Spanish police raid Barcelona cell suspected of plotting attack

Barcelona (AFP) –


Spanish police mounted a counter-terrorism operation in Barcelona and a nearby city on Tuesday against a cell suspected of plotting an attack, local officials said.

Officers arrested 17 people in Barcelona and Igualada, 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of the Catalan capital, as part of the raid, Catalonia's Mossos d'Esquadra police said.

The suspects "intended to carry out an attack", but police work "ensured that at no moment did they have the capacity to carry out these actions," Catalan interior minister Miquel Buch said.

More than 100 officers were taking part in the "counter-terrorism operation" launched by the Catalan police force at 6:00 am (0500 GMT), the Mossos said on Twitter.

One person was arrested in Igualada while the rest were detained in Barcelona.

Police did not give any details on the suspects but Spanish media said they were North Africans.

Armed officers, wearing black ski masks, stood guard outside a building in central Barcelona as boxes and bags were removed from a flat, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.

The operation was ordered by Spain's High Court, which is charged with terrorism investigations, and it is focused on "the crimes of terrorism, public health offences and organised crime", the Mossos said.

Barcelona, Spain's most visited city, was on alert last month after the US State Department warned of the risk of a terrorist attack in Spain's second-largest city over Christmas.

Spanish media reported at the time that the authorities were looking for a Moroccan man with a licence to drive buses who could try to drive a bus or other large vehicle into crowds in Barcelona.

The reports said it was not clear if the man was in Spain or not.

- Focus of militant activity -

On August 17, 2017, a van rammed crowds on Barcelona's Las Ramblas boulevard, killing 14 people and injuring over 130 others.

The 22-year-old Moroccan driver then stole a car after killing the driver and fled.

Several hours later five of his accomplices mowed down pedestrians on the promenade of the seaside resort of Cambrils, south of Barcelona, before stabbing a woman to death.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, Spain's worst since the Madrid train bombings in 2004 when 191 people died and more than 1,800 were injured.

Spain has had its terrorist alert at the second-highest level since 2015.

Catalonia has a long history of Islamist militant activity. A member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) was uncovered in the region in 1995.

Mohammed Atta, who flew a passenger plane into a tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, in New York, spent time in Catalonia shortly before the attacks.

In 2008, a plot targeting Barcelona’s metro system was foiled when it was in its advanced stages.

One in four people detained in Spain over extremist Islamist-linked terrorism come from the province of Barcelona in Catalonia, according to a study published in 2017 by the Real Instituto Elcano, a Spanish think-tank, which called the province the country’s "main centre of jihadist activity".