First Published: 2017-08-21

Barcelona attack fugitive ‘dangerous, possibly armed’ warn police
Manhunt for Moroccan national suspected of driving van into crowd of people in central Barcelona widens as Catalan police warn that he is likely armed.
Middle East Online

Younes Abouyaaqoub in an image released by the Spanish interior ministry

BARCELONA - Spanish police warned Monday that the suspected driver of a van that mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona was dangerous and likely armed, as a manhunt for the Moroccan national widened across Europe.

Police in Catalonia launched an appeal for information about the fugitive, Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, believed to be the last remaining member of a 12-man cell.

The other suspects have been killed by police or detained following last week's attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the assaults, believed to be its first in Spain.

Authorities on Monday raised the death toll of the attacks to 15, confirming that Pau Perez, a 34-year-old man found stabbed dead in a Ford Focus outside Barcelona on Friday, was killed by Abouyaaqoub.

The police had fired at the car as it forced the checkpoint shortly after the Barcelona carnage, and later found Perez stabbed dead in the vehicle.

Investigators believe the victim was the owner of the car, which was hijacked by Abouyaaqoub to make his getaway after the Barcelona assault.

Describing Abouyaaqoub as around 1.80 metres (five feet, 11 inches) tall, police tweeted four photographs of the man with short black hair, including three pictures in which he was wearing a black and white striped T-shirt.

He is "dangerous and could be armed," police in Catalonia said Monday, as officials also announce that they have identified all 15 victims in the assaults.

Spanish authorities were also officially notifying European police Monday of the identity of the suspect to enable the launch of a Europe-wide manhunt.

"We have to talk to European police to notify them of the identity because this person... is likely being sought in all European countries," said Catalonia regional interior minister Joaquim Forn.

- Iman's influence -

Investigators seeking to unravel the terror cell have homed in on the small border town of Ripoll, at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.

Several of the suspects including Abouyaaqoub grew up or lived in the town.

A Moroccan imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, aged in his 40s, has also come under scrutiny as he is believed to have radicalised youths in Ripoll.

Police raided more homes in Ripoll on Monday, Forn said.

Police said the imam had spent time in prison and had once been in contact with a suspect wanted on terrorism charges but was never charged with terror related incidents himself.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told AFP that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen -- a district next to the city's airport -- between January and March 2016.

On the other side of Brussels, the Molenbeek suburb has gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists after the Brussels bombings in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.

In the Moroccan town of M'rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub also accused the imam of radicalising the young man as well as his brother Houssein.

"Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalise under the influence of this imam," their grandfather said.

A neighbour close to the Abouyaaqoub family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the imam "had recruited Moroccans of Ripoll and planned the attacks."

But Ali Assid, president of the Annour Islamic community that runs the mosque in Ripoll where Satty was preaching, said the imam "never sent a radical message, all he preached was really Islam. If he is behind all that, there he must be showing us one face in the mosque and showing another face outside."

Assid said Satty had parted ways with the mosque in late June after Ramadan, as he wanted a vacation of three months -- a request that the group did not agree to.

The imam has been missing since Tuesday. On Saturday, police raided his apartment. They have raised the possibility that he died in an explosion on Wednesday evening at a house believed to be the suspects' bomb factory, where police uncovered a massive cache of 120 gas canisters.

- 'One or more attacks' -

The suspected jihadists had been preparing bombs for "one or more attacks in Barcelona", regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters, revealing that traces of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) -- a homemade explosive that is an IS hallmark -- had also been found.

The suspects accidentally caused an explosion at the house on the eve of Thursday's attack in Barcelona -- an error that likely forced them to modify their plans.

Instead, they used a vehicle to smash into crowds on Barcelona's Las Ramblas boulevard as it was thronged with tourists, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.

Several hours later, a similar attack in the seaside town of Cambrils left one woman dead. Police shot and killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knives.

 

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