Nobody wants to talk about Abdelbaki Es Satty. When pressed, those who knew him call him “evil” and “savage” and a disgrace to the communities he’s lived in. Some of his neighbors are just surprised that the imam next door was capable of masterminding an attack. But most of his acquaintances from recent years didn’t know his past: that he’d been investigated and had his phone tapped in one of the largest international terrorism cases in Spanish history; that he had two smuggling convictions and had spent four years in prison. Despite all that, he was able to live under the radar while he organized the most deadly terrorist attack in Spain since the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
The Spanish government especially does not want to talk about Es Satty. The investigation into his case is sealed by a judge. Spanish police won’t offer much comment on the case, nor will police for the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. The director of Spain’s intelligence agency — referred to as the CNI, for its initials in Spanish — has given one closed-door briefing on Es Satty in the Spanish Parliament, and did so only after politicians began calling for a public investigation.
And so, over a year after the attack, the public has been provided few answers as to how Es Satty was able to convince a group of young men to kill and injure innocent people on a mass scale — and how he evaded police attention while doing so.
Just after midnight, a black Audi sedan with five people inside drove through a crowd of people in Cambrils, a beach town 75 miles away from Barcelona. They struck seven people, one of whom would later die from her wounds. The car eventually flipped at a traffic circle. When the five exited the car, four were shot on the spot by police. The fifth person fled and was later shot.
Four days later, police were tipped off to Abouyaaqoub’s location: Subirats, a small town 30 miles outside Barcelona. Police said that when they found Abouyaaqoub, he was wearing an explosive belt. They shot him to death. The explosive belt turned out to be fake. Police and the press noted that Abouyaaqoub shouted “Allahu akbar” before being shot.
Within a week, eight suspected members of the cell behind the attack were dead, and four were in police custody in Spain. Two more suspects were detained in Morocco. The press called the police response a success.
Es Satty was dead, but the discovery of his backstory was just beginning.
At first, it was a success that looked good for the Catalan police, the Mossos D’Esquadra, who operate separately from Spain’s national and paramilitary police forces. The political climate was already hot before the attacks: Catalonia was six weeks away from a referendum on independence, which the Madrid government had declared illegal and which most of the Catalan government was hellbent on carrying through. The Spanish and Catalan press were eager to paint the attack on Barcelona as the failure of the other’s police – and as more information emerged, the picture got muddier and muddier.
The men involved in the attack lived in a small town called Ripoll, two hours north of the capital. After the fact, residents of Ripoll were in shock. They wondered aloud how those eight men, all neighbors, friends, and classmates, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, could have done such things. Attention soon focused on the group’s ringleader, Es Satty.
The night before the attacks, a large explosion had rocked an otherwise quiet complex of luxury houses in Alcanar, a town two hours southwest of Barcelona. Initial reports described a gas explosion. Police later found about 120 gas canisters at the site, plus residues of TATP, a highly explosive substance that is relatively easy to fabricate with commercially available materials. The explosion killed Es Satty and one other person; police reports would later surface that the group was planning to attack major landmarks in Barcelona – driving the van through Las Ramblas was their plan B.
Es Satty was dead, but the discovery of his backstory was just beginning. With each revelation about his criminal history, the question grew more pressing: How could someone like Es Satty stay under the radar while he drew in the group of young men?
One year later, interviews with law enforcement sources, people who knew Es Satty, and a review of thousands of pages of court documents demonstrate incontrovertibly that Es Satty had been under police surveillance long before the attack. The court documents, some of which have not previously been reported on in detail, also add another piece of evidence to back up Spanish press reports that Es Satty was, at various points, an informant for Spanish police and intelligence, which many believe may have protected him from scrutiny. Catalan authorities feel betrayed that information was withheld from them; Spanish authorities blame the Catalans for not seeing Es Satty right under their noses. The unfolding story sheds light on the police turf battles, and it refocuses blame from where it originally fell, on the small community of Ripoll, where Es Satty and his accomplices sheltered as they planned the attack.
