BARCELONA — Spanish authorities on Sunday continued their hunt for a 22-year-old missing suspect behind the brutal vehicle attacks in Barcelona and a nearby coastal city earlier this week.
Police are looking for a man they have identified as Younes Abauyaaqoub, whom they suspect to have been the driver of the van that plowed through crowds on Barcelona’s scenic Las Ramblas boulevard on Thursday. The thoroughfare was packed with tourists and pedestrians at the time, and 13 were killed. One additional victim was later killed in a second vehicle attack hours later in the seaside resort of Cambrils, roughly 70 miles to the southwest.
Speaking on Spanish radio Sunday morning, Inspector Albert Oliva, the chief spokesman for the Catalan national police, the agency leading the investigation, reiterated that the cell of 12 suspected terrorists — all young Moroccan under 35 from in or around a small town near the French border — was now closed.
In Spain, authorities and ordinary citizens alike struggled to make sense of a bizarre reality: that a group of young childhood friends from the countryside — some of whom still lived with their parents and were still too young to drive — could have planned such a deadly and complicated attack.
Nowhere was this questioning more acute than in Ripoll, their hometown, where their families and friends were taken aback by the news. For many of them, it was difficult to believe that the group of young men could organized such a complicated operation — with multiple bases and targets — by themselves.
That was the principal question of Rashid Oukabir, a cousin of the 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir, a suspect who was shot dead by police during the vehicle attack in Cambrils early Friday morning. “Who is behind all this? Who is the big fish?” he told The Washington Post on Saturday.
“It’s impossible these kids did all this on their own. Who helped them?”
In Ripoll, the consensus among family members was that the young men fell under the sway of a visiting cleric who had possibly radicalized their sons, brothers and cousins.
In the Spanish press, all eyes are now on a suspect named as Abdelbaki Essati, who had served at a local mosque in Ripoll and whose home there the national Catalan police searched on Saturday. Oliva, the police spokesman, declined to provide further details on Sunday.
Police searched for DNA samples from his apartment, according to the Spanish newspaper El País, as they suspected Essati of having been one of two suspects killed in a Wednesday explosion, when butane and propane canisters likely intended for the Barcelona attacks detonated prematurely in the Spanish city of Alcanar. The identity of the second suspect killed in that blast remains unconfirmed.
In a city rocked by devastating attacks, life slowly began to return to normal – albeit under a climate of heightened anxiety and tightened security.
On Sunday, President Mariano Rajoy Brey and King Felipe of Spain attended a memorial mass at Barcelona’s iconic Sagrada Familía Basilica. Pope Francis relayed a message of condolence, expressing his “deep regret” at “such an inhuman action.”
Sunday will also see an FC Barcelona football match in the city, and police officials said security measures would be bolstered at the stadium.