Spanish attacks and what could they mean

Catalan police say the shot terrorists in Cambrils, the van attack in Barcelona and an explosion at a house on Wednesday evening in the town of Alcanar that killed one person are all linked. If those three events are really connected does is suggest a higher level of planning and ability to avoid the attention of authorities? What does it tell us about the perpetrators a possible future threats? Read few comments.

Silvia Carenzi, Research Trainee for the Program on Radicalization and International Terrorism,  Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI)

The attacks seems to display a significant amount of complexity. Various incidents were witnesses: the one in Las Ramblas, Barcelona; the one in Cambrils; the previous explosion in Alcanar. All of those appear to be linked and well-planned by a cell of terrorists: according to Mossos d’Esquadra, they have been planning these operations for quite a long time, “from Alcanar”. Possibly, they were planning an even bigger attack (or attacks?), but didn’t succeed in executing it. As Rukmini Callimachi suggests (see the whole thread here, also following tweets), their “plan A” probably was using a larger truck and explosives. However, they didn’t produce the necessary permit, and consequently didn’t obtain the large truck. So there was the plan B, comprising explosives and smaller vans. Still, even this plan failed, as something went wrong in the preparation of the explosives and they blew up the apartment in Alcanar. So they made do with plan C – that is simply employing the vehicles, with no explosive.

Regarding the individuals involved in the attacks and the jihadist scene in Spain, we know just a few details so far – some of which have yet to be officially confirm –, but it is still possible to highlight some remarks. To begin with, I’d like to introduce the topic by making a digression, mentioning a recent study carried out by Fernando Reinares, Carola García-Calvo, and Álvaro Vicente, which focuses on individuals arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2016 for jihadist activities. As the research points out, when investigating radicalization – in this case radicalization in Spain – it is essential to take into account 2 factors:

1. Contact with a radicalizing agent (online or in-person)
2. Pre-existing social ties with radicalized individuals

This contributes to explain why some individuals do radicalize and engage in terrorist activities whereas others don’t, in spite of sharing similar socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. the age). It can also explain the different degrees of radicalization of various areas in the same country. Finally, it is important to consider these aspects to understand the emergence of  “radicalization hubs”. If we compare the jihadist scene in Spain with other country, we’ll see that the level of mobilization can be much higher elsewhere, e.g. in France; to measure this degree of mobilization let’s consider (as an indicator) the number of foreign fighters from each of these countries. In the case of France, there are more than 1,500 fighters – some estimate 1,700 –, whereas in Spain there are 208 (see ISPI report). Still, if we focus on Spain alone, we’ll see that radicalization and mobilization are not homogeneous, varying depending on the area. There are radicalization hubs in Spain, too.

In this regard, the above-mentioned study finds that in Spain there are 4 main radicalization hubs – the most significant of which is the Barcelona province. The other 3 Spanish hubs are Ceuta, Madrid and its metropolitan area, and Melilla. The presence of Barcelona at the top of this list is telling. Barcelona and the wider Catalonia occupy a significant role in the jihadist scene (see this article in Spanish by F. Reinares) – not only at present, but also in the past. In 1995, the first arrest of a jihadist in Spain occurred right in Barcelona. Between 2004 and 2012 – in Spain – 4 out of 10 individuals charged with terrorist activities in Barcelona province. A quarter of the total number of individuals arrested in Spain between 2013 and 2016 for terrorism occurred in Barcelona and its metropolitan area. The town of Cambrils has previously been linked to terrorism, too: one of the 9-11 pilots visited the town with a fellow plotter while planning 9-11 attack. Back in 2004, a foreign fighter who attacked a base in Iraq had been recruited not far from Cambrils. And the examples could go on.

If Barcelona represents a radicalization hub – which is the case –, the situation regarding Girona and Tarragona provinces is worrying too. And all these provinces are involved in these days incidents: Alcanar and Cambrils are in the Tarragona province; Ripoll, the little town in which 3 of the 4 arrests took place, is in the Girona province. Two factors may help explain why Catalonia is a radical hotbed: first of all, the presence of ghettos like Can’Anglada, in Terrassa (Barcelona province), thus creating an environment which may result conducive to extremist ideologies; secondly, the significant penetration of Salafism in the region. Of course, it must be remembered that Salafism is not synonymous with jihadism. Salafism is not a monolith; rather, it comprise many, diverse strands – also “quietist” currents, advocating peace and opposing terrorism. However, at times, some individuals gravitating in the Salafist galaxy do embrace a violent path.