Es Satty was born in the center of Morocco’s Rif Mountains. He came to Spain in the late ’90s and lived in a handful of towns and cities, including Vilanova i la Geltrú, a town of about 60,000 people, just down the coast from Barcelona. He worked for just over a year as an imam in a small mosque in Vilanova, called Al Furkan.
For years, Es Satty also worked on both sides of the Moroccan-Spanish border, moving goods between the countries in a van. According to court documents, Es Satty was arrested in 2002 while trying to smuggle a person with a fake passport from the port in Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclave cities in Africa, to the Spanish mainland. He was sentenced to six months, but, in the end, served no time.
Es Satty later came under investigation for more serious crimes. His name appears throughout court documents related to a major terrorism case known as Operation Chacal. The documents, spanning from early 2006 to late 2008, and comprising over 22,000 pages of police investigations and court proceedings, were provided in full to The Intercept by the Spanish newspaper ABC, which previously published excerpts of court orders included in the documents but did not delve into the collection in detail.
One of the key figures in Operation Chacal was Mohammed Mrabet Fahsi, a Moroccan-born resident in Spain who owned a butcher store in Vilanova i la Geltrú and was one of the founders of the Al Furkan mosque. Mrabet Fahsi was arrested in 2006 and accused of leading an Al Qaeda-affiliated cell that recruited and sent people to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Chacal documents, police believed that Mrabet Fahsi had extensive relationships with the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and with people involved in bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2003. They also believed that Mrabet Fahsi and others had recruited and financed Billal Belgacem, who was one of the people responsible for the 2003 bombing of an Italian military base in Iraq.
Es Satty was never charged with a crime resulting from the Chacal investigation. But he plays a prominent role in the web of associations documented by Spanish police in court documents. Spanish police tapped his phone in 2005 on the suspicion that he had ties to the 2003 Casablanca bombings and other extremist groups operating in Spain. In Vilanova, he at one point shared a residence with Mrabet Fahsi and Belgacem. In the documents, Spanish police also note that Es Satty and Belgacem had lived together in Jaén, a city in southern Spain, sometime before moving to Vilanova.
The documents describe a series of meetings at the mosque in Vilanova and in various residences of members of the supposed terrorist cell, some innocuous and others more suspicious. Witness testimonies allege that those present were discussing “the necessity to wage Jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Palestine.” Es Satty was no longer the imam at that point, but he was named in various testimonies as having attended, and occasionally led, the meetings.
Mrabet Fahsi and four others were convicted of terrorism-related charges in 2009. Their lawyers appealed the case to Spain’s Supreme Court, alleging that their clients were tortured and threatened while in police custody, and that the wiretaps involved in the police investigation were illegal. The court threw out the convictions in 2011.
Court documents suggest that a confidential informant in Chacal — codenamed “B-05” — was in fact Es Satty.
The court documents suggest that a confidential informant in Chacal — codenamed “B-05” — was in fact Es Satty. B-05’s identity cannot be definitively confirmed, but details in the documents line up with what is known about Es Satty’s role in the group.
B-05 is introduced in the documents as a source for police from the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police, in Barcelona. He tells them he is close to Mrabet Fahsi and a “good friend” of Belgacem. Throughout the rest of the documents, B-05 is cited as very close to the Vilanova group. He identifies every single member of the supposed cell, and claims to have been present for many of the meetings at their various residences and the mosque.
María Teresa Olmeda Sánchez, one of the lawyers on the Chacal defense, notes that much of the case against the Vilanova group revolved around B-05’s testimony, and adds that the informant’s version of events didn’t hold up under questioning: “When we were asking [B-05] questions in front of the judge, he seemed scared,” she said. B-05 was called in to be cross-examined by the accused’s lawyers in 2006. At one point, according to court transcripts and Olmeda Sánchez, lawyers asked if he had been pressured by police to identify certain people. B-05 asked the judge if there was any way he could avoid answering the question. The judge said no. B-05 then admitted that agents of the Guardia Civil had pressured him to identify suspects, and had paid him for his testimony.
Still, the judge held that the protected witness’s testimony could stand. The state’s evidence in the Chacal case was weak, said Olmeda Sánchez, and tainted by testimony from the accused that they had been tortured, threatened, or otherwise encouraged to cut deals. She believes the protected informant, B-05, “could have been anyone, anyone who was pressured by police.”
