BARCELONA — The terror cell in Spain that unleashed a pair of deadly vehicular attacks were planning a much more lethal, more dramatic act. They were going to explode huge bombs at monuments in the center of the city, according to a court official.
Mohamed Houli Chemlal , 21, who police say is one of the surviving members of the 12-member cell, told a court in Madrid the group were assembling bombs in a safe house under the guidance of their imam, who told the group he planned to blow himself up during the attack.
The imam appears to have recruited the teens and young men in the terror cell from the Moroccan immigrant community in the mountain town of Ripoll, a two-hour drive north of Barcelona.
Houli Chemlal’s initial testimony to Judge Fernando Andreu in a closed Madrid courtroom on Tuesday was reported widely by Spanish media and sourced to a court official. The judicial source requested anonymity because he was not permitted to brief reporters on the proceedings before a special anti-terror tribunal, where the judge is to decide on charges and whether the defendants can be freed on bail or not.
At least two of the defendants, through their families and friends in Ripoll, have said they were unwitting participants - that they simply rented vans one thought was for moving or sold airline tickets and transferred money.
Houli Chemlal was shown being escorted into the court by police, shackled, with one armed bandaged and wearing hospital pajamas. He is the lone survivor of an explosion last Wednesday that destroyed a house in Alcanar south of Barcelona.
Police say the Alcanar house contained 120 tanks for propane gas, alongside residue of a bomb-making material known as TATP and remote controlled detonators.
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In an earlier briefing with reporters, Josep Lluís Trapero, chief of the Catalan national police, said that his investigators assumed the explosion in Alcanar was an accident, which killed the imam and triggered the cell to launch the vehicular attacks on Thursday.
In the first, police say that Younes Abouyaaquob, 22, drove a white rental van down La Rambla avenue and killed 13 in a boulevard crowded with international tourists and locals. An hour later, police said, Abouyaaquob stabbed a motorist to death and used his car as a get-away vehicle. Later, five members of the cell drove into a crowd near a police checkpoint and killed a woman bystander.
Catalan officials said their investigation was swift and successful, and Trapero said it was dirty politics to place blame on police instead of the terrorists.
Still there appeared to be missed opportunities.
The Moroccan imam alleged to be at the heart of the conspiracy, Abdelbaki Essati, was sent to prison for four years, 2010 to 2014, for smuggling hashish into Spain.
A counter-terrorism officer in Spain, who requested anonymity to share background information on an open investigation, said Essati had a pending deportation order.
The director of the mosque where Essati preached and taught children Arabic and the Koran said they passed his name to local police as a part of Spain’s program to monitor the mosques.
A Spanish police adviser noted that Essati’s name appeared, but just once, on page 70 of a Justice Ministry report on the arrest of five men in a town south of Barcelona, on charges of recruiting local youth to fight in Iraq.
The president of the Catalan region, Carles Puigdemont, brushed aside criticism of the local forces, saying now was not the time to air grievances between Catalonia and the national government in Madrid.
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But Puigdemont told The Washington Post information about a suspicious imam “was not in the hands of the Catalan police.”
The president added that forces here have been denied membership in Europol, which coordinates Europe’s response to transnational terrorism, as well as Spain’s anti-terror center.
“Information reaches us now through the Spanish Police, but we do not yet have our own intelligence agency, we don’t have it,” he said.
Puigdement said there are 200,000 Moroccan immigrants living in Catalonia. “If 200,000 people were radicalized, we’d have a very serious problem, but they aren’t all radical. They are our neighbor and therefore, the Catalan society, which is very diverse, is working well.”
Counter-terrorism officials last year issued an alert warning Spain was consistently mentioned in propaganda material produced by Islamic State, which has claimed its soldiers were behind the recent attack. In 2004, bombings on the Madrid rail system killed 192 people and injured about 2,000. Spanish officials blamed an Al-Qaida cell.
After the explosion in Alcanar, police and firefighers did not suspect that a terror cell was making bombs, but that thieves were dealing in stolen propane tanks - or perhaps drug dealers were manufacturing methamphetamine.
As it turned out, two bodies were recovered from the site. Police believe one belongs to the imam, which is awaiting final DNA confirmation.
Telling, too, is that the fact the Houli Chemlal was found wounded there, but was not interviewed as a serious suspect in the terror case until the van ramming attack in Barcelona.
Raul Gallego Abellan in Subirats and Angel García in Barcelona contributed to this report.