It can also be noted that one of the arrested man comes from Melilla – another place which turns out to be a “radicalization hub” in the study by Reinares, Garcìa-Calvo and Vincente.

Regarding “group dynamics”, one of the arrested is alleged to be friends with Oukabir. Besides this, two of the suspects are brothers (the Oukabir brothers; Moussa could be dead). If all of them were proven guilty, then we’ll see operating another mechanism mentioned by the study: the role of social ties in the mechanism of radicalization. Finally, the attacks saw the participation of a group of terrorists: this would corroborate the view that Spanish jihadism is a group phenomenon. When looking at individuals arrested due to IS-related activities from 2013 until 2016 in Spain, we can observe that ‘lone wolves’ (a controversial term) account for only 5,6% of them.

Sam Mullins*, Professor of Counterterrorism, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

If indeed all three incidents are linked and the perpetrators are all part of the same group, this would be a larger, more sophisticated network than we’ve seen in other, recent attacks using vehicles as weapons. On the other hand these individuals had the suicide vests which  were apparently fake. This calls into question the organizational connections. More info needed of course, but it may be that the attacks were rushed after the initial, accidental explosion on Wednesday night in Alcanar. No doubt the group would have feared this would lead to their discovery and imminent arrests. If this is true, we may have narrowly avoided an even bigger attack or attacks. At least some of the perpetrators had likely trained with, and may have been supported by a foreign terrorist organization – most likely ISIS, given the speedy claim of responsibility for the attack in Barcelona. However, this is yet to be established. It is too early to say how this network managed to evade the attention of security services, but that will certainly be a focus of investigations. It would, however, be very surprising if none of the individuals in question were known to police and intelligence agencies. This is not necessarily indicative of mistakes on the part of the authorities though. The primary challenge that all of Europe is currently facing is the sheer scale of the threat, and it is impossible to monitor many thousands of potentially violent extremists all of the time. Looking to the future, we will continue to be faced by a variety of terrorist threats – most frequently, we are likely to see small-scale attacks using vehicles, knives and occasionally firearms, inspired by, but with little or no ‘hands on’ contributions from organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Less frequently, we will see larger, more sophisticated attacks (typically using explosives and automatic weapons) committed by trained terrorist operatives, acting under the direction of these organizations. Since we cannot prevent all terrorist attacks from happening, we must also learn to be resilient as societies. This is the only way to prevent the tactical successes of terrorists from turning into strategic successes. Importantly, Europe has proven time and again that it can suffer far worse than this and come back even stronger.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S.  and/or German Government.

Daniel Heinke, Director of the Landeskriminalamt (LKA), the state bureau of investigation, in Bremen, Germany, Adjunct professor of Terrorism Dtudies, HfÖV Bremen, Associate Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), King’s College London

Polizei Bremen closely monitor the incidents in Catalonia/Spain. Our sympathies and our respect is with the victims, their loved ones, and our colleagues of Mossos d’Esquadra, Policia Nacional, and Guardia Civil.

I cannot comment directly on the ongoing investigation into the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, and the Alcanar explosion. That said, Spanish regional police Mossos d’Esquadra has confirmed their hypothesis these incidents are linked and part of an overall terrorist plot.

It is a common misperception to think Islamist terrorism entirely shifted from large, organized plots like the 9/11 attacks or the Madrid bombings to exclusively individual attacks like the most recent attacks in Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm pp.

In contrast, security agencies have to prepare for at least five different types of possible attacks: (1) cells/groups directed by a terrorist organization like the Islamic State, (2) cells/groups inspired by, but not linked to a terrorist organization, (3) individuals infiltrated (sent) by a terrorist organization, (4) individuals directed or at least guided by a terrorist organization, and (5) individuals inspired by, but not linked to a terrorist organization.

Polizei Bremen as well as the other security agencies in Germany carefully prepare for all these avenues and deploy their assets accordingly.

