Imam’s softly-softly approach forces rethink in combating radicalization

“One day he started saying that listening to music was wrong… and I told him to leave me alone. He never talked to me again…” said a cousin of one of the five men shot and killed in the early hours of Friday when police foiled a second attempted terrorist attack in the wake of the killings in Barcelona hours before.

The brother-in-law of another of the terrorists says that he never trusted Es Satty. Many in the Muslim community of Ripoll, the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees where all those associated with last week’s terrorist attacks came from, are now asking themselves how the imam was able to poison the minds of young men seemingly well integrated into Spanish society and who spoke Catalan.

But if so many people mistrusted Es Satty, why did nobody express their concerns to the authorities? One member of Ripoll’s Muslim community who says he refused to have anything to do with the cleric, simply shrugs his shoulders and answers: “Because I never believed he would go this far. I don’t know. Nobody imagined that these kids would do something like this.”

Like the other suspects accused of staging the terror attacks, Younes Abouyaaqoub, now believed to have driven the van that killed 13 people on Barcelona’s La Rambla boulevard on Thursday afternoon, and who was shot dead by police on Monday evening, does not fit the typical profile of radicalized jihadists: they were younger, they had jobs, and had fit into Catalan society after coming to Spain while children. They had no criminal records and had shown no interest in radical Islam. Which is why Es Satty targeted them.

María Dolors Vilalta, in charge of civic safety, co-existence and participation at Ripoll town council, says: “They spoke perfect Catalan, they had been to school here, they got good grades and were not in any kind of trouble.” Núria Perpinyá, an educator who works in the town, and a neighbor of two of the suspects, adds: “They never showed any kind of attitude nor were they overtly religious.”

Manuel Gazapo is the head of Spain’s National Security Observatory. He outlines several factors he says explain how the young men behind last week’s attacks were persuaded. “The first factor is their age: they were younger than most terrorists and therefore more easily molded.” He also points to their background. “People say they had integrated, fine, but they still belong to a minority at risk of being marginalized. Any event could be enough to make them easily manipulated. What the institutions say about integration is one thing, another is the reality on the street.”

Rashid, a cousin of one of the terrorist suspects, agrees: “Sure, we were brought up here and we get along with everybody, but we are, and will always be, moros [or “Moors” – in Spain, moro is typically used pejoratively to describe people from Morocco]. At school we were moros and the girls didn’t want to go out with us. The adults thought we all sold hashish.”

Perpinyá and Vilalta say they are in shock: “This has broken the feeling of trust in the community. There is a big sense of disappointment, we have a lot of work ahead of us to rebuild trust,” says Perpinyá.

Then there is the question of security, suddenly, the net has widened on who should be monitored. “We now understand that anybody can be radicalized. The security services used to focus on people aged 25 or over and with no education or skills, but now they are looking at children and even young people who have integrated,” says Gazapo.

Gazapo says that Es Satty worked slowly and carefully, “along the lines of Al Qaeda. He didn’t use the internet, but took a face-to-face approach, meeting with the kids secretly in a van or in apartments nobody knew about.”

Es Satty also picked his targets carefully,” says Rashid, a cousin of one of the suspects. “The first he worked on was Youssef [Youssef Houli, who was killed in an explosion in a house in Alcanar, 300 kilometers away in Tarragona, which was being used to make bombs out of gas canisters], and then Moha [Mohamed Hychamy, shot in Cambrils]. They were the leaders of the group. Then came their brothers and the others. And the fact that they were mostly related… They kept everything secret.

Rashid says Es Satty is the key: “He was a very smart guy and could convince you of something in half an hour. He made you feel unafraid. And that is essential.” Recruiters like Es Satty are an essential part of the ISIS machine. Which is why the police believe that had the cleric not died in the explosion in Alcanar as well, he would now be in Syria, and would not have taken part in the attacks. “But sadly, there are more recruiters,” says Gazapo.