Barcelona attack: Police raid home of imam linked to cell behind twin terror attacks

19 AUGUST 2017
The Telegraph

Catalan investigators on Saturday raided the house of an imam in the town of Ripoll they believe may have overseen the cell which killed 14 people in twin terrorist attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils.

Police are trying to piece together how a cell composed of multiple sets of brothers from the same sleepy Pyreenes town came to carry out the devastating attacks, amid reports they planned to blow up the Sagrada Familia.

The home of the imam, named as Abdelbaki Es Satty, was raided overnight from Friday to Saturday, with officers reportedly seeking - among other evidence - DNA samples which might link him to a building in the town of Alcanar believed to be where the attack was prepared.

El Pais, a leading Spanish daily, said they were investigating whether the imam, who apparently left Ripoll around a month ago, might be one of two dead bodies discovered in the Alcanar house. Sources involved in the investigation told El Confidencial they believed he was a "spiritual or idealogical leader" to the cell members, radicalising them and helping them to plan the attacks.

The sources cited the lack of previous terror links among the group, and said they had detected a number of trips by some members to France and Morocco. Police did not officially confirm or deny the reports.

A spokesperson for the Catalan force told the Telegraph they were working on the “principle hypothesis” that the cell was comprised of 12 members, 11 of whom have now been identified and hail almost exclusively from Ripoll.

Five members died at the hands of police in the attack on Cambrils late on Thursday night, which killed one woman and injured several others. Moussa Oukabir, 17, Mohammed Hychami, 23 and Said Aallaa, 19, all believed to be of Moroccan origin, have been officially identified as among the attackers killed. The other two have been named by Spanish press as Omar Hychami, Mohammed’s brother, and Houssaine Aouyaaquoub, who is presumed to be a family member of Younes Aouyaaquoub, the suspected driver of the Ramblas van who remains on the run.

Another four have been detained, including Driss Oukabir, Moussa’s 23-year-old brother, whose identification was found in the van that attacked Barcelona’s Ramblas but who claims it was stolen by his sibling. Almost all of the men lived in close proximity in Ripoll - Oukabir and Mohammed Hychami in the same building - while Allaa lived in the nearby town of Ribes de Freser.

The head of the Ripoll mosque at which the Satty preached told reporters that he had arrived just over a year ago and left at the end of June, when he asked for three months' holiday to visit Morocco and was denied.

The imam, said to be a father of about 45 years old, had never said or done anything to prompt concern, said the mosque chief, Ali Yassine.

"We never heard anything about him or received any (complaint) until this happened, and we don't know how this happened, this has fallen on us like a stone," he said. But, he added, no one could know what was happening "inside a person's head".

The suspected cell members rarely came to the mosque, but from their little interaction had seemed like "normal boys", Mr Yassine explained, adding that he had only ever seen Younes Aouyaaquoub "three or four times".

Mr Yassine said he was not aware of any lessons the iman was conducting outside the mosque, insisting that if he had learned that was happening, he would have prevented it and gone to the police.

The mosque president emphatically condemned this week's attacks, saying terrorism were the acts of "crazy people".

"Our religion does not permit us to do this ever, our religion totally condemns these terrorist actions," he said. "Our religion is peace, Islam is peace."

What remains unclear is exactly what led the cell to Alcanar, a town almost 200 miles to the south, where police believe they were preparing an attack initially intended to involve explosives.

Alcanar and Cambrils both sit in a coastal area south of Barcelona that has gained a reputation as a Salafist hotbed after a number of terror arrests in recent years. It was in Salou, adjacent to Cambrils, that one of the 9/11 attackers, Mohammed Atta, held a meeting with a key al-Qaeda figure. But its connection to Ripoll is unknown.

Police have found two bodies in the rubble of the house after a blast in the early hours of Thursday morning, which was initially suspected to be caused by a gas leak in a drugs lab. One of the men injured in the blast, a Spanish national from the enclave of Melilla in Morocco, was later arrested as a suspected cell member.

Investigators at the site, where controlled explosions were carried out on Friday and Saturday, later discovered a stockpile of explosive material including more than 100 gas canisters. Local media reported that a crude and unstable homemade explosive known as acetone peroxide was being produced in the house. The explosives - known as the 'Mother of Satan' are favoured among jihadis and were used in the 7/7 bombings.

Neighbours speculated that recent high temperatures in the heatwave known as Lucifer might have triggered the explosion.

That may have saved Barcelona from an even more devastating attack. Catalan police told the Telegraph they believed the group had been preparing to use the explosives, either against one target or in multiple coordinated attacks.

They could not confirm or deny reports in two Spanish newspapers that the cell's "Plan A" was to blow up the Sagrada Familia, the iconic Barcelona cathedral designed by Antonio Gaudi.

Residents of Ripoll - a town of just 11,000, around a tenth of whom are of North African origin - said that Moussa Oukabir and the imam disappeared around the same time.