But toward the end of the Chacal documents, Es Satty’s name comes up in proximity to B-05. A judge overseeing the case ordered the same Guardia Civil intelligence office that made contact with B-05 to write a report about the status of Es Satty in the investigation. Es Satty is the only person singled out by the judge for a specific report.
In that report, the Guardia Civil explained their reasons for not charging Es Satty – despite the fact that they acknowledge that Mrabet Fahsi, who was accused of smuggling drugs to finance the supposed cell, gave Es Satty money to buy a van for illegally moving people between Morocco and Spain. Nonetheless, the Guardia Civil concluded that while he did have a direct relationship with members of the cell, they didn’t find he was involved with the recruitment network. The Guardia Civil also said that Es Satty was not involved in the string of meetings, despite the testimonies they heard that stated otherwise.
The Policía Nacional and the Guardia Civil refused multiple requests to discuss details of Operation Chacal, with the latter stating that parts of the case are still under investigation, 10 years on.
What did finally land Es Satty in prison was another smuggling conviction. He was arrested in Ceuta in 2010 with more than 250 pounds of hashish destined for mainland Spain, and sentenced to four years and one month of prison. He would serve time in Castellón, a small city about three hours south of Barcelona. There, it appears, he did not fall off authorities’ radar.
Last November, the newswire EFE and El País, one of Spain’s leading dailies, published reports on the same day alleging that Spain’s intelligence agency had been in contact with Es Satty while he was in prison. Soon after, the agency confirmed the reports, stating that the communications were within what they described as “normal protocols.” Later news stories added that Es Satty was visited in prison twice by Spanish intelligence and twice by the Guardia Civil.
The Spanish Interior Ministry began developing intelligence offices in prisons across the country after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, according to the subdirector for security at Madrid’s Soto del Real prison, which houses many of Spain’s high-risk inmates. He only gave his first name, Ángel, for security reasons. In 2008, Ángel explained, the program was formalized, with one office in each prison reporting to a central prison intelligence office in Madrid.
Information, he says, comes mostly from inmates but also from security guards, social workers, doctors, and educators. It is then dealt with locally or passed off to the Guardia Civil and other police forces, as necessary. The CNI is also involved. “There’s a lot of information here,” Ángel said.
Whether or not someone is investigated has nothing to do the conviction for which they are in prison, according to Ángel. The prison intelligence offices focus on convicted inmates who might have useful information, but also on those who the office suspects are likely to radicalize others in prison, and those who they believe could be susceptible to radicalization.
Neither the prison administration in Castellón nor the Spanish prisons administration were willing to speak on the record about Es Satty’s time in prison, arguing that the case is still under investigation. It has been reported that his good behavior earned him three one-day trips outside the prison, but prison authorities would not confirm or deny whether or not the inmate was ever allowed to leave or given other benefits. In response to an official parliamentary question, the prison administration did confirm that Es Satty was under special surveillance while in prison “to detect if there were any signs of jihadist radicalization.” The prison administration said they did not find anything suspect about Es Satty at the time.
The accusation that the court dropped Es Satty’s deportation order in return for his collaboration in prison circulated widely.
Es Satty was released from prison with time served in early 2014. As part of his conviction, he lost his residency in Spain and had a deportation order, which he fought in court. Eventually, a judge in Castellón ruled in Es Satty’s favor, stating that he was integrated into life in Spain and didn’t represent “a real threat” that was “sufficiently grave for the public order and security.”
The accusation that the court dropped Es Satty’s deportation order in return for his collaboration in prison circulated widely throughout the Spanish and Catalan press after the attack. A spokesperson for the courts in Castellón said that the decision was not due to police involvement, but rather the lack thereof: Because Es Satty was never charged with a crime in Operation Chacal, the spokesperson said, the court had no idea of his past.
Either way, in court, the judge threw out the deportation order and the state never appealed. Es Satty was free.
Ripoll is a two-street town, home to just under 11,000 people, wedged into a slim valley at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Two small rivers join into one just beyond its historic center. Residents say Ripoll is the kind of place where you can walk through the town and know everyone you see by name.
