Barcelona attack: The jihadists and the hunt for a second gang - Whisper Eye

Barcelona attack: The jihadists and the hunt for a second gang

A neighbor had just walked past when an explosion tore through a small, white house in the Spanish coastal town of Alcanar last August.

Debris was flung hundreds of metres by the force of the blast and the bodies of two men landed in nearby gardens. A third man who had been on a roof terrace talking on his phone survived.

The next day a van attack was launched on pedestrians in Barcelona’s central tourist avenue, Las Ramblas. Hours later there was another attack, in Cambrils, a coastal town. Sixteen people died and more than 130 were injured.

Catalonia had come under attack from a jihadist gang of 11 people.

Investigators believe they had planned to target Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral and the Camp Nou stadium, home to Barcelona football club.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris was another target.

The Alcanar blast late on 16 August had changed all that and the key figure, Abdelbaki Es Satty, lay dead in the rubble.

But this is also a story of missed clues and intelligence failings, because Es Satty had been known to the authorities for years.

And the BBC has learned that his gang of extremists was plugged into a network that, according to a surviving cell member, could have included another imam with a second cell of eight or nine young men in France.

A year on, investigators in France have requested information from 10 countries and are still trying to break up that network and identify a possible French cell.

Catalonia’s head of counter-terrorism believes the plot could have been masterminded by someone outside Spain.

As neighbours emerged from the destroyed buildings in Alcanar, no-one considered an extremist link.

The bodies of Es Satty, 44, and 22-year-old Youssef Aallaa were identified

“The strongest hypothesis was that it was a drugs lab,” said firefighter Jordi Bort, who was among the first on the scene.

It was not until emergency services had dug through the rubble the next day that the full picture emerged.

There was a second blast, almost as large as the first.

Nine firefighters were injured.

They had stumbled on a bomb factory containing more than 200kg (440lb) of explosives.

Much of it was extremely unstable, designed to cause multiple deaths.