Trial for deadly 2017 Barcelona terrorist attacks begins

Only three defendants are facing prison for aiding the perpetrators, who were shot down by police

Mohamed Houli (L), Driss Oukabir (C) and Said Ben Iazza sitting in court on Tuesday,
Mohamed Houli (L), Driss Oukabir (C) and Said Ben Iazza sitting in court on Tuesday,FERNANDO VILLAR (AFP)

The trial against members of a terrorist cell that perpetrated the second-deadliest jihadist attack on Spanish soil began on Tuesday with previously unseen video footage in which attackers are seen manipulating explosives and making threats against their targets: “Every gram of this iron is going to get lodged in your heads, in your children and your wives.”

Three individuals are standing trial for the attacks of August 17, 2017 that killed 16 people – including a three-year-old and a seven-year-old – and injured 140 more in Barcelona and Cambrils. But public prosecutors have not brought murder charges, as the actual perpetrators of the killings were shot dead by the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, at the scene of the attacks, which the Islamic State (ISIS) later claimed responsibility for.

All three defendants have instead been charged for their indirect role in the events. Mohamed Houli and Driss Oukabir are accused of being active members of the terrorist cell plotting a large-scale attack in the Catalan capital, while Said Ben Iazza is charged with aiding the group by providing one of the vehicles. They face prison terms ranging from eight to 41 years.

The group’s original plan had been to carry out large bomb attacks against one or more landmark buildings in Barcelona, most likely the Sagrada Familia, but a blast in the house that they were using as a hideout in Alcanar (Tarragona) killed their leader, an imam named Abdelbaki Es Satty, and one other group member. Numerous butane gas canisters were found among the rubble.

The accidental explosion at the Alcanar hideout changed their plans. The next day Younes Abouyaqooub rammed a van into dozens of pedestrians on the popular Rambla thoroughfare before fleeing on foot, while five other surviving members of the cell carried out a similar vehicle attack later that night in the seaside town of Cambrils. These cell members were shot down by the Catalan police.

Unseen footage

Only the Mossos d’Esquadra had seen the video that was played on Tuesday on day one of the trial at Spain’s High Court (Audiencia Nacional) in San Fernando de Henares, in the Madrid region. Neither the prosecution nor the defense had seen the images, which show three of the cell members handling explosives at the Alcanar house. The video was made by one of the defendants, Mohamed Houli, who refused to answer prosecutors' questions and instead expressed “repentance.”

In the video, a cell member named Mohamed Hichamy is heard saying, half in Spanish and half in Catalan: “You’re going to regret ever being born, especially you, you Mossos d’Esquadra bastards.”

Cell members are seen sitting on the floor, making an explosives belt. Hichamy boasts about how easy it was to assemble the required material. “All this is our own work, and I worked on it in front of our allies. Each gram of this iron is going to get lodged in your heads, in your children and your wives,” he says.

Younes Abouyaqooub, who drove the van that killed 14 people on La Rambla, adds: “With the help of Allah, we are going to protect our religion.” Abouyaqooub was killed by the police, as was Mohamed Hichamy and four other members of the group.

France, Belgium, Morocco

Investigators explored leads that took them to France, Belgium and Morocco, but were only able to build cases against three suspects, who have been in custody in Spain since their arrest.

Said Ben Iazza used to run a Halal butcher’s shop in Vinaròs and he is facing eight years for lending his van and ID to the terrorists to help them buy acetone, a highly flammable compound.

Driss Oukabir, the only member of the group with a prior police record, allegedly accompanied other cell members to rent a van that was going to be loaded with explosives, but he dropped out at the last minute. Mohamed Houli, the only suspect to have provided a detailed account of the cell’s plans, was wounded at the Alcanar explosion.

Public prosecutors are also asking for compensation for the more than 30 people who were injured in the Alcanar blast.

There are nearly 20 other parties who have filed a private prosecution and who are seeking murder charges against the three defendants, but the investigating judge has already stated that the latter are not liable for the August 17 events, as Driss was already under arrest while Houli was in the hospital following the Alcanar blast. Over 400 witnesses are expected to testify at the trial.

The attack was the second deadliest on Spanish soil after the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 that killed 193 people and injured around 2,000.

English version by Susana Urra.

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