona every year.
Police said they had “practically broken up” the network of ISIL sympathisers led by Abouyaaqoub, who is still on the run.
It is believed that the attackers were inspired by the London Bridge assault in June. The suspects who were shot in Cambrils had, like the London perpetrators, worn fake suicide belts in an attempt to prevent bystanders disrupting their murderous actions.
But the 12-strong cell of young men of mainly Moroccan origin had plotted a spectacular suicide attack that would go far beyond the London incident. After stockpiling a large quantity of household butane gas canisters — more than 100 of them, according to estimates — at a villa in Alcanar, 257 kilometres south of Barcelona, they wanted to destroy or at least badly damage the city’s most prominent landmark, according to the Catalonian media. But they were foiled by an explosion which flattened their hideout house shortly before midnight on Wednesday, the day before the atrocities in Barcelona and Cambrils, a quiet family seaside resort further south.
Construction of the Sagrada Familia, conceived by Gaudi, a son of Catalonia, started 135 years ago but completion of the innovative and ornate design remains a decade away.
“The explosion in Alcanar meant they no longer had the necessary material to plan larger-scale attacks in Barcelona,” said Josep Luis Trapero, a Catalan police major.
Investigations are now centred on determining whether there were any high-grade explosives at the Alcanar site, where one or possibly two occupants were killed. Failing that experts are determining if any improvised material found is referenced in ISIL instruction manuals.
Paul Cruickshank, a US-based terrorism reporter, said initial tests found traces of the TAPT (triacetone triperoxide) explosive, a homemade mixture of acetone and hydrogen peroxide, in the rubble of the building. The material has also been found in bomb factories linked to last year’s attacks in Brussels and the Manchester bombing in May this year.
Alcanar officials said the plotters had been living illegally in the complex, which was unoccupied after being repossessed by the bank.
The bombers reportedly also failed in an attempt to hire a large lorry that would have transported the explosives.
With so much of their materiel gone, the plotters had to scale down their plans. Driving a van and an Audi car into crowds was their Plan B. A second van has been recovered in Vic, a Barcelona suburb. The French police are looking for the driver of another vehicle, a Renault Kangoo van, which was possibly driven over the border.
On Friday the police circulated details of four men they were looking for: Moussa Oukabir, 17, Said Aallaa, 18, Mohamed Hychami, 24 and Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22. Three of them were later to found have been among the five shot dead by police in Cambrils. Abouyaaqoub remains at large.
Moussa Oukabir, 17, was the first suspected ringleader of the plot. He used his brother’s identity cards to rent the van involved in the attack on Las Ramblas, Barcelona. He was killed at Cambrils.
The wanted photographs released by the police of those implicated so far in the attack show strikingly youthful, smooth-faced men. Oukabir has already been traced to an extremist post on a website that read: “Kill all infidels and only allow Muslims to continue the religion."
His brother, Driss, has been arrested after turning himself in and is one of four suspects in custody. Three are Moroccan and the fourth is a citizen of Melilla, a town on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco but which is Spanish territory. The oldest is 34, the youngest 21, and the police say none has a history of terrorism-related activities.
The Barcelona attack has reinforced the perception that Europe faces a rising challenge from foreign-trained fighters and those radicalised since the Syrian conflict erupted.
Ben Wallace, the British security minister, said there was a two-fold source of terror related to ISIL and its shrinking territory in Iraq and Syria.
“I think the threat is increasing, partly driven by the fact [ISIL] is collapsing in Syria and people are either unable to get out there to fight and so they look to do something at home, or also because people have come back and tried to inspire people,” he said.
The successive failures by ISIL sympathisers to carry out attacks as they had originally plotted has led some experts to predict the wave of assaults by vehicles could taper off.
“For terrorism to be effective it must be shocking so the low-level campaign being waged now will lose its impact, something that will make individuals question whether they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of the Royal United Services Institute.
Little information has been released on Abouyaaqoub, who is believed to have fled the scene at Las Ramblas. Police are investigating if he hijacked a Ford Focus just over three kilometres away and left the owner for dead. Officers fired at the car when it failed to stop at a roadblock.
Abouyaaqoub lived in Ripoll, the Catalan town close to the French border that was home to five of the 12, including Oukabir.
ISIL claimed responsibility via its Amaq news agency for the attacks, saying they were a response "to calls targeting coalition states". Spain has several hundred soldiers in Iraq training local forces.