Barcelona terror attack
As Spanish police investigate the origins of last week's terrorist attack on pedestrians in the Las Ramblas tourist district of Barcelona, Daniel Dombey asks Sam Jones and Michael Stothard what we know so far and how such attacks can be prevented in future.
Presented by Daniel Dombey and produced by Fiona Symon
Hello, and welcome to World Weekly from the Financial Times. I'm Daniel Dombey. It's a scene that has become all too familiar in recent years. Another European landmark thronging with tourists hit by terrorists in a country that asks, why has this happened again. And what can we do to stop it happening one more time?
The attack on Las Ramblas in Barcelona took Spain, a country inured to terrorism, by surprise. And it's now asking the questions that many countries do in this situation. To discuss the attack and what the lessons that can be learned from it are--
I'm joined by Michael Stothard, our Madrid correspondent, and Sam Jones, our defence and security editor. Michael, why was this attack so shocking in a country that really has had more than its fair share of terrorism over the years?
Well, they have had more than their fair share of terrorism over the years, but they haven't really had Islamic terrorism. They've been seemingly immune to this since the Atocha bombings in 2004. And the security services all over Europe and in Spain have increasingly this year been worried that it was Spain's turn next.
What were the peculiar vulnerabilities about Spain? Why did they think it was Spain's turn next?
Well, they saw an uptick in jihadi activity. There were more arrests than normal. And particularly, more arrests than normal in Catalonia, where these attacks took place.
Sam, what does this attack tell us about the modus operandi of jihadist groups? I mean, this is far from the first time that we've seen a vehicle being used against ordinary citizens. What does this tell us about the kind of attacks that people are plotting right now?
Well, I suppose first and foremost, it tells us that they're willing to be quite flexible with their methods of attack. I mean, don't forget with the attack in Barcelona, the way they ended up doing it, using a vehicle to mow people down on Las Ramblas, was actually not their main objective.
They had been intending to detonate a huge car bomb or actually a couple of huge car bombs. But that all went wrong after the explosives they were preparing accidentally detonated a few days before on the Wednesday before the attack. And so they had to sort of revert to their plan B.
Either way, these kind of scenarios involving groups of people that are sort of moving around the city using either knives, guns or explosives to cause damage in a sort of very unpredictable difficult to contain way, has been a sort of fear of intelligence agencies in the west ever since the Mumbai attacks some years ago now.
That model of attack has played on the minds of counterterrorism officials, because it's very difficult to contain. There's very little you can do to insulate yourself against that. You can't sort of have security checks on all major infrastructure points, because ultimately, it could just be a few people with knives in their pockets kind of thing.
Or a car, how do you stop people from turning a car into a weapon? It's very hard. So in many ways, this attack was exactly the kind of thing that they've been fearing. And of course, it's a similar kind of methodology that we've seen elsewhere.
The sort of truck and car-borne attacks in Nice, in Berlin in the Christmas market there not so many months ago. Or in Paris with the attacks in the Bataclan, where you had roving groups of people with guns and explosives.
So it's a sort of a mixture of all of these different things. And Islamic state, who have claimed responsibility for this attack, although it's a somewhat dubious claim I have to say. They have been pushing this kind of thing.
You know, their former spokesperson, Sheikh al-Adnani, before he was killed, encouraged exactly this kind of attack. He said that you should use whatever you have to hand to kill the enemies of the Islamic State, whether that's a gun or a stone or a car.
And even back before that, you can trace it back to Al-Qaeda, ISIS' predecessor organisation if you like, as the leader of international jihadism with Anwar al-Awlaki, the American radical.
With him sort of encouraging what one security official in the UK has dubbed, the Nike form of terrorism. The "just do it" form of terrorism where you use whatever there is to make your mark.
Now Michael, the Spanish have a particular approach to terrorism. And of course, they have a long history of terrorism fighting ETA and of course, you referred to the Atocha attack in 2004, which killed almost 200 people.
But what does this say about that Spanish approach, which as far as I can see, has been more preventive than other countries. Trying to nip terror cells earlier in the bud, rather than see quite how far their influence extends.
Well, that's exactly right. They were scarred by the fact that some of the people who did the Atocha bombings were known to the security services, known to be hatching plots. And the security services thought, in the way many security services do, let's see how this plays out. Let's give this a little more time before we arrest everyone.
And because the bombing happened, they changed their approach fairly radically. And now go for an arrest first and ask questions second kind of approach. Which is why they have a relatively high record of arrests.
Less than the UK and France every year, but still relatively high compared to the number of jihadists and the size of the population. What does this say about the strategy? Well, ultimately you can debate whether these things are intelligence failures or not.
But what the police and intelligence services have said, that none of these people were known to the security services at all. So I think what this shows is that it's extremely difficult to detect these people. It seems to be the work of an imam. In this town called Ripoll, who appears to have been the spiritual and intellectual leader of this cell.
This man may or may not have had connections more broadly in Europe. He's known to have travelled to Belgium a number of times before the Belgium attacks last year notably. He seems to have been the head of a group of much younger Moroccan men.
The youngest was 17. Others who were in their early 20s. And a man such as that and the internet seems to be enough really to create a terrorist cell.
