A missing imam and a house that exploded days ago have become the focus of the investigation into an extremist cell responsible for two deadly attacks in Barcelona and a nearby resort, as authorities narrowed in on who radicalised a group of young men in northeastern Spain.
Investigators searched the home of Abdelbaki Es Satty, an imam who in June abruptly quit working at a mosque in the town of Ripoll, the home of the Islamic radicals behind the attacks that killed 14 people and wounded over 120 in the last few days.
Police were trying to determine whether Es Satty was killed in a botched bomb-making operation on Wednesday, the eve of the Barcelona bloodshed.
His former mosque has denounced the deadly attacks and weeping relatives marched into a Ripoll square on Saturday, tearfully denying any knowledge of the radical plans of their sons and brothers.
At least one of the suspects is still on the run, and his younger brother has disappeared, as has the younger brother of one of the five attackers slain Friday by police.
Catalan police said a manhunt was centred on Younes Abouyaaquoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan suspected of driving the van that ploughed into a packed Barcelona promenade Thursday, killing 13 people and injuring 120. Another attack early on Friday killed one person and wounded five in the resort of Cambrils.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for both.
Everyone so far known in the cell grew up in Ripoll, a town in the Catalan foothills near the French border 100km north of Barcelona. Spanish police searched nine homes in Ripoll, including Es Satty’s, and two buses, and set up a roadblock that checked each car entering the town.
Across the Pyrenees, French police carried out extra border checks on people coming in from Spain.
Neighbours, family and even the mayor of Ripoll said they were shocked by news of the alleged involvement of the young men, whom all described as integrated Spanish and Catalan speakers with friends of all backgrounds.
Halima Hychami, the weeping mother of Mohamed Hychami, one of the attackers named by police, said he told her he was going on a holiday and would return on August 25. His younger brother, Omar, slept late on Thursday and left mid-afternoon.
Mohamed Hychami is believed among the five attackers shot dead by police in Cambrils. She hasn’t heard from Omar since he left.
“We found out by watching TV, same as all of you. They never talked about the imam. They were normal boys. They took care of me, booked my flight when I went on vacation. They all had jobs. They didn’t steal. Never had a problem with me or anybody else. I can’t understand it,” she said.
Even with Abouyaaquoub at large, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido declared the cell “broken” on Saturday. In addition to the five killed by police, four were in custody and one or two were killed in a house explosion Wednesday. He said there was no new imminent threat of attack.
Police also conducted a series of controlled explosions Saturday in the town of Alcanar, south of Barcelona, where the attacks were planned in house that was destroyed Wednesday by an explosion. Authorities had initially thought it was a gas accident, but took another look after the attacks.
Initially, only one person was believed killed in the Wednesday blast. But officials said DNA tests were underway to determine if human remains found there Friday were from a second victim. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing searches, said investigators believed the remains may belong to Es Satty.