As details emerge of the August 17 jihadist attack in Barcelona, the evidence points to one overarching conclusion: the carnage could have been prevented if a series of red flags had not been either missed or ignored.
The failure to heed intelligence warnings, enhance physical security and report suspicious activity are all factors that facilitated the attack, which had been in the planning stage for more than six months.
The attack was also enabled by the idiosyncrasies of Spanish politics, especially the tensions that exist between the central government and the leaders of the independence movement in Catalonia, the autonomous region of which Barcelona is the capital.
Failure to Install Bollards on Las Ramblas
The Barcelona attack could have been prevented had municipal officials complied with an order to install bollards, vertical poles designed to prevent car ramming attacks, on the Rambla, the city's main tourist thoroughfare.
On December 20, 2016, one day after a Tunisian jihadist drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56, Spanish National Police issued a circular ordering all central, regional and municipal police departments in Spain to "implement physical security measures to protect public spaces" to prevent jihadist attacks "in places with high numbers of people." The circular advised:
"Municipalities should protect these public spaces by temporarily installing large planters or bollards at access points to hinder or prevent the entry of vehicles."
The measures were never implemented in Barcelona because the leaders of the Catalan independence movement did not want to be seen as taking orders from the central government in Madrid.
After receiving the directive, Catalan autonomous police, known as the Mossos d'Esquadra, accused the central government of "alarmism" and insisted that it would not order municipalities in Catalonia to implement this "indiscriminate measure." The Mossos also claimed to have the jihadist threat under control, that local police were trained to "detect symptoms or radicalization," and that there were "no concrete threats."
After the Barcelona attack, Deputy Mayor Gerardo Pisarello blamed the absence of bollards on the Catalan Interior Ministry. "The City of Barcelona has never refused to install bollards. Whenever it has been requested, we have done so," Pisarello said. Ada Colau, Barcelona's leftwing mayor, however, has repeatedly refused to "fill Barcelona with barriers," insisting that it must remain "a city of liberty."
El Periódico de Catalunya, a paper based in Barcelona, elaborated:
"The total absence of police collaboration between the Mossos d'Esquadra, which is the police force deployed on the ground, and the National Police and the Civil Guard translates into huge security deficiencies. The relationship between police forces — influenced by the political situation — is terrible and, in the case of the Mossos and the National Police, it is open war.
"The result is that the information services of the Mossos, on the one hand, and those of the National Police and the Civil Guard, on the other, do not exchange information. The cooperation is reduced to the personal relationships of individual agents who, without the knowledge of their superiors, exchange information and put safety first."
On August 19, hours after the jihadist attack in Barcelona, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido repeated that it would be "appropriate" for all municipalities to comply with the December circular. His ministry issued a new letter calling on municipalities to install safety measures in the neuralgic points of cities. It remains to be seen if Catalan officials will now implement the recommendations.
Too little, too late.
Failure to Heed Warnings
In June, the CIA reportedly warned Catalan police that Barcelona was being targeted by jihadists: "Two months ago the Central Intelligence Agency warned Catalan police of a threat to Las Ramblas," according to El Periódico.
Additionally, on June 30, two weeks before the Barcelona attack, a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State warned of an impending attack against al-Ándalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France occupied by Muslim conquerors from 711 to 1492. Many jihadists believe that territories Muslims lost during the Christian Reconquest of Spain still belong to the realm of Islam and that Islamic law gives them the right to re-establish Muslim rule there.
It remains unclear why Catalan authorities failed to increase security in light of the warnings and threats. El Periódico wrote:
"In recent years Barcelona has become a city known all over the planet. Both because of its attraction as a tourist destination and because of the media impact of the Barça football club, the Catalan capital is a world icon. In the eyes of the jihadists, that makes it a priority objective, as they seek to attack sites that generate a great impact at the international level.
However, neither the authorities nor the citizens seems to have realized that their city is on the same list of targets as other major cities such as New York, Paris, London or Madrid."
