Sleepy Spanish Town, Home to Bareclona Terrorists, Grapples With Aftermath

'We had no reason to suspect that under our noses those young men were setting up a terrorist cell,' one Ripoll resident said

Ripoll, Spain on August 18, 2017.
PAU BARRENA/AFP

RIPOLL, Spain – Three days after the terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, residents of Ripoll are having trouble understanding how their small, quiet town of just 10,000 residents managed to produce the deadliest terrorist cell in Spain since the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

In normal times, tourists from all over the world come to Ripoll, located in the Pyrenees, to hike the mountain trails. But anyone trying to reach the town on Sunday faced huge traffic jams due to the police checkpoints along the way. Every car was stopped for inspection and the driver was interrogated about his destination.

Police still haven’t caught Younes Abouyaaquoub, 22, the Moroccan-born resident of Ripoll who killed 13 people last Thursday in a car-ramming attack in Barcelona. On Sunday, Ripoll was empty of both residents and tourists but the police and journalists were everywhere.

A sign in Arabic hung above a greengrocer’s near the entrance to the city. Sitting on the sidewalk in front of it was Abou Riad, a Morocco native who has earned his living selling vegetables ever since arriving in Ripoll.

“We Spaniards, and even the families of these young men, have suffered a severe blow,” he said. “Today, the story is over. We feel that we’re in a tragedy. We have a quiet life here. We don’t support this. We’re against any hint of violence.”

Thirty meters from his store is the mosque that serves Ripoll’s small Muslim community, most of whose members hail from Morocco. A notice on behalf of the local community denouncing the attack and any form of violence hangs on the door, signed by mosque officials.

Since the attack, there have been three or four people in the mosque at any given hour.

“We’re here to defend our religion, we’re here to defend the mosque, to tell everyone that what happened isn’t our way, it’s not Islam’s way,” said Ali Yassine. “This fell on us and on Spaniards like a rock on the head."

“In the community, even though it’s small, we had no reason to suspect that here, under our noses, those young men were setting up a terrorist cell,” he added. “They never whispered suspiciously.”

Several journalists entered the mosque and Yassine showed them a large board noting how many times each member had prayed at the mosque. Pointing to Abouyaaquoub’s name, he cried, “Zero! Zero times! He was here maybe twice, but he never prayed with us. And his friends were also here maybe once or twice. We barely know them. We have contact with their families, but they also left after the attack.”

Ripoll residents know very little about Abouyaaquoub and his friends. Some said he seemed like a normal, quiet man who did odd jobs for the municipality. Local Muslims said they hadn’t known that Abouyaaquoub once did prison time for minor property crimes.

“Had I known he’d been in jail, I wouldn’t have let him into the mosque,” said Yassine, who is president of the local Muslim community. “I learned this from the media. I didn’t know about it, and it’s too bad I didn’t.”

But Yassine is well acquainted with the mosque’s imam, who has been missing since the attack and is wanted for questioning by the police on suspicion that his sermons incited the terrorists. “I’ve known the imam for a little over a year. He’s a normal man who never uttered a word of incitement in any of his prayers. At no point did we suspect he was talking or praying in a way that would make one think he favored terror.”

A few people gathered outside the mosque. One holds a position in the community but declined to give his name. Given his youth and his beard, he said, any unnecessary exposure could cause people to ask questions these days.

“I don’t understand where a person gets the desire and the courage to take a car or a bomb and kill people just because he feels they have hurt him,” he said. “There are courts, there is the police and if someone thinks he’s been hurt, he should go to the authorities. These people weren’t hurt by anything; they just sought to wound and kill innocent people. We’re ashamed of this, but we don’t feel we had a part in it.”

On Sunday afternoon, even after the police and the journalists left, one could hear the occasional helicopter searching for traces of the suspects in neighboring towns.

A woman who lives near the central plaza urged journalists, “Photograph our town; it’s beautiful, quiet and interesting. Say good things about it. Bring the tourists back to us.”