Whatever civilian life was like for you before joining the Armed Forces, your military career is bound to have been life-altering. Like me, you might not have been the most organised or disciplined, or in the best physical shape, and joined with an attitude problem; we all quickly found out that a military existence is a whole new world compared to civilian life.read more
Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.
The vehicle-borne attack in Barcelona on Thursday the 17th August served to highlight the ongoing vulnerability of urban centres to this terrorist tactic. The Las Ramblas attack, which killed 13 and injured over 100, is only the latest in a string of vehicle-based attacks in Europe, and came only shortly after a far-right extremist carried out a similar attack in Charlottesville on Saturday August 12th, killing one.
As there is no easy way to effectively counter these kind of attacks, the likelihood is that they will become increasingly attractive to both terrorist groups looking to carry out low-risk, high-return attacks and to lone wolf terrorists, without easy access to other methods of attack.
Worrying elements of the Barcelona cell
The Barcelona cell was clearly preparing for more attacks. On the day after the Barcelona attack, a woman was killed in a second vehicle attack in the coastal town of Cambrils, just over an hour’s drive away from Barcelona. A safe house linked to the cell was also the site of an explosion on the day before the Las Ramblas attack.
In the aftermath of the blast, Spanish police have recovered over 120 gas bottles. It is believed that some of these gas containers leaked, which led to the explosion. The Spanish believe that the cell intended to use these gas containers, in conjunction with three vans, to create vehicle-borne improved explosive devices (VBIEDs) to carry out a much larger, far more devastating attack. However, the explosion on Wednesday night had caused the cell to alter their plans, leading to next day’s attack. The cell had likely surmised it would only be a matter of time before the explosion was linked to terrorism, and decided to act as soon as possible as a result.
Another notable factor is that the cell mostly comprised of much younger terrorists than we have previously seen ISIS using. Many of the cell were either teenagers or in their early 20s, and of mostly Moroccan background. They were considered “well-integrated” and had no history of violent extremism, though it is not clear whether they have been involved in other criminal activities, as has been the case with many ISIS recruits in Europe.
Radicalisation in Spain
The Barcelona attack is the first successful terrorist attack by jihadist terrorist groups in Spain since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Spain has a reputation for effective counter-terrorism operations, partially a legacy of its conflict with ETA, allowing it to routinely identify and disrupt planned attacks in the country.
Despite this, the Catalonia region of Spain has been long considered a potential hub for Islamist extremism. A US State Department memo from 2007 noted that Al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam had both recruited in Barcelona, and that immigrants from Pakistan and North Africa there “live on the edges of Spanish society”, suffer from high unemployment, do not speak the local language and have few opportunities to practice their religion easily. As such, this combination of factors “provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment”.
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