One dead, several injured in machete attack against churches in southern Spain

The assailant has been arrested, and authorities are investigating the case as a possible act of Islamic terrorism

Deadly machete attack in Algeciras

Spanish police have arrested a machete-wielding man who walked into two Catholic churches in the southern city of Algeciras on Wednesday evening, killing one person and injuring at least four more. The suspect is a 25-year-old Moroccan national identified as Yasine Kanjaa by sources familiar with the investigation. Spain’s high court, the Audiencia Nacional, is investigating the matter as a possible act of Islamic terrorism, although the Interior Ministry has not yet classified the attack as jihadist.

Shortly after 6.30pm the suspect entered the Church of San Isidro, in the center of this port city near the southern tip of Spain, and “began to argue with the parishioners, telling them that they should follow the Islamic religion.” He left but returned less than an hour later, around 7.20pm, armed with a machete that he used to attack and seriously injure the priest, according to these same sources. The clergyman is reported to be in stable condition after receiving medical assistance.

The assailant then walked over to the Church of La Palma, located just 200 meters from the first temple, as a Mass service was ending. He began to throw religious images, crucifixes and candles on the floor and climbed up on the altar. The sexton – the religious officer in charge of the sacristy and other church objects – asked him to leave the premises, but the assailant refused and began threatening two women. The sexton again told him to leave, and the assailant chased him out of the church and to a public square called Plaza Alta, in the city center, where he killed him with the machete, according to eyewitnesses. Subsequently, the suspect “tried to hide in another nearby chapel, where he was subdued by local police officers,” according to sources in the investigation. The suspect, who had no previous criminal record, is in the custody of the National Police in Algeciras, a city with a population of 122,000 and a major port with daily ferry connections to northern Africa.

Spanish law enforcement officials specializing in the fight against terrorism have taken charge of the investigation, although for now no details have been provided about the nature of the attack. The Prosecutor’s Office of the national high court is treating it as an alleged terrorist attack, said prosecutorial sources. Preliminary evidence suggests that the suspect acted alone.

At midnight, more than 20 officers of the National Police searched a home on Ruiz Tagle Street, very close to both churches. The building houses squatters, according to other residents. One of them, a 20-year-old Moroccan, was one of the first people to be attacked by Yasine Kanjaa. According to the complaint he filed with the police, at around 7.45 pm he ran into the assailant, who told him “You are on the side of magic!”, meaning against the Muslim religion; Kanjaa then punched him in the face and broke his glasses. According to the complaint, Kanjaa was already carrying the machete at this point. Three other people who tried to restrain him were also injured.

The city of Algeciras has decreed a day of official mourning over the death of the sexton, David Valencia, who is reported to have been well known and respected by the local Catholic community. The injured priest has been identified as Antonio Rodriguez.

Spanish government officials, including Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the regional premier of Andalusia, Juan Manuel Moreno, have expressed their condolences and asked for “prudence” while the facts of the case are investigated. A local Muslim association has also issued a statement: “We at the Islamic community Al Rahmah want to make public our dismay at the murder of a religious man in the Plaza Alta de Algeciras and express our solidarity and sympathy for the wounded.”

So far in 2023, Spanish security forces have arrested four suspected jihadists. Last year there were 46 arrests of individuals with ties to Islamic terrorist groups, while seven more were arrested in other countries, mainly Morocco. The largest operation took place in October in cooperation with Moroccan authorities, and netted 13 suspects. Since 2020, 131 people have been arrested for jihadist activities, according to official statistics provided by the Ministry of the Interior.

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