“As remarked by F. Reinares, various elements (e.g. the complexity of the plot, as well as trips abroad by members of the cell, especially the imam Es Satty) suggest there could be an international dimension”
(By Silvia Carenzi) Last week, the Spanish region of Catalonia witnessed various terror-related incidents, including a vehicle ramming at Las Ramblas, Barcelona, and an attack in Cambrils. In addition, it was revealed that an explosion previously occurred—affecting a house in Alcanar—was linked to the terrorist attacks, too. The attacks—promptly claimed by IS through A‘maq News Agency—resulted in a death toll of 16 victims and more than 100 injured. Of course, it’s too early to draw conclusions, and only continuing investigations will shed light on the background behind these events. Still, it’s possible to make a few preliminary remarks, building on current information and outlining some hypotheses. This piece is not intended as an exhaustive analysis, but—rather—as a starting point for further study, which will also benefit from new investigation findings.
The attacks displayed a certain degree of complexity and coordination, and they were well-planned, although—apparently—their execution didn’t require a significant sum of money. What’s more, they were supposed to be even more lethal and complex, featuring the use of a larger truck and explosives. However, these plans failed, so the jihadists had to make do with a less ambitious plan. On the one hand, they weren’t able to produce the necessary permit to obtain a larger truck. On the other hand, while preparing explosives, they blew up their house in Alcanar, where authorities retrieved different substances and materials, such as gas canisters containing butane, hydrogen peroxide, etc. This suggests they aimed to produce TATP—IS’ signature explosive in Europe, used for example in November 2015 Paris attacks and March 2016 Brussels attacks). The detonation is likely to have precipitated the course of events, prompting them to act, while relying on a more “rudimentary” plan. The failure of initial plans may hint at a lack of expertise on behalf of the cell, e.g. lack of experience in fighting and manufacturing explosives.
Moreover, in the Alcanar residence a green booklet was found. It featured the name of the imam and a handwritten sheet of paper, with the following text (in Arabic):
In the name of God (Allah), the Merciful, the Compassionate. Brief letter from the Soldiers of the Islamic State in the land of al-Andalus to the Crusaders, the hateful, the sinners, the unjust, the corruptors.
In addition to the Alcanar house, there may have been a second operational base: a farmhouse in Riudecanyes, where authorities retrieved some burnt documents and receipts (concerning purchases of acetone, knives, an axe).
In the previous days, authorities spoke of a cell formed at least by 12 members—as shown in the picture below. However, investigations are ongoing, and 2 suspects were released. 8 members of the cell are dead: 5 of them died in Cambrils (Moussa Oukabir, Mohammed Hychami, Said Aallaa, Houssaine Abouyaaqoub); at least 2 in Alcanar explosion (the imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, and Youssef Aallaa); 1 was shot down by police at Subirats (Youness Abouyaaqoub, the driver of the van involved in Las Ramblas rampage). The other four suspects had been arrested; however—as of Wednesday, 24 August—Mohammed Aallaa and Salh El Karib were released on certain conditions, while Driss Oukabir (still denying his involvement in the attack) and Mohamed Houli Chemlal were charged with membership of a terrorist organization and murder. As reported by Corriere della Sera, Salh El Karim is the owner of an Internet café in Ripoll which was often visited by members of the cell. They used to spend whole afternoons there, browsing IS forum. Apparently, from this very Internet café someone got in contact with at least one high ranking IS member.
As remarked by F. Reinares, various elements (e.g. the complexity of the plot, as well as trips abroad by members of the cell, especially the imam Es Satty) suggest there could be an international dimension, at least to some degree—meaning that one or more terrorist had connections abroad, maybe in France or Belgium. Some of these trips may well prove not to be terror-related; yet, it’s crucial to examine them carefully. In the last year, they visited different countries: for instance, Swiss Federal Police stated that at least 1 suspect had been in Zurich region back in December 2016. Then, on August 12 (less than a week before the attacks), the car used in Cambrils attack was spotted by a speed camera in the Essonne region, thus clearly indicating a visit to France. Not to mention Morocco: Driss Oukabir went there a few days before Barcelona attacks, but also other members of the cell visited the country in the last year. The case of Youness Abouyaaqoub is illustrative: his last visit to Morocco coincided with the December 2016 trip by imam Es Satty. Furthermore, as reported by El País, in Morocco 3 individuals were arrested in connection with the Spain attacks; in particular, one of them is a seller of gas canisters, who probably had been a next-door neighbor of Y. Abouyaaqoub’s. Finally, there is another important detail concerning the cell’s trips abroad: imam Es Satty travelled to Belgium (Vilvoorde) in early 2016, and stayed there for a few months, before Brussels attacks.