Failure to Report Suspicious Activity
The jihadists prepared for the Barcelona attack at a chalet in the beachfront town of Alcanar, situated 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of Barcelona. A year ago, the terror cell "occupied" the property, which was foreclosed and had been vacant. Squatters are protected by Spanish law, so it is common for youth in Catalonia to take over vacant properties. This may explain why neighbors did not contact the police.
Far more difficult to explain is why no one reported suspicious activity at the chalet. During the course of several months, the jihadists collected more than 100 large gas canisters, which investigators believe were to be used as car bombs. An explosion on August 16, the night before the Barcelona attack, leveled the property. Investigators later found traces of the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), also known as the "Mother of Satan," a substance widely used by members of the Islamic State in Europe.
Failure to Follow-Up on Leads
Police found the remains of at least two people in the rubble of the Alcanar chalet. The head of the Mossos d'Esquadra, Josep Lluís Trapero, confirmed that one of the bodies was that of Abdelbaki Es-Satti, a Muslim cleric who is suspected of organizing the terror cell and radicalizing its members.
Es-Satti, a Moroccan national who lived in the Catalan town of Ripoll, served in a local mosque. He was a convicted drug trafficker who had spent four years at a prison in Valencia, where he is believed to have met Rachid Aglif, known as "The Rabbit," one of the main plotters of the 2004 Madrid bomb attacks that killed 192 people and wounded 2,000. Police are now looking into whether Es-Satti was involved in the ISIS attacks on the Brussels airport and metro in 2016.
Ali Yassine, the director of the mosque in Ripoll, said that he had reported Es-Satti to local police more than a year ago as part of a security protocol to monitor Muslim preachers. Authorities did not place him on a watch list, however, even though he had been convicted of trafficking drugs and violating Spanish immigration laws.
Catalan Migration Policy Fuels Radicalization
Catalonia not only has the highest Muslim population in Spain, it is also one of the most Islamized regions of the country. Catalonia has 7.5 million inhabitants, including an estimated 510,000 Muslims, who account for around 7% of the total Catalan population. In some Catalan towns, however, the Muslim population is above 40% of the overall population.
In his book "Jihadism: The Radical Islamic Threat to Catalonia," Catalan terrorism analyst Jofre Montoto estimates that at least 10% of the Muslims in Catalonia are "radicals" who are hardcore believers in the "doctrine of jihadism."
A five-page diplomatic cable, dated October 2, 2007, described the link between mass immigration to Catalonia and the rise of radical Islam in the region:
"Heavy immigration — both legal and illegal — from North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) and Southeast Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh) has made Catalonia a magnet for terrorist recruiters. ... The Spanish National Police estimates that there may be upwards of 60,000 Pakistanis living in Barcelona and the surrounding area; the vast majority are male, unmarried or unaccompanied, and without legal documentation. There are even more such immigrants from North Africa. ... They live on the edges of Spanish society, they do not speak the language, they are often unemployed, and they have very few places to practice their religion with dignity. ... Individually, these circumstances would provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment; taken together, the threat is clear....
"There is little doubt that the autonomous region of Catalonia has become a prime base of operations for terrorist activity. Spanish authorities tell us they fear the threat from these atomized immigrant communities prone to radicalism, but they have very little intelligence on or ability to penetrate these groups."
Many of Catalonia's problems with radical Islam are self-inflicted. In an effort to promote Catalan nationalism and the Catalan language, Catalonian pro-independence parties have deliberately promoted immigration from Arabic-speaking Muslim countries for more than three decades, in the belief that these immigrants (unlike those from Latin America) would learn the Catalan language rather than speak Spanish.
Although some Catalans are having second thoughts about the wisdom of promoting Muslim mass immigration as a strategy to achieve Catalan independence, at least 10,000 Catalans with links to the separatist movement have actually converted to Islam in recent years.
It is believed that two out of every ten Catalan radicals who belong to the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a far-left political party, are converts to Islam. The ERC, which now governs Catalonia, has vehemently refused to sign a cooperation agreement with the central government in Madrid to fight jihadist terrorism.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute