Extremist cell had planned a more deadly attack in Barcelona

A cell of at least nine extremists meticulously plotted to combine vehicles and explosives in a direct hit on tourists in Barcelona, authorities said Friday.

Only flawed bomb construction avoided a more devastating attack

People visit the area where a van crashed into pedestrians on the Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona a day after the attack, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

A cell of at least nine extremists meticulously plotted to combine vehicles and explosives in a direct hit on tourists in Barcelona, authorities said Friday.

Police in Spain and France carried out a manhunt for any remaining members of the group, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed as its own.

One Canadian was killed and four others were injured when a van plowed into crowds of tourists on a popular street in
Barcelona, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on Friday.

Ian Moore Wilson was identified by his daughter, Fiona Wilson, an officer with the Vancouver Police Department, as the Canadian killed in the attack. His wife Valerie was injured.

Police said a cell of at least nine extremists meticulously plotted to combine vehicles and explosives in a direct hit on tourists in Barcelona. A manhunt was still underway Saturday in Spain and France for any remaining members of the group. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Only flawed bomb construction avoided a more devastating attack, authorities said after taking a closer look at a blast Wednesday evening in the town of Alcanar that was first written off as a household gas explosion. At least one person was killed and several injured in the home where police believe the deadly plan for the attack took shape.

Eighteen hours later, a rented van veered into Barcelona's crowded Las Ramblas promenade, swerving along the walkway Thursday and killing 13 people. Armed with an axe, knives and false explosives belts, attackers drove a second vehicle to the boardwalk in the resort town of Cambrils early Friday, fatally injuring one person. Five of those attackers were shot to death, among them 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, according to a Spanish police union official, confirming news reports.

Oukabir's name was first on a document listing four suspects sought in the attacks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation. The Barcelona-based La Vanguardia newspaper, Spanish national broadcaster RTVE and other outlets cited police sources as saying he was the driver of the van in Barcelona.

The arrest order was issued throughout Spain and France, according to the Spanish official and a French police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. They did not say what became of the three other men listed, who ranged in age from 18 to 24. All had roots in Morocco; only Moussa Oukabir was born in Spain, according to the document.

Earlier in the day, Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont said at least one suspect in the attacks is still on the loose.

"We do not have information regarding the capacity to do more harm," he said.

Police identified four Moroccan men they say were involved in the attacks. Three seen in this photo were gunned down by officers in Cambrils, while the search continues for Younes Abouyaaqoub. (Spanish Police/EPA)

The French official said Spain had flagged a rented van that was believed to have crossed the border to the north. Moussa's brother Driss Oukabir was arrested Thursday after he went to police to report his stolen identity documents were those found in the van abandoned in the historic Las Ramblas district, Spanish media reported. 

The brothers were born and raised in Ripoll, a quiet, upscale town of 10,000 tucked into hilly Catalan heartland and dominated by the imposing tower of the Monesteri de Santa Maria. The dented door to the family's first-floor apartment swung open Friday; the home was empty.

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Neighbours said they were shocked by the news of Moussa Oukabir's involvement. One teenager, who identified himself only by his first name, Pau, said they played together when they were younger and he was "a good boy."

Authorities said the two attacks were related and the work of a large terrorist cell that had been plotting for a long time from the house in Alcanar, 200 kilometres down the coast from Barcelona. The house was destroyed by a butane gas explosion Wednesday night that killed one person. One of those injured in the blast was taken into custody.

Four in custody

Senior police official Josep Lluis Trapero said police believed the apparently accidental explosion prevented a far deadlier attack being carried out.

Police said they arrested two people Friday, after the two arrests a day earlier. In custody are three Moroccans and one Spaniard, none with terrorism-related records.

"We are not talking about a group of one or two people, but rather a numerous group," regional Interior Ministry Chief Joaquim Forn told Onda Cero radio.

The sheer size of the cell recalled the November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which trained Islamic State attackers struck the national stadium, a concert hall and bars and restaurants nearly simultaneously. Since then, the extremist group has steadily lost ground in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, most recently with its defeat in Mosul. 

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Investigators search for clues while police escort tourist groups back to their hotels 0:51

"This shows there is no correlation between what is happening over there with Daesh and the operational capacity of the group," said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French security analyst, using another name for the group.

Spanish authorities had not yet drawn any direct links between ISIS and the suspects in the Spanish attacks, but the possibility that members of the Spanish group could still be at large was chilling. Those who have survived prior attacks nearly always ended their lives with new bloodshed and a hail of police bullets.

"There is the danger they will not let themselves get caught and will do something dramatic," said Alain Chouet, a former French intelligence official.

'I am not afraid'

Amid heavy security, Barcelona tried to move forward Friday, with the La Rambla promenade quietly reopening to the public and King Felipe VI and Rajoy joining thousands in a minute of silence in the city's main square.

"I am not afraid! I am not afraid!" the crowd chanted in Catalan and Spanish.

But the attacks unnerved a country that hasn't seen an Islamic extremist attack since 2004, when al-Qaeda-inspired bombers killed 191 people in co-ordinated assaults on Madrid's commuter trains. Unlike France, Britain, Sweden and Germany, Spain has largely been spared, thanks in part to a crackdown that has netted about 200 suspected jihadis in recent years.

A woman sits next to tributes on Las Ramblas near the scene yesterday's terrorist attack in Barcelona. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

 Authorities were still dealing with the Barcelona van attack when police in Cambrils, 130 kilometres to the south, fatally shot the five attackers who had plowed into tourists and locals with their car near the town's boardwalk. Forn said the five were wearing fake bomb belts.

One woman in Cambrils died from her injuries and five others were wounded, Catalan police said.

Cambrils Mayor Cami Mendoza said the town had taken precautions after the Barcelona bloodshed, but the suspects focused their attack on the narrow path to the boardwalk, which is usually packed.

"We were on a terrace," said bystander Jose Antonio Saez. "We heard the crash and intense gunshots, then [saw] the dead bodies on the floor, shot by the police."

Others described scenes of panic and found safety inside bars and restaurants until police secured the area.

"It was clearly a terror attack, intended to kill as many people as possible," Trapero said.

People gather around tributes laid on Las Ramblas on Friday as police continue to search for the suspects in the attacks around Spain. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

ISIS said on its Aamaq news agency that the Barcelona attack was carried out by "soldiers of the Islamic State" in response to its calls for followers to target countries participating in the coalition fighting the extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

Islamic extremists have targeted Europe's major tourist areas in recent years. Rented or hijacked vehicles have formed the backbone of a strategy to attack the West and its cultural symbols. Barcelona's Las Ramblas is one of the most popular areas in a city that swarms with foreign tourists in August.

The dead and wounded in the two attacks came from 34 countries.

Rajoy called the killings a "savage terrorist attack" and said Spaniards "are not just united in mourning, but especially in the firm determination to beat those who want to rob us of our values and our way of life."

Makeshift memorials grew along La Rambla after it reopened to the public, albeit under heavy surveillance and an unusual quiet.

"It's sad," New York tourist John Lanza said. "You can tell it's obviously quieter than it usually is, but I think people are trying to get on with their lives."

With files from CBC News and Reuters