Analysis

Barcelona Attack: Quick, Effective Response Shows Spain Has Learned From Experience

But ramming attack that kills 13 in Barcelona also shows that as long as motivation exists, it will be very difficult to prevent further atrocities

A woman gestures as she is escorted out by Spanish policemen after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 80 on the Rambla, Barcelona, August 17, 2017.
PAU BARRENA/AFP

Europe has adapted. The fast response of Spanish police forces to the ramming attack on Las Ramblas Thursday in the heart of Barcelona, the swift isolation of the area, apprehension of suspects, evacuation of casualties and prevention of further killings are all testimony to the way security agencies in the large cities on the continent have learned the lessons of the last few years. A similar response was evident two and a half months ago in London, in the Borough Market ramming and stabbing attack, when police were on the scene within minutes, quickly shutting off the area and killing the three attackers.

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Deploying more police officers on the streets and having rapid-response teams on call around the clock need large budgets, extensive training and a tactical posture on a radically different level than in the past. Unfortunately, with the attack taking place in Barcelona at the height of the tourism season, the death toll is high. The attack also reflects the realization that as long as the motivation exists, it will be very difficult to prevent further attacks.

Like their colleagues in Europe, Spanish security and intelligence services have had to change their counter-terrorism strategy over and again in the last decade and a half. In March 2004, 192 people were murdered in a series of explosions on four commuter trains in Madrid. The complex attack, using 13 explosive devices, was carried out by a Moroccan Islamist offshoot of Al-Qaida. It forced the Spanish security apparatus, which until then had been focused on the local terror threat of the Basque separatist ETA group, to shift gears. The worst terror attack in Europe this century lead to the beefing-up of Spanish security but not a major change in the immigration policies. Morocco continues to be the main source of immigration, with the two governments cooperating on blocking migrants from other African countries from crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Over the last decade, some half a million Moroccan citizens seeking work settled in Spain and many others passed through on the way to other countries of the European Union.

Decline of ETA threat shifted focus to Islamist terror

The involvement of Moroccan citizens in the Madrid trains attack shifted focus to the Islamist terror networks, at a time when ETA was negotiating a cease-fire, which began in 2010 and led to a final disarmament a few months ago. Spain was much better prepared than other Western European countries for the latest wave of terror. While young men who had already been noticed by the security services carried out attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, hundreds were already under arrest in Spain. The experience gained fighting separatist terror, resources freed up by the cease-fire, existing legislation allowing the arrest of potential suspects, cooperation between the different security forces and with Morocco all helped to prevent attacks. Spain and Morocco together have been working for years to track young men who traveled to the Middle East to fight with ISIS and returned home. But senior police officials warned in recent months that it was only a matter of time.

Spanish intelligence tracked and disrupted ISIS and Al-Qaida networks and cells with relative effectiveness. But the shift in terror tactics, from organization to motivation, with young men who have undergone radicalization close to home making use of available weapons – vehicles, knives, cheap and makeshift firearms – put Spain once again within the target zone and transformed the Ramblas on Thursday into a killing field.