Terror on Las Ramblas
On August 17, a van plowed into a crowd of people that were walking along Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas avenue. Twelve people have been killed and at least 80 people have been wounded.
Eyewitness reports indicate that this was not an accident and one eyewitness said that by looking at the way the driver was going, “it was clear that the van was trying to hit as many people as possible”. Two men have been arrested, the driver Younes Abouyaaqoub is still at large, several other men who have been linked to the incident were killed in a shoot-out with police in the nearby town of Cambrilis, and ISIS has claimed responsibility for the incident.
Given this information, it is unsurprising as the methodology by which this attack was carried out was similar to the recent ISIS attacks in London on Westminster Bridge, at the market in Berlin and on the Promenade in Nice on Bastille Day.
In all of these events, a person indiscriminately drove a van into a crowd of people in a public space. In addition, while many of these prior incidents were followed by the driver getting out of the car and attacking passerby with knives or other weapons, this was not the case in Barcelona.
Here, the pattern was that the van started driving from Plaza de la Cataluña along Las Ramblas, a pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants that is quite popular among tourists. Although many pedestrians screamed at others to get out of the way of the speeding truck, it is clear that they were not successful.
It is alarming to notice that this attack occurred in Spain as opposed to France, Germany or the UK. Indeed, after Al-Qaeda carried out the Atocha Station bombing in March 11th, 2004, Spain has been relatively quiet since then, owing to the signing of a ceasefire with ETA, the Basque separatist movement, in 2012 and its disarmament in 2017.
The fact that this attack has occurred in a part of Europe that previously has been less affected by ISIS terrorist activity is a concerning one. Firstly, it suggests that the reach of ISIS’s radicalization efforts within Europe is far more expansive than people have realized until now.
This is underscored by the fact that ISIS propaganda, while mentioning Germany and France quite frequently, has sidelined Spain as well as other European countries. This is surprising, given the history of Spain vis a vis the Muslim world both during and after the Reconquista. There is also the fact that Spain’s patron saint is known as “Santiago the Moor Slayer.”
Concurrently, observers have pointed out that Spain, while not being mentioned in ISIS propaganda, it has been used as a locus of convergence for fighters that go on to fight in the ongoing civil war in Syria and for those who have returned from the war. In addition, the Spanish police have arrested several people who were living in Spain that have been linked to past attacks in France. This is also unsurprising because Spain has open borders as a member of the Schengen Agreement.
Clearly, Spain needs to continue to address its foreign fighter problem as the fact that it is being used as a gathering place for both returning and departing foreign fighters is very concerning and a security threat.
At the same time, the fact that Spain is a part of the Schengen Agreement and has open borders with France means that it is likely that the returning foreign fighters could use Spain as a base in order to travel into France and Germany and continue carrying out terrorist attacks there.
Such an event will undoubtedly strengthen the position of the far-right in Spain, as well as in the rest of Europe. For instance, Germany, which is seeing the rise of a far-right party that is critical of Angela Merkel’s decision to let in Syrian refugees, will hold its general elections on September 24th. It will also strengthen support behind President Trump’s proposal to limit immigration into the United States as well as for the renewal of the travel ban.
It has also underscored the potential for the abuse of the Schengen Agreement. While open borders between countries have labor, trade and economic benefits, they also have the potential to be abused by terrorists who have entered Europe as “refugees” from Syria.
Once they are in Europe, they can go essentially anywhere they want and it is very hard to keep track of where they are or what they are doing there.