Rachid el Marajie is the spokesperson for the Annour mosque, where Es Satty worked as an imam for most of his time in Ripoll. Marajie agreed to meet with me not as a representative of the mosque, but as someone who knew and worked with Es Satty. We spoke in a park on the outskirts of town. Every few minutes, someone would walk by Marajie, and they would greet in Catalan: “Adéu!”
“Correct,” “normal” — Marajie uses the same two words as many others to describe Es Satty during his time in Ripoll. “When I first met him, he seemed cold, a little distant, but normal. He was good at his job.” Marajie said. “He never raised suspicions that he was a radical, or was one of those people.”
“The question is why did the people that did have this information not communicate it to the Catalan police?”
“He was direct. He seemed like a believer, a practicing Muslim. A religious leader,” Marajie remembered. “He didn’t seem like he had anything to hide.”
Marajie first met Es Satty in 2015. Annour had not yet opened, and Es Satty was working as an imam at the other mosque in town, called Fath. Es Satty worked at Fath for five or six months that year. Abdallah al-Meftah, spokesperson for Fath, echoes Maraijie. “[Es Satty] was a normal person. We didn’t see anything strange. He was a person like anybody else,” Meftah said. “We don’t have the slightest idea of how it could have gotten to this point.”
In January 2016, Es Satty left Ripoll and went to Belgium. He applied for a job as an imam in a mosque near Vilvoorde, a suburb of Brussels. When the mosque’s administration asked Es Satty for a background check, to show that he didn’t have a criminal record, Es Satty avoided the question. The mosque administration denied Es Satty the job and alerted the police.
Vilvoorde used to be known internationally for the dozens of foreign fighters that left the town to go to Syria. But the town developed a new strategy for dealing with radicalization, and Vilvoorde has had no such cases since 2014. The mayor of Vilvoorde, Hans Bonte, declined multiple requests to speak about Es Satty’s time in Belgium, as did Vilvoorde’s top deradicalization official. A Belgian government spokesperson also declined to discuss specifics related to the case, but she did confirm that, generally, religious leaders in Belgium will often ask job applicants for a background check, and any sign of suspicion that is communicated to police will likely make it to a national coordinating unit that produces threat assessments on potential extremists. (There is no such process for religious leaders in Spain.) The spokesperson would not say whether any information about Es Satty was communicated to Spanish police.
A week after the attacks, EFE reported that a police officer in Vilvoorde had informally contacted an officer from the intelligence office of the Mossos d’Esquadra to ask if they had any information on Es Satty. The then-Catalan interior minister, Joaquim Forn, later confirmed to journalists that the exchange took place, but added that the information was requested without suspicion. Regardless of the intentions, when the Catalan officer responded to his Belgian counterpart, he wrote that the Catalan police had no information about Es Satty.
“We responded that we don’t have any information that he might be tied to terrorist activities,” Forn explained to a Spanish TV channel, expressing his frustration with the lack of communication from Spanish authorities about Es Satty’s past. “The question is why did the people that did have this information not communicate it to the Catalan police?”
“B“Betrayal” is the word that Jordi Munell, the mayor of Ripoll, uses most often when describing the situation surrounding Es Satty’s time in his town. “There’s a feeling of secrecy and betrayal in Ripoll,” Munell says, indignant. “That imam, someone knew he was in Ripoll. Someone knew that he was dangerous. And they didn’t tell us. That person has betrayed us.”
Munell is chair of a commission created in the Catalan regional Parliament to investigate the Barcelona attacks, which started work in April 2018. We spoke in a side office in the Parliament, after the Catalan investigation commission’s second meeting.
Munell says he first pushed for a public investigation commission in the Spanish Parliament immediately following the attacks. That request, he says, was met with silence. When he first read the two leaked stories alleging a relationship between Es Satty and Spanish intelligence, he and other politicians pushed for a public testimony from the CNI’s director, Félix Sanz Roldán.
Sanz Roldán did testify, but only to a closed-door state secrets commission in the Spanish Parliament. Munell conceded that the contours of Es Satty’s relationship with Spanish intelligence are still unclear, but added, “When the [Spanish] interior minister and the director of the CNI don’t deny it, I take that as a truth.”
