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Authorities Investigate Alcanar Site Where Terrorists Hatched Barcelona Plot


We're going to start the hour with news from Spain. Following the recent van attack in Barcelona, Catalan police are investigating whether a local imam radicalized young men from a small town in the northeastern region of that country. Eleven men from the town of Ripoll are accused of plotting the attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 people and injured more than 100 others. NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the streets of Barcelona. Frank, first, tell us about this imam and why police are focusing on him.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah, Dwane. The imam - his name is Abdelbaki Es Satty. He's in his early 40s. He showed up in this town, Ripoll, back in 2015. It's in the foothills of the Pyrenees. He's working at a local mosque. A quiet, low-profile guy. Didn't mix with people much. Frankly, the more you talk to people up in Ripoll, a pretty mysterious fellow. I was talking to his former apartment mate, and he said Es Satty cleaned out his room on the sixth floor of a walk-up last Tuesday, said he was going home to Morocco to see his family, but he hasn't been heard from since. And, of course, he was in this town where you had 11 members of the terrorist cell.

BROWN: So, Frank, what's the working theory behind this attack at this point?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, Dwane, I was talking to local officials, and they suspect that Es Satty didn't go to Morocco like he told his apartment mate, but went south to a seaside town called Alcanar, where members of the cell were actually working on building bombs. They had a lot of butane - like, over a hundred canisters - and they were working in an abandoned house. And what they were planning was one - at least one massive attack here in Barcelona. What happened is, on Wednesday, the house blew up and foiled their plans. At least two of the terrorists, apparently, were killed in the house.

And after that, you know, they had to go with the plan B. One of them drove down Las Ramblas. That's the big pedestrian walkway here in Barcelona, which is where I'm sitting right now, and killed at least 13 people here. And Spanish media say cops tried to get DNA from the apartment where the imam was living to see if his is one of the bodies in the rubble from the house.

BROWN: So, Frank, just to recap, police are investigating whether the imam came to this small town - right? - and then, possibly, radicalized 11 young men?

LANGFITT: Yeah. And the big thing is, like, how could nobody notice this? It's pretty stunning. I've spent two days in the town now. And it's so small that, yesterday, I actually ran into the cousin of one of the dead terrorists at a kabob place. It's that kind of town, where you just bump into people, and everybody seems to know - a lot of people seem to know where everybody lives.

The local mosque hired this imam. They're under a lot of pressure right now. I was speaking to the president of the mosque today. His name is Yassine Ali. And he said, you know, the guy's paperwork was all in order. He never preached anything that was out of the ordinary. And he never saw the imam talking to these young men. But people in the town are, you know, very upset about this - stunned. And they're wondering how they could have missed it.

BROWN: Are they saying anything - as you described, I mean, it's a small town. Do they know these young men?

LANGFITT: They do. I mean, a lot of people knew them. In fact, I was talking to a woman named Wafa Marsi, and she knew all of them since they were young. She's 30 years old. She used to work as what's called a mediator. And so what she would help is Moroccan families who were coming to the town. She's also of Moroccan decent. She would help them get settled. And she said these guys were very polite, respectful men. As she was telling me about them, we were sitting out in front of city hall, she began to cry. And this is what she said.

WAFA MARSI: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: "I promise, if you'd seen the light that shone in their eyes four years ago, you wouldn't believe this," she told me. "I'm still expecting someone to tell me they made a mistake." So the terror attacks, frankly, are really tearing up the town. This small Moroccan community - they're embarrassed, they're devastated. And the majority native Catalan members of the community - they're angry. They feel betrayed. And still, there a lot of big questions that are unanswered.

BROWN: Frank Langfitt reporting from Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Dwane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.