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In quiet mountain town, Barcelona attackers went under radar

RIPOLL, Spain (Reuters) - The young Islamist militants suspected to have staged Spain’s deadliest attack in over a decade were all young men who went to school and played football together and skipped prayers at the local mosque to hang out in bars.

An armed Catalan Mossos d'Esquadra officer stands guard at a security checkpoint in Ripoll, north of Barcelona, Spain, August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Neighbors who watched them grow up in the quiet mountain town of Ripoll, set beneath the Pyrenees and ringed by forested hills, said they showed no sign of radicalization.

One of the youngest, 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, used to help one of them take out his garbage.

“They were normal guys. They didn’t pray very much. We never thought this could happen,” the head of Ripoll’s Islamic association, Ali Yassine, said. “If I had noticed something odd, I would have been the first person to call the police.”

Even before the Barcelona van attack, Catalonia has been an Islamist hotspot in Spain, with more jihadist arrests there this year than in any other region. But at least eight of the suspects in Ripoll, a two-hour drive from Barcelona, went below the radars and police have said none were under surveillance as foreign fighters.

Another common thread running through the young men’s lives was a local imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, whose landlord said he left Ripoll two days before the attack.

Police shot dead Oukabir, along with four others, during a follow-up attack in Cambrils, a seaside resort down the coast from Barcelona. Police have arrested three more in Ripoll, including Moussa’s brother, Driss. They are still hunting for at least two more suspects, including Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, who is accused of speeding into Las Ramblas, killing 13.

The attackers mowed down crowds along Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas boulevard, leaving mangled bodies in their wake, before regrouping and launching the second van attack in Cambrils, which killed one woman and injured six others.

On Friday night, police raided a flat in Ripoll occupied by Es Satty, according to a search warrant seen by Reuters. Spanish media quoted unnamed police officials saying they suspected Es Satty had radicalized the other suspects, most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties.

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The flat’s landlord told reporters that he had last seen Es Satty on Tuesday and Es Satty had told him he was leaving for Morocco. Spain’s High Court issued the warrant in connection with terrorism and authorized police to seize any explosives and weapons.

Scraps of paper covered in scribbled notes and phone numbers were strewn around the cramped flat, which was turned upside down during the police search. One number was for a Catalan charity to help disadvantaged young people in Senegal.

Yassine, the association head, said Es Satty had moved to Ripoll around 2014 and became the mosque’s imam a year later. The mosque had removed Es Satty as imam after he left Spain for Morocco this summer for three months, he said. He had not seen Es Satty since July.

Yassine said he did not know what Es Satty did in Morocco and declined to comment on whether he radicalized the suspects. He said there were no problems when the imam was at the mosque.

Yassine and other community leaders said the suspects were regular kids who frequented bars in the town’s cobbled center and only went to the mosque to pray “two or three times.” They never showed any signs of radicalization, he said.

“You never know what people have going on inside their heads,” said Yassine, who left Morocco to find work in Spain and is now a decorator.


Ripoll’s deputy mayor, Maria Dolors Vilalta, describes the town of 11,000 people, with only four schools, as a place where everybody knows everyone. She said there was little division between Spanish locals and the close to 700 Moroccans, whose families moved here over the past 20 years, drawn by the town’s metal-working industry.

That would now change, she said.

“It will never be the same ... We have to work to again live together peacefully, which will be difficult given the suspicion, distrust and insecurity,” she said in an interview in the shade of Ripoll’s ninth-century monastery.

Local Moroccans pointed to the arrest of the one suspect earlier this week as a sign of possible hostility to come. As police bundled him into a squad car, a large crowd of locals shouted “murderer” and had to be held back.

Some of the suspects’ postings on social media point to ideas that contrast with the town’s view of them.

Moussa Oukabir wrote on question-and-answer website Kiwi that if he was made king of the world he would, “kill all the infidels and only leave the Muslims that followed religion.”

His brother, Driss, handed himself in to police in Ripoll two hours after the first attack when he saw his face on television, Vilalta said. Driss had told police that 17-year-old Moussa had taken his identity card and so police had wrongly identified him as an attacker, she said.

At the Oukabir’s family flat in a tower block by Ripoll’s river, police tape covered the smashed-open door. Clothes, furniture and books were all heaped on the floor. A neighbor said he had never had any problem with the family and Moussa would help him carry out his bin bags.

At Driss’s flat close by, his sister, Fahima, said the family was exhausted and wanted to be treated with respect and left alone.

Editing by Julien Toyer and Lisa Shumaker