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Police Hunt Focuses on One Barcelona Suspect--Update

20 Aug 2017 4:33 pm
By Jeannette Neumann 

BARCELONA--A former imam may have radicalized a group of mainly Moroccan-born men who allegedly carried out Spain's most deadly Islamist terrorist attack in a decade, authorities said Sunday.

Police also said they are closing in on the one suspect still at large among a group of eleven other terrorists, who they believe had plans for an even bigger attack.

The cell aborted a plan to set off a series of explosions, investigators believe, when the material accidentally detonated and instead used vehicles to plow through pedestrians in back-to-back assaults, killing 13 in Barcelona and one in the seaside town of Cambrils.

The names of the victims in the assault on Las Ramblas, a crowded tourist destination, have trickled out slowly. Government officials on Sunday identified another as 7-year-old British-Australian boy named Julian Cadman, whose mother was also struck but survived. That brings the total number of foreign victims to 10.

The person sought by police is 22-year-old Moroccan-born Younes Abouyaaqoub, according to people close to the investigation. Investigators hypothesize he might have been the driver of the van that barreled down Las Ramblas and then fled on foot.

No one was home at his house in the town of Ripoll on Saturday, and neither he nor his relatives could be located for comment.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assaults via its official Amaq news agency.

Mr. Abouyaaqoub and most of the other suspects lived in Ripoll, a town at the foot of the Pyrenees not far from the French border. Police are probing whether Abdelbaki Es Satty, a former imam in the town, helped radicalize at least some of the men.

"It's one of the lines of investigation," Josep Lluís TrapSHYero, police chief in Catalonia, the region that is home to Barcelona, said during a press conference on Sunday.

He cautioned that police were weighing other possibilities, saying the process of radicalization is often a combination of factors, with Islamist propaganda on the Internet playing an important role.

Mr. Trapero said that none of the twelve suspects had previous criminal records related to terrorism, nor did Spanish intelligence flag the group as plotting potential attacks. Friends and neighbors of the suspects say the group appeared well-integrated in the local community and showed no obvious signs of radicalization.

Mr. El Satty did have a prior record, Mr. Trapero said. He also had a connection to an unidentified person implicated in a separate terrorism investigation in Spain, Mr. Trapero said, without elaborating.

In Ripoll, Nourdine el Haji, who had been living in the same apartment with the former imam for four months, described him as "a normal person."

"I last saw him on Tuesday morning. He told me he was going to Morocco." Police searched the former imam's room on Friday, Mr. El Haji said.

Ali Yassine, the president of the mosque where Mr. Es Satty had preached said the Muslim community was devastated that the former imam appeared to have been involved in the pair of attacks. "It"s a crushing blow for us, because Islam is against criminals," Mr. Yassine said. "They take our name and kill for it."

Spanish authorities also said Sunday that Mr. El Satty might have been killed in an explosion in a house where they suspect the terrorist group was building bombs. Some material that police found in that house, which is in the Spanish beach town of Alcanar, is similar to what the Islamic State typically uses, Mr. Trapero said.

Five suspects who were killed by police in Cambrils in an attack related to the one hours earlier in Barcelona were wearing fake explosive vests, which echoes a strategy used in the recent London Bridge attack, also claimed by Islamic State. Four other suspects have been arrested.

On Sunday, police sifting through the remains of the destroyed building in Alcanar were still uncovering gas canisters.

"Today we are beginning to have much greater clarity that Alcanar was the place where [the suspects] were preparing the explosion to commit one or several attacks in the city of Barcelona," Mr. Trapero said.

Marina Force and Donato Paolo Mancini in London and Jon Sindreu in Ripoll contributed to this article.

Write to Jeannette Neumann at jeannette.neumann@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 20, 2017 12:33 ET (16:33 GMT)

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