Spain terror cell was planning much bigger attack: Suspect

Three attackers who were shot dead in Cambrils on the night of the attack in Barcelona last week were caught on a petrol station's surveillance camera close to the town just hours before the attack.
(From top left, clockwise) Suspects Mohamed Houli Chemlal, Driss Oukabir, Mohamed Aallaa and Salah El Karib being taken from a detention centre near Madrid yesterday before being transferred to the National Court, which deals with terrorism cases.
(From top left, clockwise) Suspects Mohamed Houli Chemlal, Driss Oukabir, Mohamed Aallaa and Salah El Karib being taken from a detention centre near Madrid yesterday before being transferred to the National Court, which deals with terrorism cases.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MADRID • An alleged member of a terror cell, which carried out the Barcelona van attack, told a Spanish court yesterday that the group had been planning a much bigger attack using explosives, a judicial source said.

The testimony in Spain's High Court came from Mohamed Houli Chemlal, who was arrested after being hurt in a blast at a house in Alcanar, south-west of Barcelona, a day before last Thursday's attack on the crowded Las Ramblas boulevard that killed 13 people.

Chemlal and three other alleged members of the cell were in court facing possible charges related to the Barcelona attack and another strike in the seaside resort of Cambrils. All four are believed to be members of a 12-man cell suspected of plotting both attacks.

Spanish police shot dead terror suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub on Monday in a dramatic end to the manhunt for the Moroccan national, who was the last fugitive member of the cell.

Besides the four men detained, the rest were killed, either by police or in an explosion believed to have been accidentally detonated by the suspects themselves at their bomb factory in Alcanar.

Among those killed in the explosion was Abdelbaki Es Satty, a Moroccan imam at the heart of the cell, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero confirmed.

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 himself charged with terror-related incidents.

While Spanish police say the cell has been dismantled, investigators are trying to determine if it had logistical or other forms of support from other individuals. Questions have also arisen over the group's possible international connections.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told Agence France- Presse that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen - next to the city's airport - between January and March last year.

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

In France, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the Audi A3 used to mow down people in Cambrils had been detected by speed cameras in the Paris region while making "a very rapid return trip" days before the Barcelona attack.

Mr Collomb is due to host his Spanish counterpart Juan Ignacio Zoido today for talks due to include anti-terrorism cooperation.

At least one of the suspects also spent a night in Zurich last December, said Swiss police, adding that it was too early to speculate about any connections with Switzerland.

Under heavy security yesterday, police vans carrying the suspects entered the National Court, which deals with terrorism cases, where a judge was due to decide what - if any - charges to press against the four men.

Besides Chemlal, the others were Driss Oukabir, Mohamed Aallaa and Salah El Karib.

Chemlal, dressed in the clothes of a hospital patient and with his right hand bandaged, was taken in after a doctor determined that he was fit for interrogation, a court spokesman told Agence France-Presse.

The first hearing lasted about 70 minutes.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE,REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Spain terror cell was planning much bigger attack: Suspect'. Print Edition | Subscribe