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 Muslim 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.”
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.”