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'Spain is a target': Terrorism expert not surprised Barcelona was attacked

Terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni says it was just a matter of time Spain would be attacked given previous terror plots that have been thwarted.

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Barcelona's popular pedestrian thoroughfare Las Ramblas, filled with cafes and tourists, became the scene of a terror attack on Aug. 17, as a van turned into a weapon and pummeled through the busy streets.

At least 14 people were left dead and 100 injured. Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has declared three days of mourning.

One of the reasons why Spain is a particularly important target is because it has a very large Muslim community, especially in Catalonia.- Loretta Napoleoni, terrorism expert

Amy Howell, who was visiting Barcelona from Dallas, Texas, was on Las Ramblas in the front of a store when the attack took place.

"All of a sudden I hear this loud noise and then screaming. So I looked outside and I just saw, really, just a wave of people running as fast as they could with a look of just complete terror on their face. And so I knew something was horrible," Howell tells The Current's host Megan Williams.

Children, some in tears, are escorted down a road in Barcelona, Spain, Aug. 17, after a white van mounted a sidewalk, striking several people.

"We knew everybody was running a certain direction but I felt like we were safer in the store."

After hearing someone outside yelling "terror attack" store employees and customers urgently shut the metal gates, turned the lights and music off and went to the back dressing rooms. "It just was eerie and quiet," Howell says.

Spain is a target as is the U.K, and also France.- Loretta Napoleoni

She recounts the crowded store of almost 50 people all reached out to their loved ones.

"I got a hold of my mother, she answered, and I just said, 'Let my kids know that I love them more than anything in this world, and I have no idea what's happening. I'm fine now but just let them know that their mom was awesome and she loved them more than anything.'"

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Loretta Napoleoni  was not surprised by the attack in Barcelona due to several thwarted attacks in Spain last year and even more recently.

"Spain is a target as is the U.K, and also France," says the journalist, who has written extensively on global terrorism and ISIS.

"One of the reasons why Spain is a particularly important target is because it has a very large Muslim community, especially in Catalonia. So there is a critical mass where the Islamic state can recruit potential attackers and potential terrorists."

She tells Williams that Spain has the best counter-terrorism in Europe, prompted by the "long, bloody history of terrorism," pointing to ETA, a formerly armed leftist Basque nationalist group.

According to eye witnesses the white van swerved from side to side as it plowed into tourists and residents, Aug. 17, in Las Ramblas, in Barcelona, Spain. (Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press)

Napoleoni says the country knows how to behave in the wake of a terror attack and also how to reassure the public.

"If you look at the reaction of the Spanish people in the aftermath of the attack, it was actually the reaction of a nation that is very cohesive, of a nation that stands all together against the terrorists. So that's quite remarkable."

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack in Spain but Napoleoni questions this.

"I don't think that ISIS is a predominant organization as al-Qaeda was in the past, whereby a decision is made in one country and an attack is carried out in another country — I don't think that this is happening at all."

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Injured people are treated in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district, crashing into a summer crowd of residents and tourists and injuring several people, police said. (AP Photo/Oriol Duran) (Oriol Duran/AP Photo)

While the ideology may have started with ISIS, now it's taken a life of its own, says Napoleoni.

"It is likely that the people that carried out the attacks in Barcelona had links with other people in Europe and also in Africa. So it's a network of people that interact with each other on the internet. They don't even know each other," she explains.

"What they want to do, is do anything that creates this kind of chaos, terror … the number of bodies on the ground —that's about it."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin, Julian Uzielli and Rachel Matlow.