The young men on their motorbikes had been coming and going for months, the sound of engines throbbing and scattering stones on the dirt track leading to their country house in Alcanar, eastern Spain.
Neighbours doubted that the young-looking men of north African origin had rented the house as a holiday home, despite the views of the Mediterranean. But they knew that the property bore the hallmarks of repossession by Banco Popular, having lived through a destructive, loan-fuelled property crash. Spaniards often do not feel much concern when squatters take to such places.
“Perhaps someone should have called the police,” said Carmen Circiumaru, who lives a few doors away. “But they never did anything that seemed especially suspicious.” Indeed, the young men and at least one older, bearded man who sometimes appeared here, were quiet and respectful. It was not until an explosion ripped through the building late on Wednesday night, raining masonry on to their gardens, that people began to worry. And when a van ploughed its way through the crowds in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas just hours later, that worry built into something else.
Investigators believe this is where the ghastly events in Barcelona and the beachtown of Cambrils, which claimed the lives of 14 people and injured dozens more, started. A deadly cocktail of youthful nihilism, violence, radicalism and a desire to end life in a blaze of blood-drenched fame had originated in this shabby, forgotten corner of the Catalan coast.
Police carried out controlled explosions at the Alcanar house on Saturday morning and continued to pick their way through the rubble as they try to put together the story of how a dozen young men – at least one of them still, at 17, legally a minor – brought carnage to Catalonia. Seven are already dead and four are in custody. Five were shot dead by police in Cambrils in the small hours of Friday morning and one was discovered under the rubble at Alcanar the previous day.
Police have now arrested the only survivor of the Alcanar explosion, Mohamed Houli Chemlal, who had been taken to a hospital in nearby Tortosa. The remains of at least one another man were found in the rubble on Friday. Spanish media has linked those remains to an overnight raid on the apartment of Abdelbaki Se Satty, a 40-year-old former imam in the quiet country town of Ripoll in northern Catalonia, but there is no confirmation from police. Mohamed Houli Chemlal, who was born in the Spanish north African enclave of Melilla, also lives in the same town.
Two more people have since been arrested in Ripoll and at least three of those shot in Cambrils are from the town. Only one member of the cell remains at large. He is Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old from Ripoll who had studied at the secondary school there and was recalled by former classmates as being quiet and well-behaved. Abouyaaquob was at the wheel of the large White Fiat van that killed 13 people on Las Ramblas on Thursday.
The Alcanar house appears to have been destroyed by an accidental explosion. The first people to reach the site immediately detected the source of the explosion. Hissing gas bottles were filling the air with their fumes. Police recovered more than 100 gas bottles, each big enough to contain 12.5 kilos of pressurised butane, from the site, many of which remain intact. A truck full of such bottles attached to a bomb could have wreaked even more damage. Police believe the cell were preparing up to three such homemade “van bombs”.
The explosion forced the cell to change and rush their plans, in the belief that the police were on to them. In fact, police at first suspected the house had been used in the manufacture of illegal drugs, and that the explosion was an accident. Trapped gas caused a second explosion on Thursday afternoon, sending more rubble into neighbouring properties.
At about the same time as the second explosion, Abouyaaqoub was steering one of the two white Fiat vans that the cell had rented though Barcelona toward the short, broad Pelai street that leads to the top of Las Ramblas. He then turned right on to the pedestrian centre of the boulevard and accelerated. Five hundred yards later, the van came to a halt and Abouyaaqoub, wearing a striped T-shirt and white cap, ran into the narrow streets of the Raval neighbourhood. Behind him lay chaos and carnage.
The dead and the injured came from 22 countries and were of all religious beliefs. One unidentified British victim was still in hospital on Saturday, according to La Vanguardia newspaper. Several of the dead have yet to be named.
While panicked, screaming tourists sought refuge in bars, shops, hotels and restaurants, a manhunt through the nearby streets failed to find Abouyaaqoub. Roadblocks were set up, snarling up the traffic and filtering outgoing cars past the eyes of police. Among other vehicles, police were seeking a second white van from the Telefurgo company that had been rented at the same time as the one on Las Ramblas.
