Spain identifies Barcelona attack driver as hunt widens
August 21 2017 02:15 PM
four suspects of the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, (from L) Moussa Oukabir, Said Aallaa, Mohamed H
Four suspects of the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, (from L) Moussa Oukabir, Said Aallaa, Mohamed Hychami and Younes Abouyaaqoub

AFP/Barcelona

Spanish police said Monday they had identified the driver of a van that mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona, killing 13, as a manhunt for the suspect believed to be a Moroccan national widened across Europe.

Police in Catalonia said on Twitter they knew who the driver was without naming him, but regional interior minister Joaquim Forn said in a radio interview that ‘everything suggests the van driver is Younes Abouyaaqoub.’

The 22-year-old Moroccan is believed to be the last remaining member of a 12-man cell still at large in Spain or abroad, with the others killed by police or detained over last week's twin attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils that claimed 14 lives, including a seven-year-old boy.

Spanish authorities were officially notifying European police Monday of the identity of the suspect to enable the launch of a Europe-wide manhunt.

‘We have to talk to European police to notify them of the identity because this person... is likely being sought in all European countries,’ Forn said.

Investigators seeking to unravel the terror cell have homed in on the small border town of Ripoll, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.

Several of the suspects including Abouyaaquob grew up or lived in the town.

A Moroccan imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, aged in his 40s, has also come under scrutiny as he is believed to have radicalised youths in Ripoll.

- Imam's influence -

Police raided more homes in Ripoll on Monday, Forn said.

Police said the imam had spent time in prison and had once been in contact with a suspect wanted on terrorism charges, without giving further details.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told AFP that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen -- a district next to the city's airport -- between January and March 2016.

On the other side of Brussels, the Molenbeek suburb has gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists after the Brussels bombings in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.

In the Moroccan town of M'rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub also accused the imam of radicalising the young man as well as his brother Houssein.

‘Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalise under the influence of this imam,’ their grandfather told AFP.

A neighbour close to the Abouyaaquob family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the imam ‘had recruited Moroccans of Ripoll and planned the attacks’.

But Ali Assid, president of the Annour Islamic community that runs the mosque in Ripoll where Satty was preaching, said the imam ‘behaved like a normal person here’.

‘He never sent a radical message, all he preached was really Islam. If he is behind all that, there he must be showing us one face in the mosque and showing another face outside,’ Assid told SER radio.

Assid said Satty had parted ways with the mosque in late June after Ramadan, as he wanted a vacation of three months -- a request that the group did not agree to.

The imam has been missing since Tuesday. On Saturday, police raided his apartment. They have raised the possibility that he died in an explosion on Wednesday evening at a house believed to be the suspects' bomb factory, where police uncovered a massive cache of 120 gas canisters.

- 'One or more attacks' -

The suspected jihadists had been preparing bombs for ‘one or more attacks in Barcelona’, regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters, revealing that traces of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) -- a homemade explosive that is a hallmark of the Islamic State (IS) group -- had also been found.

The suspects accidentally caused an explosion at the house on the eve of Thursday's attack in Barcelona -- an error that likely forced them to modify their plans.

Instead, they used a vehicle to smash into crowds on Barcelona's Las Ramblas boulevard as it was thronged with tourists, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.

Several hours later, a similar attack in the seaside town of Cambrils left one woman dead. Police shot and killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knives.

IS claimed responsibility for the attacks, believed to be its first in Spain.

In the small town of Alcanar, investigators combed the rubble of the house believed to be the bomb factory, where the gas canisters were uncovered.

A neighbour, 61-year-old French retiree Martine Groby, told AFP that four men ‘who all speak French’ had been in the house next door since April.

‘They were very discreet, too discreet. The shutters were closed, there was no music, no children, no women,’ she recalled.



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