Spanish police focus on Ripoll imam who vanished before terror attacks

Stephen Burgen and Jonathan Watts in Barcelona, Ian Cobain, and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
A police officer stands guard at a blocked road in Ripoll. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty

Nowhere is the shock at last Thursday’s attack in Barcelona greater than in Ripoll, a small town of 11,000 people in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a short drive south of the French border.

Residents there have been coming to terms with the news that not only were many of the terrorists little more than boys – four of those shot by police after driving into a group of pedestrians in Cambrils, south of Barcelona, in the early hours of Friday, were teenagers – but that many of them had lived among them.

Catalan police believe they have identified all 12 members of the group: five were shot dead, two more are thought to have accidentally blown themselves up, four suspects remain in custody and one is on the run.

What has emerged is that Ripoll is where the members of the cell became friends, played five-a-side football together and, apparently, helped each other along the path to radicalisation, hatred and mass murder.

Police are making inquiries into a former imam in the town, Abdelbaki Es Satty. A man in his 40s with children, Es Satty is said to have vanished last week. Some of the town’s Muslim population thought he had travelled to Morocco.

Police are attempting to establish whether he had actually travelled no further than Alcanar, 145 miles south. This is the town where he had lived before moving to Ripoll, and also where members of the cell had established a bomb factory in a disused house.

While police say they have no firm evidence that Es Satty played any role in last week’s attacks, they have thoroughly searched his home in Ripoll. Among the material removed were items that might yield DNA: police are conducting tests to establish whether he was one of at least two people known to have perished when the bomb factory was ripped apart in a premature detonation early on Thursday morning.

Police say more than 100 gas canisters were being stored at the house, and also say they have found traces of triacetone triperoxide, an explosive used in a number of terrorist attacks in recent years.

Attempts were being made by the cell to either construct one large bomb – with Spanish media suggesting a likely target was the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished cathedral in Barcelona created by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí – or a number of smaller bombs, to be packed into three vans that they had rented.

The premature explosion appears to have prompted members of the cell to instead launch a series of attacks using one of the vans in Barcelona and a blue Audi car in Cambrils, as well as knives and an axe. One woman died after being struck by the car in Cambrils. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Es Satty appears to be the only one of the suspects whose name had already crossed the radar of the police. He was jailed in Castellón in Valencia in 2010 for smuggling cannabis, and released in 2014. It is reported that while in prison he met Rachid Aglif, who is serving 18 years for his part in the 2004 Madrid bomb attacks that left 192 dead and about 2,000 people wounded.

More significantly, his name also appears in a report that was compiled after five men were arrested south of Barcelona, in Vilanova i la Geltrú, on charges of recruiting young men to fight in Iraq.

The imam also spent three months in Belgium before the Brussels attacks, it has emerged. The mayor of Vilvoorde, Hans Bonte, told local TV that Es Satty was in the Belgian town between January and March 2016.

The assaults on Brussels airport and a Metro station killed 32 people in March last year. Isis claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Es Satty is thought to have travelled to Belgium frequently, but he was never an official resident. Immigration and asylum minister Theo Francken said he was unknown to the foreigners’ registration service. “He has never requested or received a Belgian residence permit,” he wrote on Twitter. “Of course, he could have been in Belgium, but the immigration office has no record of him.”

Vilvoorde, on the northern edge of Brussels, has been grappling with extremism, since it emerged that about 30 residents had left the town to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Es Satty moved to Ripoll about two years ago and became the imam of the Annur Islamic community at one of the town’s two mosques. The man who shared his flat said that Es Satty left last Tuesday, saying he was going back to Morocco for a three-month holiday.

The members of the cell who have been identified are Moussa Oukabir, 17, Said Aallaa, 18, and Mohamed Hychami, 24, whom police say they shot dead at Cambrils. The other two attackers shot dead in the town have been identified by the Spanish media as Omar Hychami, 21, brother of Mohamed, and Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, 19, who is assumed to be related to the fugitive, Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22.

All grew up in Ripoll, other than Aallaa, who is from the nearby town of Ribes de Freser.

Those arrested are Oukabir’s brother Driss, 27, who turned himself in to police after his name appeared in the media; Aallaa’s brother; a 30-year-old man, Salh El Karib; and Mohamed Houli Chemlal, the only survivor of the explosion at the bomb factory.

Scores of police roadblocks sprang up across north-eastern Spain yesterday as police stepped up their manhunt for Younes Abouyaaqoub, while French police carried out extra border checks on people coming in from Spain. Spanish police said they could not rule out that he had slipped over the border into France. He is thought to have been at the wheel of the white Fiat van that zigzagged at high speed along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, killing 13 people and injuring more than 130.

Abouyaaqoub is thought to have disappeared into the side streets off Las Ramblas after Thursday’s murderous attack. Police suspect he then fled the city after hijacking a car and stabbing to death its driver, whose body was later found in the vehicle. His mother, Ghanno Gaanimi, has appealed to him to turn himself in.

Es Satty’s former mosque denounced the deadly attacks on Sunday, while on Saturday, weeping relatives of the attackers, members of the Ripoll’s Spanish-Moroccan community of around 500 people, marched into a square in the town and tearfully denied any knowledge of the murderous plans of their sons and brothers.

“I don’t know what’s happened, I don’t know how to feel, they’re my sons but look at the evil they’ve done,” said Hechami Gasi, father of Mohamed and Omar Hychami. “The imam must have put these ideas in their heads. They were good boys.”

Ali Yassiné, president of Ripoll’s Annur Islamic community, said he knew little of any of the suspects. “They rarely attended … I doubt if any of them could tell you the colour of the carpet in the mosque.” If they had attended more often, he added, they would have understood that such attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

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