For years, Munell explained, representatives of the various security forces in Ripoll, both Spanish and Catalan, held security meetings every two or three months with representatives of the town to talk about local issues. Ripoll is a low-crime area, the mayor added. Most conversations were about small-scale internet crime, counterfeiting, and traffic.
After the first stories broke about Es Satty, Munell said he stopped inviting the Spanish police to the meetings: “If you’ve got a level 4 [terror] alert declared, and one of the people in the room knows that someone who has been investigated, surveilled, an informant, is living in Ripoll, how can you not share that with everyone else?”
“If you’ve got a level 4 [terror] alert declared, and one of the people in the room knows that someone who has been investigated, surveilled, an informant, is living in Ripoll, how can you not share that with everyone else?”
Spain has multiple police forces that operate in parallel. The Policía Nacional and Guardia Civil both serve as national police forces throughout Spain. The former is a civilian force and the latter a paramilitary organization. Towns and cities of a certain size have their own local police forces. Three of Spain’s autonomous regions, including Catalonia, maintain their own regional police forces, too. Across Catalonia, those police are the Mossos d’Esquadra.
Since 2006, the Mossos have had responsibility for counterterrorism operations in Catalonia, shared alongside separate operations of the Guardia Civil and Policía Nacional, explains Jaume Bosch, former subdirector of the Catalan Security Institute, Catalonia’s school for police. Bosch has worked on security and police issues within the Catalan government since the 1980s.
Bosch says that on an interpersonal level, data is shared between police forces, but that institutionally, the three police forces often work on their own on counterterrorism operations. A coordinating body, the Catalan Security Council (Junta de Seguretat de Catalunya, in Catalan) had met only once in nine years, one month before the Barcelona attacks. The goal was to discuss the integration of the Mossos into Spain’s antiterrorism center and the possibility of getting them a connection to Europol’s databases. Bosch noted that the Mossos had been requesting both things for years.
Ramón Cossío, a spokesperson for the union of the Policía Nacional, described the collaboration between Spanish and Catalan police as “not great.” He listed instances of information-sharing agreements that aren’t acted on, collaborations that never happen, and turf battles.
“It doesn’t make sense to have an antiterrorism unit in the Guardia Civil, another in the Policía Nacional, and another in the Mossos d’Esquadra,” Cossío said. “It’s backwards.”
Lluís Paradell, a chief with the Mossos d’Esquadra’s intelligence service, disagreed. He said that there are always problems when multiple authorities operate in the same place, comparing the situation to communication issues between the FBI and CIA in the United States. Catalonia’s push for independence from Spain has had some effect on interagency rapport, Paradell said, but he added, “Everyone involved knows what’s at risk. There’s a terrorist threat here and no one is playing games.”
In fact, the forces have often accused one another of playing politics. In 2015, the Mossos filed a complaint alleging that an undercover agent who had infiltrated a suspected extremist cell in Barcelona witnessed members of the cell receive a tip from Policía Nacional that Catalan police were investigating them.
In response to criticism over the case, the minister of interior in Spain at the time, Jorge Fernandez Díaz, bristled over Catalan police’s involvement in counterterrorism issues. “The fight against terrorism and counterterrorism policies should be something of the state,” he told a group of journalists, “and you can’t leave it in hands of those who don’t have the slightest sense of state.”
After the Barcelona attacks, Spanish police voiced a similar complaint. An August 2017 joint press release from the respective Policía Nacional and Guardia Civil unions accused the Mossos of playing politics after the attacks. Both unions “denounced the exclusion and isolation suffered by both police bodies during the investigation and operations after the attacks in Barcelona.” The Mossos, the unions said, were using the attacks to project the image of a “self-sufficient state” ahead of the October 2017 independence referendum. The press release also criticized the Catalan police for not knowing that Es Satty “was the disciple of” one of the chief figures in the Chacal case. The Catalans say it was the responsibility of Spanish police to pass along that information.
