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Spain Terror Cell 'Planned Sagrada Família Church Attack', Suspect Told Court

An imam planned to blow himself up.

23/08/2017 09:33 BST | Updated 23/08/2017 09:37 BST

The Barcelona terror cell behind two attacks in Spain last week that killed 15 people planned attacks on a much larger scale, including reportedly bombing the city’s iconic Sagrada Família church, a suspect has told a court. 

Mohamed Houli Chemlal made the admission after being brought before a judge in Madrid, Spanish media reported, quoting court officials.

The targets have not been confirmed by police but reports suggests one of them was the Antoni Gaudí designed church.

Chemlal, 21, was said to have confirmed police suspicions that the group had been planning large-scale bomb attacks before a house where a number of them had been staying, in Alcanar, blew up the day before Thursday’s Las Ramblas van attack.

The terror cell was said to be preparing bombs for an imam who planned to blow himself up, Chemlal told the court where he appeared alongside three other men over the attack in Las Ramblas and a second strike in the nearby seaside town on Cambrils. 

STRINGER via Getty Images
The Barcelona terror attack suspects (from left) Mohamed Houli Chemlal, Driss Oukabir, Salah El Karib, and Mohamed Aallaa

National Court Judge Fernando Andreu questioned the four about the vehicle attacks as well as the fatal explosion at a bomb-making workshop that police said scuttled the group’s plot to carry out a more deadly attack at unspecified Barcelona monuments, the Associated Press reported. 

After the session, the judge ordered two of the surviving suspects to be held without bail. A third was detained for 72 more hours and the fourth was freed with restrictions.

A Spanish judicial official said Chemlal and suspect Driss Oukabir, 28, identified imam Abdelbaki Es Satty as the ideological leader of the 12-man cell.

Oukabir and the other two surviving suspects who testified, Mohamed Aalla and Sahal El Karib, denied being part of the cell, said the court official, who was not authorised to discuss the case and insisted on speaking anonymously.

The cell’s other eight members are dead. Police shot five during an attack Friday and one more Monday after a manhunt. Es Satty and another accidentally blew themselves up at the Alcanar house. 

Satty preached in a mosque in the northeastern town of Ripoll, home to most of the 12 pointed to by police as suspected members of the cell. Police identified his remains amid the rubble of the August 16 explosion.

Police found over 100 tanks of butane gas and materials to make TATP, an explosive frequently used in attacks by Islamic State militants, at the Alcanar house.

Albert Gea / Reuters
Mohamed Houli Chemlal told the court that the terror cell planned attacks on a much larger scale, including reportedly bombing the city’s iconic Sagrada Família church

IS has claimed responsibility for both attacks that left 15 dead and over 120 wounded.

Chemlal, the only survivor of the Alcanar blast, told the court Tuesday that he is alive because he was on the ground floor of the house washing dishes after dinner. He testified from a wheelchair without lifting his eyes up from the ground, according to the court official. He has been hospitalised under guard since his arrest.

The second suspect interrogated, Oukabir, testified he rented the vans used in the attacks on pedestrians but said he thought they were going to be used for a house move. His brother Moussa was one of the five radicals shot dead Friday by police in Cambrils.

According to another person who attended Tuesday’s interrogation, Oukabir told the prosecutor that his first version of events - telling police his documents were stolen by his brother - was something he had done out of fear. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the hearing.

The third suspect, Aalla, said an Audi A3 used in last week’s attack in Cambrils was registered under his name but used by another sibling, the judicial official said. Police say one of Aalla’s younger brothers died in Cambrils and another one is believed to be the second casualty in the Alcanar house blast where the imam died.

The last surviving suspect, El Karib, the owner of a cybercafe in Ripoll, told the judge that he was only trying to make a profit when he bought at least two plane tickets for two alleged members of the cell.

Police later Tuesday raided the cybercafe in Ripoll as well as a house in Vilafranca del Penedes, searching for more evidence.

After the questioning, the judge said there was enough evidence to hold Houli Chemlal and Oukabir on preliminary charges of causing homicides and injuries of a terrorist nature and of belonging to a terrorism organisation. Chemlal faces an additional charge of dealing with explosives.

However, the judge ruled the evidence was “not solid enough” to keep holding Aalla, who was freed on condition he appear in court weekly, relinquish his passport and not leave Spain.

Karib will remain in custody for at least 72 more hours while police inquiries continue, the judge said.

The lone fugitive from the initial attack, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, was shot to death Monday west of Barcelona after a big, days-long manhunt. Police say he flashed what turned out to be a fake suicide belt at two officers who confronted him in a vineyard.

Police said they had “scientific evidence” that Abouyaaqoub drove the van that barreled through Barcelona’s crowded Las Ramblas promenade and that he hijacked a car and fatally stabbed its driver while making his getaway.

Abouyaaqoub’s brother and friends made up the rest of the 12-man extremist cell, police say.

Chemlal was born in Melilla, one of Spain’s two North African coastal enclaves that have borders with Morocco. Spanish media say the other 11 suspects are all reportedly Moroccans who lived in Spain.