BARCELONA - The imam suspected of being the ringleader of the Barcelona terror cell might have been radicalised in prison by one of the bombers involved in the 2004 Madrid train blasts, media in Spain and Britain reported.
Abdelbaki Es Satty was sentenced to two years in 2012 for smuggling hashish between Morocco and Spain, Britain's Telegraph reported.
It said Es Satty was jailed alongside Rachid Aglif, aka The Rabbit, who was serving 18-years for his role in the 2004 bombings, in which 192 people died and more than 2,000 were injured.
The Telegraph, citing sources in Spain, said Es Satty had not been religious prior to going into prison and may have fallen under the influence of Aglif and other militants while prison.
Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo also said Es Satty had met prisoners linked to the Al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of Madrid trains, the worst terror attack in Europe.
A total of 14 people died in last week's attacks in Spain. The terror cell believed responsible consisted of 12 men, some of them teenagers, all with links to the small town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where Es Satty had been operating as an imam since getting out of prison, media reports said.
The New York Times said Es Satty, who was in his 40s and who is reported to have had links to Islamic extremists going back at least a decade, somehow brought the young men under his influence after establishing himself as an imam in Ripoll even though few of the young men had a history of regularly attending mosque.
Investigators and terrorism experts believe that the planning for the plot may have begun not long after Essati's arrival a year ago at the second of two mosques where he worked in Ripoll, The New York Times said. Investigators and terrorism experts now say that at least some of the suspected participants travelled abroad before last week's attacks either to Morocco or elsewhere in Europe, as did Es Satty.
The Telegraph said locals in Ripoll described how Es Satty, who taught Arabic to local children, regularly travelled to Belgium, which has been central to a number of terror plots inspired by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Nourdeni Elhji, 45, a former housemate of Es Satty, described him as a solitary figure who spent most of his time in his sparsely furnished room, on his laptop.
He said he kept all his possessions in a small box, but recently packed everything away and took it all back to his native Morocco, the Telegraph reported.
Mr Elhji said when he returned to Ripoll on Aug 11, he had nothing with him and he disappeared last Tuesday, just hours before a devastating explosion ripped through a suspected bomb factory in a house in Alcanar 290 km away.
Hammou Minhaj, 30, secretary of the mosque in Ripoll, said they had not been aware of Es Satty's criminal past when he began working there.
He said: "Four months ago the police came and they checked we had the right papers. It was just a routine check and everything was in order.
"The mosque checked his knowledge of the Quran only. We did not check his background, we did not check his CV," The Telegraph quoted him as saying.
Police believe Es Satty and fellow plotter Youssef Aallaa died in the explosion in Alcanar, leaving only Younes Abouyaaqoub - who is believed to have been the driver of the van used in the attack - still at large.