On 16 August 2017, an explosion in Alcanar, Tarragona, foreshadowed the horror which was to unfold the following day: the attacks on Las Ramblas and Cambrils shook Barcelona to the core, and it was only in the aftermath that police pieced together the connections between the two events.
Emergency services were called to Alcanar, 200km south of Barcelona, at 11.27pm, after a blast tore through a house in the residential area of Montecarlo de Alcanar Platja. The house was reduced to rubble, and the explosion could be heard from miles around.
The bodies of two men were thrown by the blast: 22-year-old Youssef Aallaa and 44-year-old imam Abdelbaki Es Satty, later discovered to be ringleader of the terrorist cell and mastermind behind the monstrosities to occur the following day. Emergency services attended to another six injured . Little did they know they had stumbled upon a bomb laboratory; canisters of butane and propane and 200kg of explosive materials, suicide vests and grenades were later found at the scene.
The Alcanar headquarters had been occupied by the terrorists as squatters. Es Satty, described as a "bad influence" by Ibrahim Aallaa, father of two involved, groomed the men using 34 videos of jihadist propaganda. In the month of August, 148 calls were made to members of the cell by Es Satty alone.
The blast in Alcanar scuppered the terrorists' plans. Spanish newspaper El País reports that a more sophisticated attack had been planned for 20 August, with possible targets being Camp Nou and the Sagrada Familia Basilica. The prepared explosives were all destroyed in Alcanar, however, and so the cell resorted to a more rudimentary form of rampage. Recordings of telephone calls made by the group on 17 August reveal the change of plan.
At 4.50pm on 17 August, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub ploughed into unsuspecting victims as he zigzagged down Las Ramblas in a white van. Eight hours later, five from the cell accelerated an Audi A3 into pedestrians in the seaside town of Cambrils.
16 innocent civilians lost their lives to the brutality of Es Satty's cell, and more than 130 were injured. Were it not for the explosion in Alcanar, however, the death count could have been even worse.