The coordination of a cell/group of perpetrators, and the preparation of a terrorist attack on a larger scale than just attacking with individual weapons require a significantly higher amount of planning and conspirative behavior to avoid detection by security agencies. However, as examples in the past years have tragically shown, not all of these plots can be identified early enough to prevent an attack. Security agencies in Western Europe face a continuing high threat by international jihadist terrorism, and have to take into account both individual attackers (as recently in Hamburg [Germany] and cells/groups of terrorists. The key element for early detection intervention is close international cooperation between security agencies, a frictionless and speedy sharing of information, a constantly reviewed and updated threat assessment, and interdisciplinary analysis.

It is apparent that the threat emanating from jihadist radicalization and foreign terrorist fighters defies a single solution. Security authorities and other societal stakeholders have already developed effective counter-measures addressing key areas, however such constantly evolving challenges require fast and decisive adaptations and to devise new approaches.

For my perspective on the sub-topic of the threat by returning jihadist foreign fighters see.

Gilbert RamsayLecturer in International Relations, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews

It’s fairly normal for domestic terrorists to plan more than one attack, so I wouldn’t say that the thwarted follow up attack after the vehicle attack in Barcelona indicates a higher level of planning than has been encountered previously. On the assumption that there will turn out to be an Islamist connection, which seems likely, we can probably see this as part of a general pattern of ISIS revenge attacks. ISIS has greater physical and symbolic resources than any jihadist group has had for a long time, so in that sense the threat is presently greater than before. But my assessment would be that the change is primarily a quantitative one rather than a qualitative one. It is of course tragic when innocent people die in this way, and so it may be a little early for this observation, but the fact that ISIS has so far seemingly not been able to carry out attacks on what one might call a game changing scale is, so far, cause for cautious optimism in the bigger picture.

Anthony GleesProfessor, Director, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham

It does look as if the Las Ramblas attack could be directly connected with the killings in Cambrils in a very close way, i.e. part of a coordinated series of attacks (sometimes called ‘swarm attacks’), it’s just too early to be sure. On the whole we associate a series of attacks with Al Qaeda doctrine (London 2005, Mumbai 2008) and single attacks, particularly with hire trucks and knives with IS doctrine, but that could just be an academic way of looking at these things.

I myself would suspect there is, and was, coordination in Southern Spain, and a network that may have stretched from Spain to the South of France but that the Cambrils terrorists may have been involved in a discrete attack somewhere else.

I’d also want to know much more about security in Barcelona and Southern Spain generally. Remember there was an apparent attack on Barcelona foiled in Feb 2017 (lorry with gas canisters, driver shot) but I don’t know how that panned out; in 2016 IS warned the Spaniards that they would attack Southern Spain to get back Al Andalus.

Las Ramblas was a sitting duck target. How easy was it for a truck to plough down it? There seemed to be no barriers. There have been reports that security has become much less visible in Southern Spain recently and we’ve all see the video of migrants landing on a beach by boat and disappearing into the hinterland without apparently been arrested.

Every North African Arab hiring a truck should be looked at very carefully indeed. We know the tactic. We have to make foresight out of hindsight.
I’ve myself warned repeatedly in the UK media about the dangers to Southern Spain from Arab North Africa. Now that European tourists are nervous about holidaying there, and in Turkey, more and more go to the Costas. The Islamist terrorists understand this and have acted accordingly.

The final thing I’d say is: Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, London (twice over) now Barcelona. This is a European wide security problem of the first order. We can only get better if we work together. That the UK will have to leave Europol, INTCEN, counter-terrorist working group and so on (bc we won’t accept the ECJ) is madness for all concerned. Only intelligence can prevent attacks like these (perhaps intelligence led to the shoot-out at Cambrils).

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

Its very early to tell, but it does suggest there is some degree of network in place. I would suggest that the rapidity with which authorities were able to target these various locations suggests there was an awareness in the security community of their presence, although they may have been monitoring for the purposes of gathering further intelligence, as is often the case.

Given the low tech nature of the attack what we might be seeing here is a repeat of the 2016 Brussels attacks, where the terrorists were spooked and decided to act, rather than be caught. That is purely speculation, however.

Mathieu GuidèreProfessor, University of Paris

This means that the homegrown terrorists in Europe are being now connected with the coming-back fighters from Syria and Iraq. There is a gap in the follow-up of the jihadists’ networks who left Spain during the last years to fight in the Middle-East.



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