ICSR Insight: The Catalonia Attacks in Context
By John Holland-McCowan, Research Fellow, ICSR and Daniel Porter, Research Intern, ICSR
Within two days, between August 17th-18th, three vehicular attacks killed 16 people and injured 137 others in Catalonia, Spain. All attackers have since been killed including Younes Abouyaaqoub, identified by the Spanish police as the driver of both cars in the Barcelona attacks.
In the weeks following these horrific incidents, the tragic images of the attack’s aftermath are well known. This Insight seeks to lend ICSR’s perspective on these gruesome events by underscoring how they are the latest in a string of low sophistication terrorist plots, highlighting potential countermeasures, and illustrating how an analysis of the perpetrators reveals the continued salience of the study of the crime terror nexus and prison radicalization.
A Disturbing Trend
The nature of these incidents fits a grim pattern. In September of 2014, ISIS’s former official spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s famously called for supporters of the ‘Caliphate’ to kill disbelievers and citizens in coalition lands, “in any manner or way, however it may be… with a rock… with a knife… with your car.” These vehicular attacks in Spain were the types of low-sophistication and low-cost attacks al-Adnani was encouraging. Similar attacks have occurred in Paris, London, Stockholm, Berlin and Nice throughout the past year, killing nearly 120 people.
Weighing Potential Countermeasures
The low level of sophistication and skill required for vehicular attacks makes mitigating the threat particularly challenging. Following the Westminster Bridge attack, the UK government has sought to meet the challenge by:
- Traffic calming – limiting the speeds at which vehicles can approach crowded public areas and landmarks
- Traffic management – choosing how and when daily traffic will gain access to transit hubs and tourist areas
- Vehicle security barriers – providing vehicle impact protection and maintaining a secure blast radius from a vehicular-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED)
- Vehicle access control – deploying access procedures such as ID checks or passwords before admission to business premises
One key concern is whether these enhanced measures could ultimately prove counterproductive. Changing the way of life of everyday people in their implementation could foster greater anxiety among the population, thus risking inadvertently achieving the terrorist’s aims. As a result, the UK’s hostile vehicle mitigation (HVM) measures aim to blend discreetly with the urban landscape.
The Crime-Terror Nexus
In the aftermath of the attack, new information has been brought to light underscoring the critical intersection of the criminal and terrorist worlds. Imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, ring-leader of the terrorist cell, spent time in Castellón Prison for drug smuggling. Family and friends have claimed that he had no religious convictions prior to detention. However, during his imprisonment, he was jailed in the same prison as Rachid Aglif, previously apprehended for his role in the 2004 bombings. While direct links are being drawn between the two individuals, most notably by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, it is plausible that Aglif could have influenced Es Satty’s decision to become an imam following his release and contributed to his radicalisation process.
Combating Prison Radicalisation
Containing those convicted of terrorist offences remains a vexing problem for policymakers. Spanish prisons implement the strategy of dispersal, where high-risk inmates are spread across multiple detention centres. This was done as a response to the strictly hierarchical structure of the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) Spanish separatist group in the fear that they would recreate their operational structures behind bars. Those convicted of Islamist terrorist offences are concentrated in a relatively fewer number of prisons, but Spain has yet to create specialist units which exclusively hold those convicted of terror offences. This policy was recommended in Home Office official, and former prison governor, Ian Acheson’s 2016 prisons review, which recommends greater separation and specialised management of the highest-risk individuals. This was implemented at HMP Frankland in County Durham, where Anjem Choudary has been incarcerated.
The strategy of separating terrorists from the rest of the prison population has its own risks. Putting like-minded prisoners together could enable them to present a united front against guards, and plot future attacks upon their release. Conversely, the separation of jihadists and criminals may serve to prevent the radicalisation of inmates like Abdelbaki Es Satty. Dispersal could also help prevent the alignment of terrorists with ‘ordinary’ criminals who potentially have 1) an easier access to weapons, 2) an ability to stay under the radar, and 3) a familiarity with violence. Specialist units may therefore be the more effective action in combating the threat posed by radicalisation in prisons.
Defeating the ‘Caliphate’ is Not Enough
Interestingly, and perhaps unbeknownst to ISIS’s alleged ‘soldier’ as he killed men, women, and children on Las Ramblas, the so-called ‘Caliphate’ is crumbling. Since 2014, ISIS has lost more than 78 percent of the territory they used to operate freely within in Iraq, along with 58 percent of their territory in Syria. Former strongholds of Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Manbij, and the majority of Raqqa have all been retaken at the hands of the anti-ISIS coalition. Yet any ‘defeat’ of ISIS in the Levant will not spell the end of jihadist terrorism. Jihadism is a movement, untethered to any particular group. As Peter Neumann writes in Radicalized, ISIS is only one manifestation, “of a wider social, political and religious movement, a movement whose ideas and networks have spread and taken root in countries around the globe.” Without active and sustained engagement with the ideas, as well as the social and political conflicts that animate them, the Younes Abouyaaqoub’s of the world will continue to commit acts of barbarism in the name of jihad.
John Holland-McCowan is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow him @jhollandmccowan. Daniel Porter is a Research Intern at ICSR. Follow him @danjporter1.