Abdelbakri Es Satty, the ringleader of the cell that carried out the terror attacks in Catalonia earlier this month, had established himself in the small town of Ripoll in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, working as the local imam, a position that allowed him to act as a recruiter for the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.
But unlike other imams arrested and jailed in Europe over recent years for promoting jihad, 44-year-old Es Satty carried out his indoctrination in secret, and what’s more, was also directly involved in organizing the attacks to be carried out by his followers.
They can be recruiters that select young men, but they can also provide psychological leadership Counter-terrorism expert John Horgan
“They carry out two functions,” says counter-terrorism expert John Horgan of the University of Georgia of Muslim clerics involved in the recent spate of attacks in Europe claimed by ISIS.
“They can be recruiters that select and encourage young men to get them involved, but they can also be facilitators who provide psychological and spiritual leadership,” explains Horgan. Es Satty probably fulfilled both roles, and unusually, oversaw the preparations for the attack on August 17. He was killed in an explosion the day before in a house some 300 kilometers south of Barcelona being used to make bombs.
Counter-terrorism experts say this is the first time an imam has been directly involved in preparing a terrorist attack in Europe. Spanish police say they believe Es Satty intended to blow himself up in an attack.
Unlike Es Satty, Tarik Chadlioui, a 44-year-old Moroccan cleric, was known to the intelligence services, and had traveled around Europe. He was arrested in the British city of Birmingham on June 28. It has since emerged he had been in Spain.
Counter-terrorism experts say this is the first time an imam has been directly involved in preparing a terrorist attack in Europe
“He had visited Mallorca in early 2015 where he began to create a group, those who are now under arrest, with the intention of recruiting, indoctrinating and radicalizing on behalf of ISIS, becoming from that moment, their spiritual leader,” according to the Spanish police.
Chadlioui, a successful fundraiser, was arrested by the British police on the same day that four members of his cell were detained in Spain. One of them, Abdelbakir Mahmoudi, was planning an attack in the town of Inca, on Mallorca.
During a stay in France, Chadlioui preached at the mosque at Luce, in the town of Courcouronnes, south of Paris. He has been linked to Omar Mostefai, who visited the mosque regularly and was one of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan music venue in Paris in November 2015.
Police also linked Mostefai to Abdelilah Ziyad, a 59-year-old Moroccan cleric who was jailed for eight years in 1995 for masterminding the attacks a year earlier on a hotel in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh in which two Spaniards were killed.
Ziyad has denied any involvement in terrorism, as have all the other Muslim clerics arrested by European police in recent years, among them Olivier Corel, the so-called white emir, following the Bataclan attacks. Born in Syria (his real name is Abdel Ilat Dandachi, he was accused of instigating the group that carried out the attacks that killed 90 people and left dozens wounded on November 13, 2016, a charge he denies.
Farid Benyettou, a 35-year-old French Algerian, also denied any involvement in the attack against the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. In 2005, he was found guilty of recruiting jihadist volunteers at a Paris mosque to fight in Iraq for ISIS. He underwent a de-radicalization process in jail and trained to be a nurse. He attended several of the people wounded in the Charlie Hebdo attack at the Paris hospital where he worked.
Es Satty’s case has similarities with that of fellow Moroccan Khalid Zerkani, who was convicted by a Belgian court of propagating “extremist ideas among disturbed and vulnerable young people.” He had helped to send young men to Syria, among them Suleimane Abrini, the brother of Mohamed Abrini, who took part in the terrorist attack at Brussels airport in March 2016.
But neither Zerkani, Benyettou, Ziyad, and Choudary got their hands dirty in the same way that Es Satty did. The only precedent is the attacks that took place in London in 2005: among the four men who carried it out, Mohammad Sidique Khan, a 30-year-old community worker who masterminded the bombings.
English version by Nick Lyne.