BARCELONA, Spain — Two weeks after a string of Islamist terrorist attacks killed 16 people in Barcelona and shook the confidence of a nation, investigators say the plot has revealed glaring deficiencies in the European Union’s counterterrorismcapabilities and a growing danger that the Catalan region of northeastern Spain could become a hub of Islamic radicalism.
In the wake of the first major terrorist attack in this country in a dozen years, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called for an “intelligence summit” of European security chiefs in Madrid to decide on ways of tightening intelligence cooperation.
“We need to establish more stable mechanisms to exchange information and adapt our intelligence agencies to the growing threat,” he said at a summit of European and African leaders late last month.
But while authorities try to piece together the sequence of events that led to the attack, a public display of shifting blame has marred the investigation, many Spaniards say.
Disturbing and often embarrassing details have emerged on how the Muslim cleric who directed the attacks, Abdelbaki Es Satty, eluded the attention of authorities despite having a prison record for drug trafficking and being associated with radical groups throughout Europe.
Although police in Spain and Belgium had investigated him at various times, they had no surveillance on Es Satty in the run-up to the Barcelona attack.
Police said he brazenly recruited the young Moroccan immigrants from his mosque in the Catalonian town of Ripoll who carried out the attacks and gathered explosives in a villa that he and other members of his cell occupied as squatters.
The attackers killed and wounded over 100 people by plowing vans into street crowds, but suspected plotters now in Spanish custody say Es Satty planned devastating follow-up bombings using gas canisters filled with improvised explosives against tourist sites, including Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia basilica designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.
In one “Keystone Kops” episode, Spanish police say, they tried bugging Es Satty’s telephone some years ago but targeted one of the imam’s two phones that he usually switched off, so the surveillance was discontinued.
In addition, Belgian police failed to inform Spain about Es Satty’s radical contacts in the Islamic enclaves in Brussels, a past source of Islamic State terrorist plotting and recruiting, and members of his cell frequently traveled to Paris to pick up money and bomb components without raising any alert from French authorities, according to officials of Spain’s national gendarmerie.
Just how much contact the Spanish plotters had with central Islamic State figures is also an open question.
“It wasn’t an attack planned by the central command of [ISIS],” Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido recently said, using another name for the Islamic State group in an interview with the ABC newspaper. “But it has been guided from overseas.”
In his speech to European leaders, Mr. Rajoy also spoke of the need to upgrade police fieldwork and criticized the overreliance on electronic methods over trying to infiltrate plots with human assets.
“We have concentrated too much on the role of internet as a radicalizing instrument, which failed us in the case of the Barcelona attacks,” he said.
Piecing together how the plot came together in an unexpected corner of Europe, investigators say Es Satty radicalized recruits through informal preachings at underground mosques that were often in private apartments, the backs of small shops and even garages.
The Moroccan-born imam apparently instructed cell recruits to wear Western clothing, shave their beards and avoid any behavior that could call attention from authorities — following the playbook as written in a “Clandestinity in Jihad” Islamic State manual found at the home of a close associate. Es Satty never wore a beard.
The situation in Barcelona is further complicated by a regional Catalan separatist movement that is gaining control over local institutions including the police, adding yet another layer to Europe’s unwieldy intelligence bureaucracies.
At a press conference, Catalan Police Chief Luis Trapero blamed Spain’s national police for failing to inform his unit about Es Satty. A security official of the Catalan regional administration later said Catalan police had received inquiries about Es Satty from Belgium and neglected to pass the tip to the national level.
Controversy is simmering over what authorities knew ahead of the deadly rampage. Several Spanish news outlets reported that the CIA in May passed along a warning about a terrorist strike and mentioned in particular Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the boulevard where the van struck.
Maj. Josep Lluis Trapero, regional senior officer, and Catalan police said there were more vague warnings — not from the CIA or other U.S. intelligence sources — but that local and national Spanish authorities did not put credence in them.
Maj. Trapero denied receiving a more specific tip about an attack on Barcelona from international sources. “Any such alert would have gone to the national police or gendarmerie, who did not inform us,” he told reporters last week.
The U.S. Embassy in Madrid told The Associated Press that it would not comment on sensitive intelligence matters.
The Barcelona region has the highest concentration of Muslims in Spain. An estimated 25 percent of all Spain’s Muslims, about 250,000 people of whom half are immigrants, live in Barcelona and its vicinity. “This, coupled with dysfunctional local law enforcement, allowed Es Satty’s cell to thrive,” said Ramon Peralta, a professor of international law specializing in terrorism.
“In Catalonia, we have the phenomenon of a confluence of Islamist, separatist and extreme-left radicals with the common aim of attacking and weakening Spain and its security services,” he said.
Residents of a seaside resort where Es Satty’s bomb factory accidentally exploded the day after the Aug. 17 attacks told the Spanish press that they repeatedly reported strange activity around the imam’s villa to the local municipal government. The local government, controlled by a party called Catalan Left, neglected to investigate, they said.
Catalan Left supports an independence vote scheduled for this month, and its supporters heckled King Felipe VI when he joined a march against terrorism in Barcelona last week. Separatist parties controlling the Catalan regional assembly have presented legislation to expel Spain’s security services.
Mr. Rajoy has come under growing pressure from his security chiefs to invoke constitutional provisions for militarizing law enforcement functions in Catalonia, according to a general of Spain’s national gendarmerie who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Other members of the Rajoy Cabinet fear such moves could worsen unrest.
Spain’s southern Andalusia also could be vulnerable to Islamic extremism. A recently released Islamic State video shows Imam Mohammed Yasin from Cordoba, site of important Muslim shrines, threatening a jihadi campaign in the region.
“Al Andalus will return to the land of caliphate,” said Mr. Yassin, recalling the long Islamic reign on the peninsula until Christian forces ousted Muslims in the late 15th century.
Mr. Peralta and other analysts say threats of Islamic violence are leading to growing Islamophobia among Spain’s general population, given the long historical shadow cast by the struggle against the “Moors.” Cases of attacks, insults and defacements of Muslims and Islamic shrines have gone from a reported 49 in 2014 to 535 last year.
A terrorist offensive in southern Spain could target the significant U.S. military presence, including a naval base along the Strait of Gibraltar and an air base near Seville, where KC-135 midair refueling tankers and thousands of American service members are stationed.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.