- - Monday, August 21, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain — Police on Monday shot and killed the man believed to have driven the van that mowed down pedestrians along the famed Las Ramblas promenade here last week, bringing an end to a high-stakes dragnet that had put the nation on edge.

But even as Catalonians and Spaniards breathed a sigh of relief, some feared that an upcoming Catalonian independence referendum slated for Oct. 1 would worsen divisions between central government officials in Madrid and Catalan authorities who traditionally have resisted working together.

Some even blame those divisions for the failure to prevent Thursday’s van attack that killed 13 pedestrians on the promenade and injured more than 120 others.

“Everybody felt this was bound to happen,” said Aurelio Major, 54, a book editor who lives in Barcelona. “The terrorists here have taken advantage of the fact that local and national police don’t share information. The terrorists have driven a wedge inside the opening between the two sides.”

Those comments hung in the backdrop of a series of fast-paced developments Monday.

The Catalan police force, known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, issued a statement via Twitter saying they had shot and killed attack suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, in the village of Subirats, about 20 miles west of Barcelona.

The Moroccan immigrant is alleged to be the last at-large member of what authorities have described as a 12-man terrorist cell that planned the Las Ramblas attack and another vehicle assault that left one person dead and several wounded Friday in the coastal town of Cambrils.

Five of the alleged attackers were killed by police in a shootout in the aftermath of Friday’s incident.

Authorities said that Abouyaaqoub, who was on the run through the weekend, was wearing a fake belt of explosives when officers encountered him in the village of Subirats on Monday.

He reportedly yelled “Allah is great” when police confronted him. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Authorities said they have evidence that Abouyaaqoub was driving the van that plowed into pedestrians along Las Ramblas and that he had fatally stabbed the owner of a hijacked car during the hours following the van attack.

The Associated Press cited authorities as saying Abouyaaqoub had walked through Barcelona for about 90 minutes after the attack — through the famed La Boqueria market and nearly to Barcelona University — before hijacking the car and using it to make his getaway.

Friction among authorities

Monday’s developments came amid tensions that have flared between Spanish and Catalan authorities in the wake of last week’s attacks.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont established separate crisis groups to track down the terrorists. Madrid officials noted that their Catalan counterparts failed to install in Las Ramblas bollards designed to prevent a vehicle attack.

Mr. Puigdemont claimed he had been asking for more counterintelligence agents but that Mr. Rajoy had rejected his requests.

On Friday Mr. Puigdemont said the attack wouldn’t change his goal of holding the Oct. 1 referendum, despite Mr. Rajoy’s vow to stop the vote and Spanish courts declaring it illegal. In a low-turnout ballot, Catalan voters opted for secession in a 2014 nonbinding referendum.

“We shouldn’t mix topics,” Mr. Puigdemont said in a local news radio interview. “The priority now is responding to a terrorist and taking care of the victims, and mixing that with other stuff is literally mean-spirited.”

Soon after an initial round of recriminations, however, the central government and Catalan authorities merged their two crisis groups and appeared over the weekend to be on the same page in pursuing Abouyaaqoub.

On Sunday, Spanish King Felipe IV, Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Puigdemont stood together during a moment of silence that symbolized the country’s unity in mourning.

“Maybe more coordination could not have stopped this, but it shouldn’t be that you have to have deaths to get people to work together more,” said Jofre Montoto, an expert on Islamic radicalism in Spain.

University of Barcelona political scientist Rafa Martinez, however, was skeptical that the unity will continue.

“They are trying to give an image of unity,” said Mr. Martinez. “But I don’t think it’s there. That concerns me at the operational level in the future.”

Counterterrorism cohesion?

The Mossos d’Esquadra and national police have engaged in some degree of coordination for years.

Spain had not seen a terrorist attack since 2004, when bombs devastated commuter trains in Madrid, killing 192. Since then, some 700 suspected extremists have been arrested, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry.

But last week’s violence occurred even as authorities in Madrid and Barcelona have had Catalonia on their radar as a potential terrorist target for years.

In 2007, three years after the attack in Madrid, WikiLeaks released a U.S. Embassy cable that showed a high level of concern.

“Spanish and US authorities have identified Catalonia as a major Mediterranean center of radical Islamist activity,” the cable said.

Last year, the Spanish government’s annual report on national security noted that Catalonia is “the area where the process of radicalization is faster and whose Islamic community is more radical and with more ties to other extremists in Europe.”

More recently, photos published by the Islamic State included the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic cathedral, among other high-profile targets. The cathedral is one of a host of sites like Las Ramblas that tourists flock to during the summer months.

At a press conference Monday, Mr. Puigdemont said the Mossos d’Esquadra’s successful pursuit of Abouyaaqoub showed how the organization should be a full-fledged member of Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, independent of Spain.

“For us it was clear long before this sad episode that Catalan police had earned by their own merits the right to be part of both national and international security bodies where sensitive critical information is managed for those in charge of citizens’ safety [to] do their jobs with efficacy,” the Catalan president said.

Mr. Rajoy has rejected that demand, saying the Spanish government represents the country in EU affairs, though the prime minister allowed the Mossos d’Esquadra to have access to Europol data in September.

In the meantime, the Catalan police say they will continue doing their job.

“The 12 initial targets regarding the attacks are dead or detained but that does not mean that the investigation is over,” the force tweeted. “We keep working.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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