Barcelona: Complex Attack Significantly More Dangerous if ISIS-Inspired

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Spanish authorities said Friday the deadly attacks in Barcelona and a seaside town are linked and long-planned by a terrorist cell. While several people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, the driver who plowed through pedestrians on Las Ramblas is still at large and police are searching for other suspects. ISIS claimed responsibility for the Barcelona attack, which killed 13 people and injured over 100.

Early Friday morning, police killed five suspects in the town of Cambrils after another car attack left one person dead and several others injured. Authorities said the attacks were connected, and also linked with an explosion on Wednesday that left one dead. Police believe the explosion in the terror cell’s house in Alcanar, Spain was accidental and destroyed material the perpetrators had expected to use in their attacks.

The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke with General Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA to get his thoughts on what happened in Spain, the threat situation in the country, and what this says about ISIS’ evolution.

The Cipher Brief: We’ve heard a lot in recent days about both the high level of quality in the Spanish counterterrorism force as well as the high level of threat that Spain faces given its geography and history. Spanish CT forces have foiled a number of plots in recent years. Is this a case of “the bad guys only have to be right once”?  

General Michael Hayden: It is, which is not to say you shouldn’t go to school on this and up your game, and so on, but everybody who’s been in this business and I’ve been watching and reading your posts – Bruce Hoffman, John McLaughlin, Jim Clapper – have all commented on the quality of the Spanish services and that’s been my life experience as well. They’re very good; they’ve got a lot of legal running room that the government has given them, especially after the 2004 attack. They’re very serious about this. And yet, you still have this attack take place.

So why is Spain on the front line? Number 1, geography. No surprise most of these young men were Moroccans – separated from Spain by a few miles. Number 2, you’ve got the whole history of the old Islamic Caliphate in al-Andalus.

But Spain hasn’t been on the front lines in the fight against ISIS; it’s contributed – but it’s not like the French or the British or certainly the Americans. And yet – the Spanish are still targeted.

TCB: A gas explosion on Wednesday was reportedly the result of an accident with materials the terrorists planned to use on Las Ramblas. Authorities have also tied the attack to the shooting in Cambrils Friday morning. What do you make of how coordinated this attack seems to have been?

Hayden: It makes me more worried. This is not what might have been spur of the moment in Berlin, or spur of the moment in Nice, or one or two individuals and not a long planning cycle.

This appears to be a pretty extensive cell and a fairly complex attack, elements of which failed, which seems to have been building with a fairly large number of people for a fairly long period of time.

Again, despite everything I’ve said about the quality of the Spanish services, it will cause them an awful lot of introspection since it wasn’t this short-fuse, lone individual acting.

TCB: Would you say this is a result of pressure on the Caliphate? Is this part of the long-predicted turn to spectacular coordinated attacks in Europe now that they are losing territory? If so, what should be done differently, if anything?

Hayden: We always predicted this is what the Caliphate would have to do once it lost its physical space. It remains active in virtual space, it inspires others.

A really good question is: as complex as this attack was, as long term as the planning seems to have been, were there any connections back to the Caliphate, to Syria? That’s something the Spanish authorities are really going to want to investigate.

It would be really interesting – or rather, scary – if this was a self-motivated, self-initiated, inspired attack. Long term, complex and multi-actor. We’ve not seen much of that before.

TCB: You brought up Morocco. On Friday, there was an incident in Finland. I believe they opened their first ever terrorism investigation into a stabbing attack. The one suspect they’ve arrested is of Moroccan origin and I believe the others they’ve arrested are also of Moroccan origin. Can you speak to the connections between Morocco and extremism as well as any CT efforts in the country?

Hayden: You’ve got several dynamics here. One is that a lot of Moroccans participated in ISIS. Per capita, it may be behind only Tunisia. You’ve got a lot of disaffected folks there in Morocco. But the Moroccans also have good security services. Frankly, King Mohamed being a direct descendant of the Prophet himself, might force some – some – Moroccan terrorists to think they need to go abroad to work their evil rather than do it at home. Just speculation.

TCB: What’s missing in the reporting on this incident?

Hayden: As sad and tragic as this was, I think there’s been calm thinking about what this means and what it teaches us about the future. I hate being the one who says this but it might teach us something about the limits of our ability to prevent things like this.

But I come back to one fulcrum point: assuming this attack fits the model of the lone-wolf, inspired attack, it is much more complex with more actors, so one really wants to learn more about them.

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