The terror cell that brought carnage to north-eastern Spain, killing 15 people and injuring more than 130, was planning attacks on a much larger scale, including the bombing of Barcelona’s 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.
Houli, 21, confirmed what police said they had concluded last week: that the group had been planning large-scale bomb attacks before an explosion ripped through a house in Alcanar where a number of them had been staying, killing two of the plotters.
One of the proposed targets was the Sagrada Família, the half-finished church designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí that is one of Barcelona’s best loved buildings.
Houli arrived at the audiencia nacional in hospital-issue pyjamas, his right arm bandaged and his face bearing some of the injuries he is said to have sustained in the explosion last week.
He was the first of four suspects to be questioned by Judge Fernando Andreu..
A Spanish national from Melilla, one of the country’s north African enclaves, Houli was arrested in hospital after police realised that the house in Alcanar, in southern Catalonia, had been turned into a bomb factory.
The other three men who appeared in court were arrested in Ripoll, 145 miles north of Alcanar. They were Mohammed Aallaa, 27, whose blue Audi car was driven by five members of the group into a number of pedestrians in Cambrils, a coastal town south of Barcelona; Sahal el Karib, a Moroccan-born businessman in his 30s; and Driss Oukabir, 27, whose brother Moussa, 17, was one of five men shot dead after the Cambrils attack.
Last week Driss Oukabir told police that his brother had stolen his documents to hire vans used in the attacks. However, according to reports of his court appearance on Tuesday, he admitted to the judge that he had hired the vans but claimed he had believed they were needed for a house move.
All four suspects were represented by court-appointed lawyers. The judge later remanded Oukabir and Houli in custody charged with membership of a terrorist organisation and murder, ordered that Karib be held for a further 72 hours pending further questioning, and freed Aallaa.
As the hearing progressed, police were attempting to reconstruct the final 96 hours in the life of the member of the cell who killed 13 people and injured more than 130 others when he drove a hired Fiat van along the crowded Las Ramblas last Thursday.
CCTV images show Younes Abouyaaqoub clambering out of the white van after it crashed into a newspaper kiosk and walking slowly away through La Boqueria, the famous covered food market beside Las Ramblas.
He is now known to have escaped from the city in a car that he took from a vineyard worker, Pau Peréz. Abouyaaqoub approached Peréz in the Universitaria district in the north of the city, killed him by stabbing him in the chest, bundled his body into the back of the Ford Focus car and drove away.
Nothing more was seen of Abouyaaqoub until he was cornered on a road in the Subirats district, 30 miles west of Barcelona, on Monday afternoon. When police approached him he is said to have shouted “God is great” in Arabic and opened his shirt to show what appeared to be a suicide vest.
The officers immediately shot and killed him. He was the sixth member of the cell to be shot dead.
Police kept their distance and used a robot to examine the device Abouyaaqoub was wearing. Like the devices worn by the five men who were shot dead in Cambrils early on Friday, it was fake.
Abouyaaqoub appeared not to have washed between Thursday and Monday. Police believe he walked to Subirats by night and hid by day. He was carrying a knife wrapped in plastic when he died, but had no bag, no phone and no money. He had changed his clothes, however: police do not know where he did this.
In Morocco, a 34-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of being connected to the cell. He is understood to be a cousin of the Oukabir brothers, and previously lived in Ripoll.
Court officials told Spanish media that Houli also confirmed investigators’ suspicions that the cell had been radicalised and was organised by Abdelbaki Es Satty, an imam in Ripoll.
Es Satty, who was in his 40s, was one of two people who died in the bomb factory explosion in which Houli was injured. Houli told the court that Es Satty had intended to mount a suicide bomb attack.
A number of relatives of the dead terrorists have told how Es Satty attempted, without success, to make them become religiously more conservative. “He wanted to give me some talk and one day he started telling me that listening to music was bad,” one relative told El País newspaper. “I told him not to brainwash me. He never spoke to me again.”
In Ripoll, friends of Abouyaaqoub recalled him as a “calm, rather quiet, somewhat shy” young man, who had been a good student and who had studied, almost effortlessly, for a degree in electromechanics. He was said to have had two passions: cars and football.
Meanwhile, the French interior minister has confirmed reports that the Audi used by the terrorists in the attack in Cambrils had been caught on camera speeding in Paris.
Gérard Collomb said of the terrorists that “this group came to Paris but it was a quick arrival and departure”.
French media reported that the car went through the Paris region about a week before last week’s attacks and that it had also been spotted in the Essonne region south of the capital.