As night fell, Moussa was preparing a second attack with four others – mostly friends from Ripoll such as 24-year-old Mohamed Hychami and 18-year-old Said Aalla, who played in the local five-a-side soccer league. They no longer had explosives. But they had a blue Audi A3, and a collection of knives and axes. The attackers in Borough Market, Vauxhall and elsewhere had shown that this was enough.
The plan was to find another busy pedestrian walkway, run people down and then jump out of the car with weapons, hacking and stabbing people to death. Such crowds can be found in many of the tourist resorts along the Catalan coast. Like the Borough Market attackers, they built fake bomb vests with aluminium foil and set out to find a target.
The second onslaught in Cambrils was underway. The Audi A3 accelerated through a checkpoint, running over a policewoman’s foot in the process. After three kilometres the car was abandoned. To the surprise of police, it contained the body of a man who had been stabbed to death. The driver had disappeared.
By now, however, the other hired van had been found parked outside a Burger King in Vic, an hour’s drive from Barcelona. Documents showed that the van (or vans) had been rented by Driss Oukabir, whose photograph was immediately released. Twenty-seven-year-old Oukabir later walked through the doors of the police station in Ripoll, saying that his passport had been stolen. It was only now that police began to realise how young the attackers might be – Driss’s younger brother, Moussa, was just 17-years-old.
It is unclear why they chose Cambrils, a quiet resort where most people are tucked up in bed by 1am. But was when the car ran down some pedestrians and then rammed a police car at a checkpoint on the beach road. The reaction was swift and deadly.
Four were killed after they scrambled out of the overturned vehicle, reportedly by a single police officer. “One of them was shouting about Allah as he ran down the road,” said witness jose Ramon Arana, who watched from his second floor, seafront balcony. “You could hear the bullets zinging as they bounced off the pavement.”
A fifth terrorist – who on video appears to look like 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir – escaped but was later found on the seafront. “On the ground! On the ground!” police shouted, but, instead, he shouted back at them. He fell down after being shot, but then got up again and ran towards them. Further shots rang out, and he collapsed on to the asphalt road. Soon he, too, was dead.
As police identified the casualties, the Ripoll connection became clear. The first suspects to be identified – Oubakir, Aalla and Hychami – all came from this town. With 500 people of a total population of 10,500, of Moroccan origin, the suspects could not have gone unnoticed.
“Everyone, more or less, knows the Oubakir brothers,” said one neighbour. A rebellious Driss had been to jail when younger, but was considered to have mended his ways. Moussa had studied to become an administrative assistant at the local high school and was currently on a work training programme.
His family had tried to fit into this Catalan town, where the established community of north African immigrants mostly work on local farms. His Moroccan mother, who had attended Catalan classes as the family tried to assimilate the culture of the town, was reported to be distraught. “The family say it is better for him that he is dead,” the local Ara newspaper reported.
The two other arrested men are Said Aalla’s brother Mohammed Aallaa, 27, and 30-year-old Sahal el-Karib.
How these men came together to from a terror cell remains a mystery. None of those identified so far were known to have radical views. Nor had they been caught up in Spain’s procedure for tackling terror, which involves arresting suspects on slight evidence or minor crimes. Until now, no serious attack on Spanish soil had occurred since a dozen bombs were planted on Madrid commuter trains in 2004.
More than a quarter of arrests over the past five years have been in and around Barcelona, with 18 people arrested on suspicion of terrorism in Catalonia this year. Almost half a million Muslims make up Catalonia’s population of 7 million, but many young Muslims are frustrated at the inability to integrate.
The tucked away house in Alcanar, visible only to unsuspecting neighbours, must have seemed the perfect base. The news has forced many tourists in the cheap hostels lto leave or cancel their trips.
At the hostal Montecarlo, 100 metres away, a tray full of chunks of masonry rests on the bar counter. It blasted on to the terrace from the terrorist cell’s bomb factory on Wednesday night. It contains future clues about what the cell was planning.