There is no denying that imam Es Satty appears to be a key figure in the investigation. He served some time in prison for drug trafficking—where he became acquainted with Rachid Aglif, dubbed ‘El Conejo’, a terrorist linked to the ‘11-M’ (2004 Madrid attack) cell. Moreover, the name of Es Satty had already surfaced during Operation Chacal (2006)—when authorities arrested a group of militants accused of smuggling fighters to Iraq. Information currently available is insufficient, but he may have been the ringleader of the Catalan group—a hypothesis which was confirmed by the suspects in court. A relative of one of the suspects maintained that the radicalization process had been a long one; the young men had spent at least one year secretly meeting the imam, in a van, while publicly avoiding to do so. If such reports were confirmed, it could be surmised that the imam operated as a radicalizing agent and a ‘jihadi entrepreneur’. In the words of P. Nesser, “entrepreneurs are crucial for a terrorist cell to form and take action” (see P. Nesser, Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, London: Hurst Publishers, 2015, p. 13). Jihadi entrepreneurs are hardly new to the European scene: a prominent example is offered by Djamel Beghal, who oversaw a network planning attacks on US targets in Belgium and France and—in subsequent years—came into contact with the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the January 2015 Paris attacks. If Es Satty’s chief role were confirmed, it would be interesting to understand how the imam did radicalize. It cannot be ruled out that his radicalization process may have unfolded abroad, perhaps through contact with IS members during one of his trips. On the other hand, France 24 points to the period spent in prison by Es Satty.
Are we facing prototypical patterns?
Some aspects regarding the Spain attacks seems to be in line with the findings of a recent study by F. Reinares, C. García-Calvo and Á. Vicente, which focuses on individuals arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2016 for jihadist activities. As the research points out, when investigating radicalization—in this case radicalization in Spain—it is essential to take into account two factors:
- Contact with a radicalizing agent (online or in-person)
- Pre-existing social ties with radicalized individuals. A greater amount of information is available in this regard. The cell comprises 4 couples of brothers [*] (Aallaa, Oukabir, Hychami, and Abouyaaqoub), and 4 cousins. Most of them were born and/or lived in Ripoll, a small Pyrenean town, studied in the same school and played futsal in the same local team. On the surface, they appeared to have successfully integrated in the life of the town. The presence of a ‘group dimension’ is consistent with the findings of the study mentioned above—which reveals that 86.9% of arrested individuals radicalized in group.
- Contact with a radicalizing agent. As already stated, it’s too early to infer conclusions; nonetheless, the imam may have acted as a radicalizing agent. If it were the case, it would be an in-person agent. It is currently unknown whether other radicalizing agents (maybe also online agents) played a role. The aforementioned CTC Sentinel article has found that in Spain—in the period taken into account—40.3% of the arrested individuals radicalized in a mixed environment (both online and offline); 35.3% individuals radicalized solely online, whereas 24.4% did so exclusively offline. However, apparently, the offline dimension is present, thus excluding the ‘exclusively online’ hypothesis. Moreover, as the research underlines, in the case of Spain,
the process leading to the adoption of salafi-jihadi ideas and subsequent terrorist engagement is associated with pre-existing social ties to others involved in jihadi terrorist activity. Indeed, pre-existing social ties between detainees and other individuals arrested in Spain for terrorist-related activity or who became an FTF during the four-year period under study were found in nearly seven out of every 10 cases.
An aspect which—again—is clearly epitomized by the case of the Catalan cell. Such ties can be of different (at times overlapping) kinds: friendship (50.0%), residence in the same town (80%), or kinship (42.7%), etc. These elements are mirrored by the composition of the cell, too. However, it’s hardly a novelty: the radicalization and/or mobilization of people sharing some form of pre-existing bond has been seen profusely across Europe. There is no shortage of illustrative cases: the Paris-Brussels macro-cell, which included—inter alia—the Abdeslam brothers (Salah and Brahim), and the el-Bakraoui brothers (Ibrahim and Khalid); the Charlie Hebdo assailants, i.e. the Kouachi brothers, Said and Chérif; Amedy Coulibaly, who radicalized along with his fiancé, Hayat Boumeddiene; Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, and Kadiza Sultana, the three schoolgirls who left Britain to join IS in Syria; Maria Giulia Sergio, an Italian woman who reached Syria with her husband and her mother-in-law, attempting to radicalize her family back in Italy, and so on.
