After a long manhunt, Catalan police find and kill suspect in the Barcelona attack

Agence France-Presse
police in Spain

Catalan Mossos d'Escuadra vans are parked along a road near the place where Younes Abouyaaqoub, the man suspected of driving the van that killed 13 people in Barcelona last week, was killed by police in Sant Sadurni d'Noia, Spain, August 21, 2017. 

Albert Gea/Reuters

Spanish police on Monday shot dead Younes Abouyaaqoub, the suspected driver of a van that mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona, after a massive manhunt for the Moroccan national who was wearing what appeared to be a suicide belt when he was killed.

"We confirm that the person shot down in the incident in Subirats (near Barcelona) is Younes Abouyaaqoub, the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Barcelona," police in Catalonia tweeted.

Four days after his van rampage on the tourist-packed Las Ramblas boulevard, police took down the 22-year-old in the village about 37 miles west of Barcelona.

Police said their operation on a winding road between two vineyards was ongoing as they were trying to determine if there were other suspects involved in the devastating twin attacks that claimed 15 lives last week.

They had removed the apparent suicide belt from Abouyaaqoub's body but had yet to confirm if it was real or fake.

Roser Ventura, who works at a nearby vineyard, told AFP she saw around 20 police cars drive by with sirens wailing while helicopters rattled overhead, as she heard the news about the shot man on the radio.

Arnau Gómez, who lives about a kilometer away from where the suspect was shot, described the village of 300 people as being an ideal hideout as "it is far from everything".

"In the hills there are many homes of seasonal workers, it's easy to hide," he told AFP.

12-man cell

Earlier Monday, police had launched an appeal for information about the fugitive described as dangerous and likely armed, believed to be the last remaining member of a 12-man cell suspected of plotting last week's deadly attacks.

The other suspects have been killed by police or detained after the vehicle rampages in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the assaults, believed to be its first in Spain.

Authorities on Monday raised the death toll to 15, confirming that Pau Pérez, a 34-year-old man found stabbed to death in a Ford Focus outside Barcelona on Friday, was killed by Abouyaaqoub.

The police had fired at the car as it forced its way through a checkpoint shortly after the Barcelona carnage, and later found Pérez in the vehicle.

Investigators believe the victim was the owner of the car, which was hijacked by Abouyaaqoub to make his getaway.

Describing Abouyaaqoub as around five feet, 11 inches tall, police tweeted four photographs of the man with short black hair, including three pictures in which he was wearing a black-and-white striped T-shirt.

Imam's influence

Investigators seeking to unravel the terror cell had homed in on the small border town of Ripoll at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains.

Several suspects including Abouyaaqoub grew up or lived in the town.

Moroccan imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, aged in his 40s, has also come under scrutiny as he is believed to have radicalized youths in Ripoll.

Police raided more homes in Ripoll on Monday, Catalonia's regional interior minister Joaquim Forn said.

Police said the imam had spent time in prison and had once been in contact with a suspect wanted on terrorism charges but was never himself charged with terror-related incidents.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region told AFP that Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen — next to the city's airport — between January and March 2016.

On the other side of Brussels, the Molenbeek suburb has gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists after the Brussels bombings in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.

In the Moroccan town of M'rirt, relatives of Abouyaaqoub have accused the imam of radicalizing the young man as well as his brother Houssein.

"Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalize under the influence of this imam," their grandfather told AFP.

A neighbor close to the Abouyaaqoub family, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the imam "had recruited Moroccans of Ripoll and planned the attacks."

But Ali Assid, president of the Annour Islamic community that runs the Ripoll mosque where Satty was preaching, said the imam "never sent a radical message, all he preached was really Islam. If he is behind all that, there he must be showing us one face in the mosque and showing another face outside."

The imam has been missing since Tuesday. On Saturday, police raided his apartment. They have raised the possibility that he died in an explosion on Wednesday evening at a house believed to be the suspects' bomb factory, where police uncovered a massive cache of 120 gas canisters.

'One or more attacks'

The suspected jihadists had been preparing bombs for "one or more attacks in Barcelona," regional police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters, revealing that traces of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) — a homemade explosive that is an ISIS hallmark — had also been found.

The accidental explosion in the house in Alcanar, south of Barcelona, may have forced the suspects to modify their plans.

Instead, they used a vehicle to smash into crowds on Barcelona's Las Ramblas boulevard as it was thronged with tourists, killing 13 people and injuring about 100.

Several hours later, a similar attack in the seaside town of Cambrils left one woman dead. Police shot dead the five attackers, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts and carrying knives.

Daniel Bosque of AFP reported from Subirats, Spain.