In the aftermath of the arrest in Barcelona of 10 alleged Islamist extremists earlier this month, it has been widely reported that the group was planning imminent suicide attacks on the public transportation system of the Catalonian capital and perhaps additional attacks elsewhere in Europe. The evidence released thus far, however, does not support this scenario and indeed the statements of Spanish authorities contradict one another on several key aspects of the case.
It was Spanish judge Ismael Moreno who, in ordering the detention of the 10 men last week, announced that a suicide attack had been imminent. The judge’s affirmation appears to have been based upon the testimony of a single unnamed informant, whose cooperation is said to have led to the police raids in which the men were arrested. (Four other men were arrested and subsequently released.) Police discovered what has been described as “bomb-making materials” during the raids. But in a press conference last Friday, Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba confirmed that they found no actual explosives apart from a “small bag” containing some thirty grams of nitrocellulose. In light of the small amount, Rubalcaba conceded that there “could be doubts” about the imminence of any prospective attack. Moreover, as several Spanish media have pointed out, the presence of timers among the materials seized seemed particularly odd in light of the judge’s allegation that the men were plotting a suicide operation. (Sources: Europa Press; El Mundo.)
There have also been inconsistencies among the statements of Spanish authorities concerning the number of men who were supposed to be directly involved in the attack. Whereas Judge Ismael Moreno named three persons as suspected suicide bombers, Attorney General Cándido Conde Pumpido has said that there were six prospective bombers. As the Spanish news agency Europa Press notes, it was only once this discrepancy emerged that Spanish judicial authorities then announced that three members of the alleged plot were supposedly still at large and had been planning a simultaneous attack in another European country.
This led in turn to an even more extravagant report the next day (Jan. 26) in the daily El País. Quoting at length from an apparently leaked transcript of the informant’s declarations, the paper now claimed that in addition to Barcelona, the allegedly Qaida-linked group was planning attacks in no less than four other European countries: Germany, France, Portugal and the United Kingdom. (Contrary to what is suggested in a particularly categorical and misleading AFP report, the informant — whose identity is being protected — did not, of course,speak directly with the paper.) Adding still more to the arithmetical confusion, the paper cited the informant to the effect that he himself was part of the team of six bombers. This would imply that the announcement of Spanish authorities the previous day had left one bomber too many on the loose.
Despite all the excitement surrounding the supposed revelations of the unnamed informant, one element was conspicuously missing from the account: namely, a motive for al-Qaida to want to attack the Catalonian capital.