Spanish Civil Guards escort one of four men accused of involvement in an Islamist cell behind a van attack in Barcelona last week, in Tres Cantos, Spain, on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
Spanish Civil Guards escort one of four men accused of involvement in an Islamist cell behind a van attack in Barcelona last week, in Tres Cantos, Spain, on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

Madrid — An alleged member of an Islamist group that carried out the Barcelona van attack told a Spanish court on Tuesday that the group had been planning a much bigger strike using explosives, a judicial source said.

The testimony to a closed hearing at Spain’s High Court came from Mohamed Houli Chemlal, one of four detained suspects brought to Madrid to testify for the first time in court about the plot.

Chemlal was arrested after being hurt in a blast at a house in Alcanar, southwest of Barcelona, a day before Thursday’s van attack on the crowded Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona which killed 13 people.

Tuesday’s court hearing was the first in a long legal process, and it could be months or even years before the case is brought to a full trial.

Spanish police shot dead Barcelona terrorist suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub on Monday in a dramatic end to the manhunt for the Moroccan national, who shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) when he was killed.

The Moroccan was the last fugitive member of the 12-man cell suspected of plotting last week’s attacks.

Besides the four men detained, the rest were killed, either by police or in an explosion believed to have been accidentally detonated by the suspects themselves in their bomb factory at the seaside town of Alcanar.

Among those killed in the explosion was a Moroccan imam at the heart of the cell, Abdelbaki Es Satty, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero confirmed.

While Spanish police say the cell has been dismantled, investigators are trying to determine if it had logistical or other forms of support from other individuals.

Questions are also arising about the group’s possible international connections.

In Belgium, the mayor of the Vilvorde region said Satty spent time in the Brussels suburb of Machelen — next to the city’s airport — between January and March 2016.

On the other side of Brussels, the Molenbeek suburb has gained notoriety as a hotbed of international jihadists after the Brussels bombings in March 2016 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.

And in France, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told BFMTV that the Audi A3 used to mow down people in Cambrils had been detected by speed cameras in the Paris region while making "a very rapid return trip" days before the Barcelona attack.

Collomb is due to host his Spanish counterpart Juan Ignacio Zoido on Wednesday for talks due to include anti-terrorism cooperation.

At least one of the suspects also spent a night in Zurich last December, said Swiss police, adding that it was too early to speculate about any connections with Switzerland.

The four suspects in court on Tuesday included Driss Oukabir, the older brother of Moussa who was killed by police in Cambrils on Friday morning along with four other suspects.

Mohamed Aallaa, Chemlal and Salh El Karib were also in court.

Veteran magistrate Fernando Andreu is due to determine which charges to file against the four men and what role they may have played in the terror plot.

AFP, Reuters

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