The ISIS cell that launched coordinated attacks last week in Barcelona and the seaside town of Cambrils had something much bigger in mind than ramming vehicles into crowds of tourists. The latest reports indicate a group of 12 men had originally planned a series of coordinated explosions, including driving a van packed with explosives into the unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica. But when materials for the explosives accidentally detonated in a house on Wednesday night, the attackers, fearing their cell would be discovered, fell back on driving their vehicles into crowds.
Although observers in the West have celebrated ISIS’ territorial losses in Iraq and Syria as proof it is on the run, the attacks in Spain demonstrate the group’s adaptability and prove it is far from defeated.
What Happened in Barcelona Last Week
On Thursday, a man driving a van ploughed into a crowd of people in a popular tourist area of downtown Barcelona, killing 14 people and injuring more than 100. Hours later, the seaside town of Cambrils was hit with a second attack, leaving one dead and six wounded. The attackers’ vehicle, an Audi A3, overturned and five men emerged wielding knives and wearing fake suicide belts. The men were shot and killed by police. Several more men have been arrested and although police believe they’ve destroyed the terror cell, they are still looking for one of the men, Younes Abouyaaqoub, thought to be the driver.
The two attacks were straight from the ISIS handbook, literally. More than a year ago, the Islamic State issued a guide to would-be terrorists on how to implement a terror attack on a low budget and with minimal planning. One of those plans was to drive a vehicle, preferably a van, into a large crowd of people. The best place to find large crowds is a tourist hub. It also garners the most international attention, which is, of course part of their plan to maximize fear.
This tactic was used most devastatingly in the Bastille Day attacks in Nice last summer, which left 86 dead. Jihadists also used it to plow into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin in December and in two separate attacks in England this year.
Taking ISIS Terroritory Is a Temporary Setback
But unlike those attacks, which appear to have been carried out by individuals acting alone, the Spain attacks seem to be the work of an active terrorist cell. Most of the men involved were born in Morocco and lived in the town of Ripoll near the French border. The former imam from Ripoll is suspected of being involved in their radicalization.
With these attacks, the Islamic State has shown that it’s still very capable of inflicting enormous damage in Europe and, more importantly, that it does not require vast territorial holdings to inspire young Muslim men to do violence in the name of Islam.
What’s more, believers in fundamentalist Islam, who think that Islam is at war with the West—or with anyone outside the dar al-Islam—take a much longer view of history than we’re accustomed to. So ISIS lost most of its territorial holdings. That’s just one phase in a generations-long struggle. The war is far from over and plenty of Muslims, including those returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq as well as those who never had the opportunity to go, still want to fight the good fight against the infidels in Europe and beyond.
Spain Is a Recent Destination for Syrian Refugees
While it’s not surprising that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, it is surprising that this is the first Islamic State attack to occur in Spain since the group rose to international infamy in 2014. In fact, the last time Spain was the target of an Islamist-related terror attack was in 2004, when four coordinated bombings killed 191 people on trains in Madrid. That was the worst terror attack in Europe since the end of World War II. Since then, the country has been left untouched, until this week.
Other European countries have seen regular occurrences of small-scale ISIS-related terror attacks, like knifings or beheadings, even if those attacks ultimately do little damage. But not Spain, despite having an active Islamist community in Barcelona.
What’s equally notable is that, up until the last few months, Spain has not been hit as hard as other European countries by the migrant crisis. The number of migrants arriving in the country has been very low given the proximity between Spain and North Africa, as well as the historical connection between Spain and the Muslim world. Now, as Italy works to bring migration from Libya to a halt, migrants are seeking alternative routes and Spain is an obvious choice. According to the United Nations refugee agency, Spain lacks the resources to adequately handle the sudden influx of migrants and refugees.
Although Spain is probably not the final destination for migrants given the country’s chronic economic problems, it does represent a new target for ISIS. If the Spanish were ever going to welcome Muslim immigrants, attacks like these are likely to sour them on the topic.
Europe Will React, Also
It’s also likely to continue scaring European nations into restricting their borders as countries like Hungary and even France have already done in certain places. Abouyaaqoub, the remaining suspect in the Barcelona attack, is thought to have possibly slipped across the Spanish border into France. How long before border closures become permanent fixtures of the European landscape?
And what, exactly, will the European Union do about it? One can easily imagine the EU overstepping its bounds and attempting to sanction its core member states over migration and borders even as it largely ignored the broader problems the migrant crisis presented. Such a move would lead to a further rise in anti-EU sentiments and member states voting to leave the union if their citizens think their safety hangs in the balance.
Regardless, this attack is a reminder that ISIS and the religious ideology that motivates its followers will not simply vanish once the Islamic State is driven from its remaining strongholds in Syria and Iraq.