Spanish Police Focus On Imam Linked To Perpetrators Of Barcelona Attack
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Police in Spain say they have killed the man who drove the vehicle used in last week's terror attack in Barcelona. Officers shot 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub in a town outside the city. He was part of a 12-man terror cell that was created in a small town north of Barcelona called Ripoll. Police think the men of Moroccan descent were recruited by an itinerant imam. NPR's Frank Langfitt went to Ripoll to learn more.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Imam Abdelbaki Es Satty started working in this picturesque tourist town in the foothills of the Pyrenees about two years ago. He was a solitary figure who lived in a dingy six-floor walk-up which cost just 176 bucks a month. His last roommate, Nordin El Haji, told me Es Satty didn't say much and shared little about his past.
Did he ever have any visitors?
NORDIN EL HAJI: (Foreign language spoken).
LANGFITT: Not a single visitor in four months.
EL HAJI: In four months, nobody.
LANGFITT: Earlier this summer, Es Satty, who's 42, said he was leaving town.
EL HAJI: (Through interpreter) A month ago, he got almost all of his stuff and left. Then he came back last Friday and left for good on Tuesday.
LANGFITT: The next day in Alcanar, about 190 miles southwest along the Mediterranean coast, a giant explosion leveled an abandoned house. Police suspect Es Satty went to Alcanar to assist terror cell members in building bombs. Police found more than 120 large canisters of butane at the house and say the men planned to load them into vans and detonate them in Barcelona. Instead, they accidentally blew themselves up.
Police are awaiting final DNA analysis but say all signs suggest Es Satty was among those killed in the blast. The events of the past week have shaken Ripoll to the core. Acting Mayor Jordi Gumi speaks for many.
JORDI GUMI: (Through interpreter) I think people are wondering how this could have happened and how nobody noticed. These are questions for the police to answer. The key seems to be the imam.
LANGFITT: Ali Yassine, president of the local mosque that hired Es Satty, insists there was nothing suspicious about him. Speaking to a group of reporters yesterday, Yassine had circles under his eyes and looked drawn.
ALI YASSINE: (Through interpreter) Everything he did was ordinary. He never said anything strange. He didn't have a radical message. Everything was normal.
LANGFITT: Yassine said the men didn't come to the mosque much or mix with Es Satty.
YASSINE: (Through interpreter) The boys here in the mosque - I never saw him talking to them, never.
LANGFITT: Spanish Media say that back in 2004, police connected Es Satty to an associate of the terrorist behind the Madrid train bombing that year which killed more than 190 people. But that fact didn't surface during routine government checks at the Ripoll mosque. Relations between the town's small Moroccan community and its Catalan majority are tense. As Catholic mass let out yesterday, a woman named Martha acknowledged that people here feel betrayed. She's resentful and insisted that some Moroccan immigrants relied heavily on government support when they first arrived in town years earlier.
MARTHA: (Through interpreter) The state pays for everything - their apartment, light, water, school, food. With all of this, they haven't adapted to us, the Catalans.
LANGFITT: When I asked Martha for her last name, she refused, citing fear of retribution from local Moroccans.
MARTHA: (Foreign language spoken).
LANGFITT: "I don't know how far they'll go because these people are bad," she said. But many here say the cell members, who ranged in age from 17 to 34, were well-assimilated. Many spoke fluent Catalan, the local language. Some played on the town's soccer team. Wafa Marsi has known most of the men since they were kids. She worked with their families as a so-called mediator, helping them adjust to a new town and a new country.
WAFA MARSI: (Through interpreter) I promise. If you had seen the light that shone in their eyes four years ago, you wouldn't believe this. I'm still expecting somebody to tell me they've made a mistake.
LANGFITT: Marsi says the men, who were from working- and middle-class backgrounds, were pleasant and polite.
MARSI: (Through interpreter) They were fantastic. If there was one thing that defined them, it was that they were respectful. I remember seeing one of them helping an older woman with her shopping bags.
LANGFITT: At the moment, it's hard to imagine how Ripoll and its Moroccan community move forward. Marsi, who's lived here her entire 30 years, says it will be very difficult. But she does hold out hope. Once the seas calm, she says, we'll show them we're better than the terrorists. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Ripoll, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.