Islamist terrorism in Catalonia leaves the Spanish wondering why
Two attacks kill 14 and wound over 100, but the reasons are murky
The jihadists of Islamic State (IS) may boast of their ambition to recover the lost Islamic lands of “al-Andalus”. But until this week Spain seemed relatively safe, and tourists have been flocking to its cities and beaches in growing numbers—nowhere more so than to Barcelona.
That illusion of security was cruelly shattered around 5pm on August 17th, when a white van veered onto Las Ramblas, a tree-lined avenue that represents the city’s easy-going spirit. The vehicle zigzagged down the avenue for about 500 metres, mowing down panicked pedestrians before crashing; the driver fled on foot. At least 13 people were killed, and more than 100 injured.
What at first seemed like a lone-wolf attack quickly turned into something more organised and sinister. A few hours after the carnage in Las Ramblas, in the early hours of August 18th, Catalan police shot dead five suspected terrorists in Cambrils, a seaside resort. Their vehicle had jumped a police checkpoint and sped towards the main beachfront promenade, where it overturned, according to local media reports. They were wearing what appeared to be explosive vests but these proved to be fake, the police said. Four of the attackers were killed by police after the vehicle flipped, while the fifth was shot after being spotted by a police helicopter, according to El País, a Spanish newspaper. Video footage by bystanders shows him being repeatedly shot, standing up, and being shot again as he jumped over a partition in the road and rushed towards policemen. A woman who was stabbed by one of the assailants was killed in Cambrils; five civilians and one policeman were injured.
Adding to the alarm is the evidence from an explosion that destroyed a house on Wednesday night in another Catalan town, Alcanar. The blast, which left one person dead, was initially attributed by firemen to a gas leak. But the house now appears to have been a bomb factory, part of a plot to use gas as an explosive. One of the men injured in the house explosion in Alcanar is in police custody.
Investigations into the suspected cell are still at an early stage, but are focusing on men of Moroccan descent, including some with links to the Spanish enclaves in north Africa. The man in whose name the Barcelona attack van had been rented was arrested in another Catalan town, Ripoll, after he walked into a police station to report that his documents had been stolen. Media reports identify him as Driss Oukabir, a Moroccan. Unconfirmed reports claim his brother, Moussa, was the driver of the van in Barcelona. Police are trying to determine whether he was among those killed in Cambrils.
Catalonia, which hosts Spain’s largest Muslim population, has been a focus of radicalism. Since 2012 police have conducted some 30 separate anti-terrorism investigations in the region, arresting 62 suspects. In April police arrested nine people in and around Barcelona, reportedly in connection to the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016. El Periódico, a newspaper, says the CIA had warned Spain about an impending attack in Barcelona, but it appeared to lack specific details.
IS later claimed responsibility for the attack in Las Ramblas, saying it was a “response to calls for targeting coalition states”—a reference to the American-led coalition against the group. It was the worst act of jihadist terrorism in Spain since the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid killed 192 people in 2004 (see chart below). If the Madrid bombings were supposedly a reprisal for the country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq, the motivation for the latest attacks seem less obvious. These days Spain is a minor player in the campaign against IS and other groups, a fact that some thought might reduce the risk of attack. In 2015 Spain withdrew nearly all its troops from Afghanistan. It is not taking part in the air campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. Spain has about 400 soldiers helping to train the Iraqi army and police. In Africa, Spain has also provided transport aircraft to help French-led missions in Gabon and Senegal, and has had a small contingent of 150 soldiers in Mali.
Yet pretexts for an attack are easy to find in the tangle of historical, religious and contemporary grudges that jihadists hold against the West. In the end, the targets and timing of jihadist attacks in Europe may have less to do with deliberate planning by IS leaders, increasingly embattled in their self-declared caliphate, and more with the availability of extremists, sometimes self-radicalised, willing to carry out attacks. An important question for counter-terrorism experts is whether the attacks in Spain involved fighters who have returned to Europe from Syria. Unlike those of al-Qaeda, IS’s claims of responsibility tend not to include “martyrdom” videos made by the attackers.
Whether or not IS was mounting a concerted plot against Spain, the attacks were an assault on all of Europe, and the world: the dead and injured include German, French, Italian, Belgian and Greek citizens. Australian, Pakistani, Philippine, Venezuelan and Chinese nationals were also among the casualties, officials said.
Tourism has been the engine of Spain’s economic recovery since the financial crisis, accounting for 11% of GDP last year. Spain welcomed a record 75m tourists in 2016 and is expecting another surge this year; the number of tourists rose almost 12% in the first half of 2017, compared with the same period last year. In part Spain benefited from terrorist attacks elsewhere, including Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey.
Barcelona is Spain’s main tourism hub, welcoming some 9m overnight visitors a year. In recent online propaganda linked to IS, the city’s emblematic Sagrada Família basilica was featured as a possible target.
The Madrid attacks of 2004 had an immediate political impact, ruining the prospect of re-election for the centre-right Popular Party a few days later, not least because it had wrongly blamed the attack on the Basque-separatist ETA movement. One question is whether the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils might dampen support for Catalan independence in a controversial referendum by the regional government, scheduled for October 1st. For now, though, the city’s citizens will be mourning their dead. As the strollers returned to Las Ramblas the day after the murders, they spontaneously broke out in chants of “we have no fear”.