'We love Las Ramblas again': Barcelona mayor on attack anniversary

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Aerial view of floral tributes at the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona in 2017. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago this Friday, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove a rented van into pedestrians on Las Ramblas in the heart of Barcelona, killing 16 people and injuring 131 – representing 34 nationalities. The attacks left the city stunned and horrified but also defiant.

“I think the definitive proof of the city’s ability to deal with this was the response of its citizens when thousands of people gathered the next day chanting No tinc por [I’m not afraid],” Barcelona mayor Ada Colau told the Guardian.

“This showed that people had confidence in the city and it sent the message that they were not going to allow terrorists to change our way of life.”

Colau was out of town on maternity leave when the attacks occurred and she recalls the profound silence when she returned to the city and the way time seemed to move slowly as the enormity of what had happened began to unfold.

“We knew there was a possibility; there had already been attacks in Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere,” she said. “We were conscious of the fact that Barcelona is an international city and could be a target.

“I think we were well prepared and the response of the police and emergency services showed this. Everyone knew what they had to do. But, of course, afterwards we looked at our protocols to see what could be improved.”

It was difficult to piece together what was going on amid all the rumours and confusion, Colau said. There were rumours of a shoot-out near Las Ramblas, that the terrorists were holed up in a Turkish restaurant, that people had been taken hostage in a department store and police had shot someone at a checkpoint in the north of the city. None turned out to be true.

Nine hours after the Barcelona attack, five men drove a car into pedestrians in Cambrils, 120 kilometres south of Barcelona, killing one woman and injuring six others. The five were shot dead by police.

Abouyaaqoub had escaped amid the panic and confusion and was on the run. He made his way on foot to the northern edge of Barcelona, where he stabbed and killed Pau Pérez Villán in order to steal his car.

Abouyaaqoub then rammed a police barricade and fled on foot. On 21 August he was shot dead by police at a petrol station 40 kilometres south of Barcelona.

By then police had connected an explosion in Alcanar in southern Catalonia the day before the attacks with the terrorist cell. It was their bomb factory and the explosion killed Abdelbaki Es Satty, the group’s mastermind. Es Satty was the imam of Ripoll, a small town in northern Catalonia where most of the young attackers grew up.

“It’s impossible to be completely secure against this sort of global terrorism, organised in cells, using homemade explosives,” says Colau. “And in this case they changed their plans at the last moment because we now know they were planning to attack the Sagrada Família.”

The four surviving cell members who are in custody have confirmed that the plan was to attack the Sagrada Família temple, Barcelona’s most famous building, with an enormous truck bomb but that the explosion at Alcanar forced them to change their plans at the last minute.

“They struck at the heart of the city which is Las Ramblas, the most loved and most international part of the city which also is the point of welcome for visitors,” says Colau.

“But it’s made the city stronger and more resilient. It’s also made us fall in love with Las Ramblas again which has become so overwhelmed with tourists that many Barcelonians avoid it. But, after the attack, people have gone back to it.”

The mayor says the city immediately took steps to avoid a backlash against the Muslim community.

“A few days after the attack we held an inter-religious and intercultural event to emphasise that we have to respect all cultures and languages. We had to state firmly that you can’t criminalise an entire community. We’ve been very proactive in avoiding Islamophobia.”

When the Spanish king and prime minister attended a memorial rally shortly after the attacks, they were booed by a large group of flag-waving pro-independence supporters. Ada Colau says she hopes this won’t be repeated at Saturday’s homage to the victims at which the king and prime minister will once again be present.

“There are many days in the year if you want to protest against the monarchy and express our differences but, as mayor, I believe 17 August is for the victims,” she said. “For them it’s painful enough without people trying to politicise what is an act of solidarity and I ask that people show their respect for what is a homage to those who died.”