TSC IntelBrief: The Barcelona Terror Cell
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The cell responsible for the August 17 Barcelona attack had at least 12 members, including 4 sets of brothers; aside from the group’s leader, the cell was not on the radar of Spanish intelligence or law enforcement agencies.
• The group’s leader, 45-year-old Abdelbaki Essati, reportedly had extensive contact when he was in prison with one of the perpetrators of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, underlining the role that prisons often play as incubators for violent extremism.
• Already overwhelmed with the challenge of prioritizing the potential threats from thousands of people on various watch lists, authorities across Europe and the U.S. will have to reconcile their efforts with the fact that there are likely more terror cells currently operating under the radar.
• True terror cells formed by peer-to-peer relationships and a charismatic leader present immense challenges to law enforcement, especially when members are not previously known to the authorities.
Many of the terrorists involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks were well-known to law enforcement or intelligence agencies beforehand; several were on watch lists or wanted by police yet were still able to travel undetected. The trend of attackers being known to police at some level—previous arrests, investigations, watch listing, etc.—continues to defy the best efforts of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track and investigate all potential threats. Yet the terror cell responsible for the August 17 attack in Barcelona appears to buck this trend. According to officials, only one of the attackers, the group’s leader, was previously known to police as someone with connections to terrorism. The other men were reportedly from stable homes, lacking the usual background of domestic violence, isolation, and obvious radicalization seen in many recent terrorism cases. The descriptions of the attackers by their family and friends do contain some indicators—Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, killed by police in Cambrils, was described as taking a sudden and unexpected turn toward religious conservatism in the last month or so—but these ‘clues’ are often only obvious in hindsight. Authorities are now working to determine the scale and scope of the cell that was formed in the small Spanish town of Ripoll.
It appears the group of at least 12 men were able to plot for over a year, and that only an accidental explosion during the making of a bomb prevented a far worse attack. The day before the van attack in Barcelona that killed 14 people, an explosion destroyed a house in Alcanar that authorities now believe was used to construct what was intended to be a rather large car bomb. Two men died when the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP) detonated prematurely; TATP is well-known both for its use in other plots by the so-called Islamic State (such as Paris and Brussels) and for an extreme level of instability that has led to its nickname as ‘the mother of satan.’
Police believe that 45-year-old Abdelbaki Essati was killed in the blast. He is thought to be the group’s leader and is the only cell member previously known to have any association with terrorism. Essati reportedly had extensive contact when he was in prison with one of the perpetrators of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings; underlining the role that prisons often play as incubators for violent extremism. Essati moved to Ripoll more than a year ago and began to preach at a local mosque; within months he had formed a cell that included four sets of brothers. Family ties are a common characteristic in terrorist plots—including a set of brothers in both the Paris and Brussels attacks—though the extent of family links among members of the Barcelona cell is remarkable.
By targeting men with family ties to each other and little to no previous exposure to police, Essati gathered around himself a close-knit terror cell which was able to operate clandestinely, despite the heightened security posture of Spanish intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Younes Abouyaaqoub, the 22-year-old brother of Houssaine, who police believe was the driver of the van in Barcelona, is still at-large and is the subject of an intense search in both Spain and France. Already overwhelmed with the challenge of prioritizing the potential threats from thousands of people on various watch lists, authorities across Europe and the U.S. will have to reconcile their efforts with the fact that there are likely more terror cells currently operating under the radar.
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