As stated in a recent report published by ISPI,
The vast majority of individuals who radicalize do so in small groups of like-minded individuals, generally under the influence of radicalizing agents. Exceptions exist: some individuals radicalize in complete solitude, often solely in front of a computer screen and without any contact with like-minded individuals in the physical space. However, many studies have abundantly proved that radicalization is, generally speaking, “about who you know”. It is a group phenomenon […].
And this holds true not only for Spain, but also broadly speaking.
The two factors sketched above—contact with a radicalizing agent and pre-existent bonds—help understand the patterns of radicalization and mobilization. In particular, they contribute to explain why some individuals do radicalize and engage in terrorist activities whereas others don’t, in spite of sharing similar socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. the age). It can also explain the different degrees of radicalization of various areas in the same country. Therefore, radicalization and mobilization don’t generally affect a country in a homogenous fashion; rather, they can vary depending on the area, and one or more ‘radicalization hubs’ can usually be detected.
If we compare the whole jihadist scene in Spain with other countries, we’ll see that the level of mobilization is far more pronounced elsewhere, e.g. in France; to measure this degree of mobilization let’s consider the number of foreign fighters from each of these countries as an indicator. In the case of France, there are more than 1,500 fighters—some estimate 1,700—, whereas in Spain there are 208 (see report by ISPI). The number of jihadi terrorism-related arrests, on the contrary, has been considerably high (especially in comparison with other countries), due to tougher laws in matter of terrorism. Still, there are radicalization hubs in Spain, too. In this regard, the above-mentioned study by CTC finds that in Spain there are 4 main radicalization hubs—the most significant of which is the Barcelona province. The other 3 Spanish hubs are Ceuta, Madrid and its metropolitan area, and Melilla. The presence of Barcelona at the top of this list is telling; Barcelona and the wider Catalonia occupy a significant role in the jihadist scene—not only at present, but also in the past. In 1995, the first arrest of a jihadist in Spain occurred right in Barcelona. Between 2004 and 2012—in Spain—4 out of 10 individuals charged with terrorist activities in Barcelona province. A quarter of the total number of individuals arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2016 for terrorism occurred in Barcelona and its metropolitan area. The town of Cambrils has previously been linked to terrorism, too: one of the 9-11 pilots visited the town with a fellow plotter while planning 9-11 attack. And the examples could go on.
Thus, within Spain—that is, at a national level—Catalonia is apparently a hotbed of radicalization, a situation which have concerned analysts for a long time. If Barcelona province represents the chief radicalization hub in Spain—which is the case—, the situation regarding Girona and Tarragona provinces is worrying too. And all these provinces are involved in these days incidents: Alcanar and Cambrils (and also Riudecanyes) are in the Tarragona province; Ripoll, the little town in which many members of the cell lived and/or were born, is in Girona province. However, the municipality of Ripoll per se has not been associated to jihadism in the past. Imam Es Satty may have played a crucial role in turning the town into a ‘pocket’ of radicalization, taking advantage of the cohesion provided by pre-existent social ties between members of the cell.
Youssef and Said Aallaa have a third brother, Mohammed, who was initially suspected to be a member of the terrorist cell. However, after appearing in court, he was released on certain condition for lack of evidence. Therefore, he has not been included while considering ‘clusters’ of kin-related individuals.
- Audiencia Nacional. Juzgado Central de Instrucción nº 4, Diligencias previas n° 60/2017, August 22, 2017, http://estaticos.elmundo.es/documentos/2017/08/22/auto_detenidos_atentado_barcelona.pdf
- Vidino, F. Marone, E. Entenmann, Jihadista della porta accanto. Radicalizzazione e attacchi terroristici in Occidente, ISPI, 2017
- Nesser, Islamist Terrorism in Europe: A History, London: Hurst Publishers, 2015
- Reinares, C. García-Calvo and Á. Vicente, Differential Association Explaining Jihadi Radicalization in Spain: A Quantitative Study, CTC Sentinel, 10(6), 2017, 29-34
- The Soufan Group, TSG IntelBrief: The Barcelona Cell, August 21, 2017, http://www.soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-the-barcelona-terror-cell/
- Reinares (@F_Reinares), “¿Cómo es que entre los 12 #terroristas de #Ripoll hay 3 parejas y un trío de hermanos, y 4 primos? En este análisis @rielcano lo explicamos:” [tweet], August 22, 2017, 16:32 AM, https://twitter.com/F_Reinares/status/900002712963756032
- Corriere della Sera
- El Confidencial
- El País
- El Periódico
- Financial Times
- France 24
- La Rioja
- La Vanguardia
- The Local – Switzerland
- Washington Post