And just about the broader causes of radicalisation, Spain actually has quite a low incidence of people who are going to fight in Syria and Iraq compared to other countries like the UK or France or even Belgium per capita.
It's a country that seems to be quite good compared to some other countries in terms of integrating people. Why do you think there is this issue and they seem to involve quite a lot of people of Moroccan origin?
Well, Spain owns two territories in Morocco. So in terms of Muslims who are in Spain, a lot of them are Moroccan. Spain by all accounts, very good anti-terror relationships with Morocco. It's very aware of this potential issue.
But broadly speaking, the Muslim community is not ghettoised as it is in many parts of France. There aren't these banlieus where the unemployment is very high and people feel like they're not really French.
This isn't at all the same problem in Spain, which makes it all the more surprising that this attack did happen in Spain. I mean the one Spanish factor that often gets repeated is a historical one, which is that Spain was Al-Andalus and it was owned by various Muslim leaders from the 700s to the 15th century.
Right, reclaiming Al-Andalus has been a theme of Islamist radicals in recent years.
Yeah, many of the memes that have been shared online following the attack last week were refer to Al-Andalus and reclaiming Al-Andalus.
And Sam, you've said that the authenticity of ISIS' claiming responsibility may be a bit dodgy, maybe a bit iffy. But nevertheless, let's just have a look at the backdrop, because obviously ISIS, whose comparative advantage it seemed for some time, was that it held territory.
It was the Islamic State, is clearly on the back foot in terms of territory in Syria and Iraq. We've seen this big push for Mosul in Iraq. The big new push now is Raqqa. The US and its allies hope to wipe it out entirely there.
Does that have any consequences in terms of them wanting to even more hit back at the west now that there isn't much of an Islamic state in either Syria or Iraq?
Well, I think the impact has been significant on ISIS' capability. Their ability to organise, to direct attacks, and also to propagandise, has beaten severely hindered, if not shattered by the various kind of military efforts that are going on in Iraq and Syria.
They clearly want even more to strike out against the West, given this is the case. It feels a little bit like we're in a period of transition for them, where they are adapting from being this kind of contiguous caliphate, controlling land and acting as a sort of quasi state, to going back to being a covert organisation.
And I think a lot of effort at the moment is probably being directed by them on the logistics of moving operations into a more covert setting, rather than directing as many plots against the West as they can.
They have shown a fairly extensive ability to do that. If we look back to the Paris and the Belgium attacks, those evidenced a really quite sophisticated European network. And I think most intelligence agencies are under no illusions about the potential for other networks to exist elsewhere.
For the time being though, ISIS' MO seems to be on inspiring groups like these groups of Moroccan guys. Even if they've had no contact with them, and then claiming it afterwards. And sometimes the claims don't quite match up with what actually happened, which maybe indicates that there is only a very scant communication going on.
So even with all their access to encryption and stuff like that, it's by no means certain that ISIS has this tentacular network that reaches all over Europe and is able to tap aspirant jihadis and turn them towards violence.
There is, the other part of this picture, is the huge pool of wannabe extremists that exists around Europe. Who are there, ready and waiting almost, to do something. And I think that's the thing that we've got to be really concerned about.
That ISIS doesn't need to extensively communicate with an individual in order to lure them into violence. And that often these people are just ready and willing to act. And sometimes they act alone and sometimes a message will inspire them or sometimes another attack might inspire them.
Or sometimes maybe they're getting contact with an imam, or a recruiter or someone who is with ISIS in Syria or Libya or in North Africa who pushes them to do something. But it's this broader group of radicals around Europe who have become more and more radical.
Who maybe wanted to go to Syria or Iraq, but were stopped by security services. They're so-called block travellers in the UK. It's these people that I think are among those of greatest concern at the moment.
And I suppose that'll be a key question for authorities in Spain. Were these men at any point looking to travel to Syria or in Iraq to join ISIS? Were they stopped? And if they were, why was no keeping tabs on them? And if not, are there others that they've been in contact with that were?
Michael, you were previously Paris correspondent and very sadly, you've covered a number of these terrorist attacks. What are your thoughts on a human level as you covered it? I mean, do you think this is just going to be part of life as we go ahead?
Well, I was in, on Saturday I was in Ripoll, the Catalan town where almost all of the terrorist attackers were from. And it was very strange going there, because it was an extremely nice town.
It wasn't like some of the banlieus in France where you can understand why people feel angry and disenfranchised. In Ripoll it seemed like a very well-integrated Muslim community. I talked to Muslims there saying, we feel very welcome here. There's no discrimination.
The mayor seemed very surprised. All the parents seemed very surprised. There was a sense of this was a nice community, yet it still spawned this horrific terror attack. And I think, for me at least, these terrorist attacks are becoming just part of life in Europe, or certainly in continental Europe.
People are less affected by them, I believe, on a day-to-day basis. People are less shocked by them. There is an understanding that there is, as Sam says, a pool of people who are willing to pull off these kind of attacks.
And there's only so much the intelligence services can do. And that is just a sort of horrific part of modern life, of living in Europe.
Well, some chilling last minute reflections there. Thank you very much indeed, Michael Stothard. Than you very much indeed, Sam. That's all we have time for this week. I hope we have better news for you next week.