2 held in Morocco over suspected links to Barcelona attackers
MADRID, Aug 23, (Agencies): Police in northeastern Spain said Wednesday they found a belt charged with real explosives in a house where a fatal explosion last week derailed the initial plans by an extremist cell to strike with bombs in Barcelona rather than vehicle attacks that eventually killed 14 people. A 15th victim was killed when one of the attackers made his getaway.
Six of the attackers shot dead by police — five on Friday and one Monday — were wearing fake suicide belts. Chief investigating magistrate Fernando Andreu provisionally jailed two of the four surviving alleged cell members Tuesday after hearing testimony in the National Court in Madrid that the group had been preparing the massive bombs for an imam who planned to blow himself up at a Barcelona monument.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the belt found amid remains of the blast in Alcanar, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Barcelona, was meant to be used by the imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, who allegedly masterminded the attacks and recruited the others in the cell according to the testimony by the two jailed survivors.
The two —Mohamed Houli Chemlal, 21, and Driss Oukabir, 28— identified Es Satty as the ideological leader of the cell according to a Spanish judicial official who attended the proceeding and briefed journalists but wasn’t authorized by the court to be identified in news reports.
Investigators believe that Houli Chemlal is key to shedding further light on the imam’s role and plans as the only survivor in the blast in Alcanar where Es Satty and another cell member died last Wednesday, the official said. Houli Chemlal was arrested in a hospital after surviving the blast. He told the court he was alive because he was on the outside porch of the house washing dishes after dinner.
Police had already found at the house more than 100 tanks of butane gas, nails that they planned to use as shrapnel, and 500 liters of acetone, a highly flammable liquid necessary to make TATP, an explosive used by Islamic State group militants. Investigators were also looking into material found during searches in two northeastern towns, a regional police spokeswoman said. She declined to say what they found in raids late Tuesday at a cybercafe in Ripoll and a house in Vilafranca del Penedes but said the operation was continuing.
Vilafranca is 15 kilometers (nine miles) from where Younes Abouyaaqoub, the suspected driver in the Barcelona attack that killed 13 people, was shot dead Monday by police. Abouyaaqoub, who fatally stabbed another person while fleeing Thursday, is known to have changed clothes, picked up a bag of knives and a fake explosive belt in the time between the Barcelona attack and his death.
The court interrogations Tuesday exposed more details about how events unfolded during those first hours after the Las Ramblas boulevard carnage on Aug. 17. Another member of the cell abandoned that afternoon another rented van involved in an accident in a highway near Cambrils, a coastal town south of Barcelona.
According to the police investigation, he regrouped with four other members who bought four knives and an ax in Cambrils three hours before they all were killed by police when they attacked pedestrians in the town’s coastal promenade. One woman died in the attack.
The investigation showed receipts for the knives half burnt in a nearby farmhouse that could have been used as a safe house. Of the four surviving suspects of the cell, Sahl El Karib worked in the Ripoll cafe.
Judge Andreu ordered him to be kept in custody for three more days while police continued probes. Oukabir, El Karib and other suspect Mohamed Aalla denied being part of the cell during Tuesday’s testimony, said the National Court official who attended proceedings. Regional police in Spain may have missed an opportunity to uncover a militant plot ahead of last week’s deadly Barcelona attack due to procedural errors and a lack of communication among investigators, two police sources and two individuals close to the investigation said.
The errors and miscommunication centred around a major blast on Aug 16, the eve of the attack, at a house where suspected Islamist militants were making explosives, the sources said. For several hours, Catalan police did not link the explosion to militancy and so no public alarm was raised, before an accomplice drove a van into crowds in Barcelona, killing 13 people in Spain’s deadliest attack in more than a decade.
Also: RABAT: Moroccan authorities have arrested two people suspected of links to the alleged perpetrators of the van attack that killed 13 people in the Spanish city of Barcelona, state TV channel 2M reported on Tuesday. One of the men, a 28-year-old detained in the Nador, close to the Spanish enclave of Melilla, lived for 12 years in Barcelona and is suspected of links to Islamic State and of plotting to attack the Spanish embassy in Rabat, the channel reported.
It gave no details of the alleged plot. No direct link has been identified between the suspect and the cell of mainly young Moroccans behind the Barcelona attack, but he had celebrated the attack on Facebook, the report said. A second suspect was arrested in the town of Oujda, close to Morocco’s border with Algeria, 2M reported. He was a resident of Ripoll, the small town in northeastern Spain where many members of the cell were living.