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Criticism Builds For Catalonia Police After Last Week's Terror Attack In Spain


It's been a week since terrorists attacked Spain, killing 15 people. ISIS claimed responsibility. And after the attack, the country came together in mourning. But now the atmosphere has turned into one of finger pointing and accusations between all the security agencies who failed to uncover the terrorist plot before it was too late. To talk about all of this, Lauren Frayer joins us now from the Spanish capital of Madrid. Hi, Lauren.


CHANG: So did Spanish law enforcement miss some intelligence that could have prevented these attacks?

FRAYER: Well, that's what four different police agencies are arguing over right now. The focus has been on this imam who died in an explosion a day before the attacks. He's believed to have secretly radicalized about a dozen youth in a town north of Barcelona. The imam spent time in Belgium last year. And he was actually investigated there because he was a newcomer and imam visiting a Belgian town that has a reputation for ISIS recruiting. And at that point, in 2016, Belgian police contacted police in Catalonia, Northeast Spain. And an officer replied that the imam was not suspicious.

Now critics say that's exactly when Catalan police should have looked more closely at this imam. In the past, he had done for years in Spanish prison for drug offenses. You know, we know that prisons are where some radicalization takes place. Then he travels freely to Belgium. There are questions about why he wasn't deported back to his native Morocco at that point. Catalan police say the Belgian tip was informal. They also complain that their hands are tied. This is only a regional police force. They're not privy to intelligence that the federal government has. This is only - you know, Spanish national police are the only ones with contact with international agencies like INTERPOL or the CIA.

And I have to say, the backdrop of all of this is Catalonia is ruled by separatists who want to break away from Spain. They're actually holding an independence referendum on October 1, and so regional police really want to demonstrate that they can be autonomous. And Spanish national police are pretty quick to find fault with them.

CHANG: So what is the latest in the investigation? Are we are we learning any more about the attackers?

FRAYER: The authorities are retracing those attackers' final steps. There is some security video that has emerged of them together in a convenience store. They look so young. Some of them were just 17 years old. And one of the surviving suspects - the older brother of one of those killed by police - is being held in a prison just north of me, just north of Madrid. He's basically confessed.

He's told authorities that they were planning multiple attacks on Barcelona monuments. He says that the imam planned to be a suicide bomber himself. So this could have been much more deadly than it was. Meanwhile, ISIS has released a video referring to, quote, "the sacrifice of our brothers in Barcelona." And here's some from that video.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: So it's very rare to hear an ISIS video in Spanish. And the voice you hear there is that of a Spanish-Moroccan man well-known to authorities. He was born in the Spanish city of Cordoba, moved with his family to Syria to fight for ISIS. And in the video there, he says, ISIS and jihad have no boundaries. He tells sympathizers to commit jihad wherever they are. And the video refers to Spain Al-Andalus. That's the Arabic name used to refer to southern Spain when Muslims ruled this area more than 500 years ago.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Thank you very much, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CLOUDS (INSIGHT VOL. 3)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.