More than 100 tanks of butane gas were found at the house that blew up Wednesday night south of Barcelona, as well as ingredients of the explosive TATP, used by ISIS in attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Police put up scores of roadblocks across northeast Spain on Sunday in hopes of capturing a fugitive suspect from the 12-member Islamic extremist cell that staged two vehicle attacks and plotted much deadlier carnage using explosives favored by Islamic State militants.
Complicating the manhunt, though, was the fact that police have so far been unable to officially identify who exactly is at large.
While police have identified the 12 members of the cell, three people remain unaccounted for: two believed killed when the house where the plot was being hatched exploded Wednesday, and a suspected fugitive, Catalan police official Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters Sunday.
Trapero declined to confirm that Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan, was the one at large and the suspected driver of the van that plowed down Barcelona’s Las Ramblas promenade Thursday, killing 14 people and injuring over 100. Another attack hours later killed one person and injured others in seaside town of Cambrils.
“We are working in that line,” Trapero said. But he added: “We don’t know where he is.”
Another police official did confirm that three vans tied to the investigation were rented with Abouyaaquoub’s credit card: The one used in the Las Ramblas carnage, another found in the northeastern town of Ripoll, where all the main attack suspects lived, and a third found in Vic, on the road between the two.
Police believe the cell members had planned to fill the vans with explosives and create a massive attack in the Catalan capital. Trapero confirmed that more than 100 tanks of butane gas were found at the Alcanar house that exploded, as well as ingredients of the explosive TATP, which was used by the Islamic State group in attacks in Paris and Brussels.
“Our thesis is that the group had planned one or more attacks with explosives in the city of Barcelona,” he said. That plot was foiled, however, when the house in Alcanar blew up Wednesday night.
The investigation is also focusing on a missing imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, who police think could have died in the Alcanar explosion. Trapero confirmed the imam was part of the investigation but said police had no solid evidence that he was responsible for radicalizing the young men in the cell.
Es Satty in June abruptly quit working at a mosque in Ripoll and has not been seen since.
His former mosque denounced the deadly attacks and weeping relatives marched into a Ripoll square on Saturday, tearfully denying any knowledge of the radical plans of their sons and brothers. Abouyaaquoub’s mother said his younger brother Hussein has also disappeared, as has the younger brother of one of five radicals shot dead Friday by police during the Cambrils attack.
Everyone so far known in the cell grew up in Ripoll, a town in the Catalan foothills 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Barcelona. Spanish police searched nine homes in Ripoll, including Es Satty’s, and set up roadblocks. French police carried out extra border checks on people coming in from Spain.
Terrorists Were ‘Normal Boys’
Neighbors, family and the mayor of Ripoll said they were shocked by news of the alleged involvement of the young men, whom all described as integrated Spanish and Catalan speakers.
Halima Hychami, the weeping mother of Mohamed Hychami, an attacker believed to have been killed by police, said he told her he was leaving on vacation and would return in about a week. His younger brother, Omar, left mid-afternoon Thursday and has not been heard from since.
“We found out by watching TV, same as all of you. They never talked about the imam. They were normal boys. They took care of me, booked my flight when I went on vacation. They all had jobs. They didn’t steal. Never had a problem with me or anybody else. I can’t understand it,” she said.
Fatima Abouyaaquoub, sister-in-law of the Hychami brothers and the cousin of Younes Abouyaaquoub, found it all hard to believe.
“I’m still waiting for all of it to be a lie. I don’t know if they were brainwashed or they gave them some type of medication or what. I can’t explain it,” she said.
Islamic terrorists have made a point of targeting Europe’s major tourist attractions — especially in rented or hijacked vehicles. But in the last two years, the extremist group has steadily lost ground in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The 14 people killed spanned generations — from age 3 to 80 — and left behind devastated loved ones.
By late Saturday, the Catalan emergency service said 53 attack victims were still hospitalized, 13 of them in critical condition.