At the Cafeteria Esperanza, which the imam used to frequent, three Moroccan men playing chess told the Telegraph that he had been in Ripoll for several years before leaving a month ago.

One of the men, who did not wish to be named, said that the imam used to give talks behind the cafe. "We do not know where he went, just that he had another job somewhere. My friend told me that he went elsewhere in Spain."

At the home of Younes Aouyaaquoub, an elderly neighbour told The Telegraph that she would not have believed the teenager capable of such violence. "To me, he has always been a good boy, no trouble. I not understand why he would do this. I am angry," she said.

Others in the neighbourhood also expressed disbelief that so many young men from the town could have been drawn into terrorism.

Speaking to The Telegraph, a shop assistant at a tobacconist close to where Moussa Oubakir lived said that no one in the town had heard of anyone leaving to join Islamic State.

The woman, who would only give her first name, Ximena, added: "We don't get this here. We are a small town and we would know about it."

Muslims demand to worship at church

The Islamic Council of Spain has sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI demanding that Muslims be allowed formal prayer at a Catholic cathedral in Cordoba.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

by Martin Barillas

The leaders of the Muslim community of Spain have written a letter to Pope Benedict XVI demanding that their co-religionists be allowed to conduct formal prayer services at a Catholic church in Cordoba. Bishop Juan José Asencio of Cordoba rejected the demand saying that such a move “would not contribute to peaceful coexistence between the different creeds” and that it would “merely generate confusion among the faithful and give way to indifferentism as to religion.”

The church in question, sometimes called the Cathedral-mosque of Cordoba, was indeed once a mosque for several centuries after the Muslim invasion of the 8th Century AD. After the Catholic Spaniards returned to the area in the 1200s, they found a mosque superimposed on what had once been a Visigoth Spanish church. Córdoba was a center of Islamic culture and power that rivaled even Damascus and was to color Spanish culture and language indelibly. Apologists for Islam and the Islamo-Moorish occupation of much of Spain during the Middle Ages frequently hark back to a mythical time of tolerance between the Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic faiths and when great cultural achievements were notable.

The cathedral is one of the most splendid works of architecture in Europe: thousands of visitors come each year to see the iconic Moorish arches and columns in its interior. Once the Catholic Spanish returned, a small church was built within the walls of the former mosque and has been used for Catholic worship for more than 700 years.

Bishop Asencio has proclaimed his respect for Muslims living within the midst of modern Spain. While he also “favors” the dialogue between the two faiths that is promoted by the Pope, he averred that joint usage of the church “would not contribute to the said dialogue.”  While noting the repeated insistence on the part of “Spanish converts to Islam” for joint Christian/Muslim usage of the cathedral, the prelate noted that the church’s deanery “holds legitimate legal title to the Cathedral for its sole use by the Catholic Church".

This is bolstered by the fact that excavations in the 1930s show that long before the imposition of a mosque by the Cordoban Ummayid caliphs that there was a basilica built on the site during the 4th and 5th centuries by Visigoth Christians. The ruins of the church, a seminary and a charitable hospital, destroyed in the wake of the Muslim invasion after 711 AD, are now visible at the site. King Saint Ferdinand III dedicated the new church at the site in 1236 AD.

The interior perimeters of the church bear various devotional chapels that have been erected over the centuries, further denoting the Christian character of the building. Furthermore, said Bishop Asencio, “like all cathedrals” there is not only Catholic liturgy, but also “the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist”: according to the bishop, this is the fundamental fact that makes Muslim worship within its confines “unworkable”.

The bishop’s statement went on to say that the Christians of Córdoba wish “to live in peace with believers of other creeds, but we do not wish to be subject to continuous pressures that do not contribute to peace.”  Joint prayer at airports, Olympic villages, and the like would not be affected by the bishop’s insistence that the Cathedral be used solely for Catholic worship.

The letter to the pope by the Islamic Council of Spain, led by Mansur Escudero, noted favorably as an example of “singular ecumenism” that the pontiff prayed at the Blue Mosque during his trip to Istanbul last month. Mansur gave assurances that the Council’s request does not represent a desire to take the surrounding region of Andalusia for Islam but noted the “pathological aspects to which all religions are exposed”.

Catholic worship is not allowed at the Blue Mosque nor at the museum in Istanbul that was a mosque before the inception of the modern Turkish state. It had been built as the Hagia Sophia Church by Byzantine Christians beginning in the 5th Century AD. Priceless mosaics and holy objects were destroyed by iconoclastic Muslims when the church was converted into a mosque in 1453 AD. Christians face persecution throughout many Muslim countries: in Saudi Arabia, for instance, all worship but that of Islam is strictly forbidden and punishable even by death.

The former president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious dialogue, Bishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, once responded to a previous similar request by the Islamic Council by saying “It is difficult to promote coexistence of Christians and Muslims by going back into history or wishing for revenge. We must accept history and move forward.”

Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and human rights observer who served in Latin America, Europe, and the US. He is Religion News editor for Spero News.