TSC IntelBrief: Terrorism Strikes Barcelona
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On August 17, a 17-year-old male drove a van into a crowd in Barcelona, murdering 13 people and injuring at least 100; the suspect remains at-large.
• Hours later, police shot and killed five men who rammed their car into a group of people; police believe the overall cell involved in the attacks included 8-12 individuals.
• Attacks involving vehicles are exceedingly difficult to detect and disrupt since there are very few pre-attack indicators, placing a heavier burden on intelligence agencies to identify individuals and groups that warrant investigation ahead of time.
• Spain is also a transit hub for jihadists moving from North Africa into Europe, and will likely face an increased threat as the Islamic State crumbles in Libya, Iraq, and Syria and becomes a more dispersed, but still very dangerous, entity.
On August 17, Spain was hit by the worst terrorist attack on its soil since the 2004 Madrid train bombing killed 191 people. The attack killed 13 people and injured at least 100, when a man drove a van into a crowded promenade in central Barcelona. People from more than 24 countries were among the dead and injured, reflecting both the diversity of the victims—many of whom were tourists—and the indiscriminate nature of the attackers’ violent ideology. The driver, 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, escaped after the attack on the heavily visited Las Ramblas street; his brother, Driss Oukabir, was arrested after investigators learned the van had been rented in his name. The attack appears to have been part of a larger plot and cell, perhaps involving up to 8-12 people, making it the most complex vehicle attack of the six that have occurred in Europe in recent years. Very quickly after the attack, the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying its ‘soldiers’ had again answered the terrorist group’s call for attacks of any fashion.
Early on the morning of August 18, police shot and killed five men who rammed their car into a group of people, injuring seven in the coastal resort town of Cambrils. After the van overturned, the men came out wearing what would later be determined as fake explosive suicide belts. Police were on high alert across the region after the Barcelona attack and a related explosion in Alcanar, 100 kilometers southeast of Barcelona. Investigators believe the Alcanar explosion, which killed one person inside of a house, is associated with the cell and that it was caused by gas cylinders likely intended for use in terrorist attacks.
While few terrorist attacks are carried out by true ‘lone wolves’ (the perpetrators often engage in at least minimal outreach to a terrorist organization that is detectable only in hindsight), the previous five Islamic State-inspired vehicle terrorist attacks in Europe were comparatively smaller in size and complexity. The attacks in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, and two in London, involved one or two direct perpetrators and often several others that knew of, or facilitated, the plan. The Barcelona cell and plot appears to be larger in scale, with members in at least three separate locations. The merging of vehicle attacks, which require little to no planning or expertise, with the more complex capabilities of a true terrorist cell, would be a significant development, presenting security officials with an even larger challenge to confront.
Attacks involving vehicles are exceedingly difficult to detect and disrupt since there are very few pre-attack indicators. This places a heavier burden on intelligence agencies to identify individuals and groups that warrant investigation ahead of time. As with France and Germany, Spain’s security services are working at a high operational tempo to address the very real threat posed by large numbers of violent supporters of groups such as the Islamic State. But efficiently assessing and prioritizing a huge number of potentially dangerous individuals is a challenge for even the best of security agencies. Spain is also a transit hub for jihadists moving from North Africa into Europe, and will likely face an increased threat as the Islamic State crumbles in Libya, Iraq, and Syria and becomes a more dispersed, but still very dangerous, entity.
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