The Policía Nacional, Guardia Civil, and Spain’s Interior Ministry all refused to take questions related to Es Satty, stating that they do not answer questions about open terrorism-related investigations. The CNI did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for Spain’s Interior Ministry also refused to comment on Es Satty, but did broadly reject the idea that there were coordination problems between different police bodies in Spain. There was “great” coordination, the spokesperson said.
Cossío, who wrote the unions’ press release, places most of the blame on the Mossos, but also admits that the Policía Nacional and Guardia Civil made mistakes.
“The management of a terrorist attack is the management of a failure,” Cossío said. “It’s the failure of security forces that allows an attack to happen.”
In Catalonia, as in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, police have developed radicalization prevention programs called “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, that attempt to focus on both ideology and crime. CVE relies on communities to identify signs of radicalization among their own and share information with the state. Critics argue that CVE programs profile Muslims, especially immigrants and refugees, and end up eroding trust within the same communities that they are supposed be engaging.
Multiple imams and mosque administrators across Catalonia describe active surveillance by national and regional police. Some say they are happy to collaborate; others resent what they describe as a feeling of mutual suspicion. “The distrust is there,” says Mohamed el Ghaidouni, president of Catalonia’s largest federation of mosques. “If you, as police, come to a mosque and pull out a battery of questions and all you’re interested in are answers, then the relationship between police and mosque stays very close to a conflict.”
Mohannad Achab, who runs a mosque in the Barcelona suburb of Mollet, offered up an anecdote about how police keep tabs on his community.
“One time, the Mossos came on a weekend, while we were giving Arabic classes to kids,” he remembered. The police, he says, began asking what they were teaching the kids, “suspiciously.” Achab says he responded quickly: “We’re teaching them to throw bombs and fire guns.” The Mossos took a step back, visibly tense, Achab remembers. “They didn’t seem to get the joke.”
Achab recalls less humorous instances as well, times where uniformed officers were standing outside the mosque at 4:30 a.m. as people came in for their morning prayers. He says the police were wasting their time. “The people who believe that, that don’t understand Islam,” he said, “they don’t come here.”
“Now, people are blaming the state, they’re blaming the police. They aren’t blaming us as much. It’s a shared blame.”
In Ripoll, the Catalan CVE program is active in schools, police stations, and prisons, but the attackers were out of school by the time the initiative began. The police, both Catalan and Spanish, check in on the mosques one or two times per year. Residents say that police live in town and are on a first name basis with most residents. And yet the Mossos in Ripoll and the local police say they had no idea of Es Satty’s history. They picked up on no signs that the group of men were plotting an attack.
In the wake of the Barcelona attacks, many in the Spanish and Catalan press blamed the families of those involved. The families were told that they should have seen it coming, and should have alerted authorities. One year later, those families do not want to give interviews about what happened.
The Catalan police called it “a very fast radicalization process”; according to police testimony taken after the attacks, friends of the Ripoll attackers say the group of men “changed” when they met Es Satty. They separated from their previous friend groups and began talking more about religion. “He brainwashed them,” one person told police.
Núria Perpinyà, a social worker in Ripoll, knows many of the families of the attackers. They are her neighbors, and she used to work with their kids. The young men involved in the attacks were never religious before, Perpinyà said. They never seemed isolated. But she also recognizes that, however welcoming Ripoll might seem to non-Muslims, for a group of young people mostly in their late teens and early 20s spanning two cultures, things are more complicated.
“You would think that people who lived here for years, spoke Catalan, had local friends, you would think that they were integrated,” Perpinyà said, “but our integration policies aren’t well oriented. … People aren’t looking at the fact that, beyond that, there’s an emotional part to inclusion. They don’t pay attention to that, and we still exclude people.”
Marajie, from the mosque in Ripoll, says that since the attacks, many residents have rallied behind the town’s Muslim community and offered support. “There’s a good coexistence,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that everyone feels the same.”
“The only thing that’s really helped us to live here without problems are the things that keep coming out about Es Satty: that he was involved with the CNI, his criminal past,” said Marajie. “Now, people are blaming the state, they’re blaming the police. They aren’t blaming us as much. It’s a shared blame.”
Update: September 3, 2018, 12:40 p.m.
This story was updated to include that the Policía Nacional also refused to comment on the Chacal operation.