Terror Strikes a European City Again as 13 Killed in Barcelona

  • Catalan regional government says 100 people were also injured
  • Police operation remains ongoing after van plows into people

Why Barcelona May Have Been Targeted for Terror Attack

Barcelona became the latest European city to be struck by a terrorist ramming into pedestrians, as at least 13 people were killed and 100 more injured in one of the continent’s busiest tourist spots.

Hours after the attack, Spanish police were still hunting the assailant who drove a white van down a section of the iconic Las Ramblas avenue just before 5 p.m. local time on Thursday. Witnesses said it hit a speed of about 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, throwing people into the air. Two suspects were arrested, though officials said the driver wasn’t among them. Islamic State claimed the carnage, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

People leave a cordoned off area on Las Ramblas in Barcelona on Aug. 17.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

The atrocity raises questions again about how authorities can protect citizens from crude attacks that can be planned under their radar. Britain responded to similar incidents in London this year by erecting concrete and metal barriers to shield pedestrians at key sites of the city. Spain has long been used to bombing campaigns by Basque and Islamist terrorists, but the rampage was the first of its kind on Spanish soil.

"Unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, there’s not a lot authorities can do to prevent this type of attack, which is quite easy for someone to plan and to execute," said Federico Santi, an analyst at political risk firm Eurasia Group. "It requires a huge amount of resources to actually monitor the very large number of people who are at risk."

Images of blooded victims lying on the sidewalk have become all too familiar in Europe of late. Terrorists in London drove into passersby on bridges in two deadly incidents this year. There was also an attack using a commercial vehicle in Stockholm. Last year, trucks plowed through crowds in Berlin and Nice. Barcelona may have been targeted simply because it’s a major tourist destination for Europeans as a whole, said Santi.

The van zigzagged into people, a witness told state broadcaster TVE. Las Ramblas, a busy avenue with bars and street artists at the heart of Barcelona’s tourist circuit, was strewn with bodies and debris as people ran to help the wounded.

“The car came toward me, people were flying in the air -- there were bodies everywhere,” Shari Weise, a 54-year-old visitor to Barcelona from California, said by telephone. “The man next to me got hit and I jumped behind a pole and pulled a 15 year-old boy behind the pole with me.”

Police raised the possibility that an explosion at a home earlier on Thursday that killed one person and brought down a building may be connected to the attack.

Islamist Threat

Islamic State has threatened more attacks in Europe as its militants lost territory in Syria and Iraq. While some of the previous terrorists had training, others have just been inspired by the extremists with little or no formal contact. 

When the group claimed responsibility for the more than 80 deaths in Nice, it said the assailant in a truck loaded with arms was responding to its call to target countries fighting its militants in the Middle East.

Read More: How Terrorism Experts Expected Vehicles Used as Weapons

Preventing attackers using vehicles as weapons is now the latest challenge for security services in Spain, even though the country isn’t a leading member of coalition strikes on Islamic State strongholds.

The nation has been a target of Islamist terrorism before. About 200 people were killed by bombs on early morning commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. Though like in most capitals until recently, tourist thoroughfares typically don’t have the barriers used to protect institutions.

United Front

The task is potentially further complicated in Spain by its devolved administrations. Power over home affairs and police lie with some regional governments, including Catalonia. While attacks in other cities have fueled anti-immigrant nationalist parties, Spain has no such mainstream group. Any political fallout is more likely to focus on the rifts between the administrations in Madrid and Barcelona. 

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy traveled to Barcelona with his deputy and interior minister. Catalan National Assembly, a separatist group, meanwhile halted planned campaigning ahead of an independence referendum planned for October. Rajoy has called the vote illegal.

"I want to express the solidarity of Spain with the city of Barcelona, which today has been hit by the jihadist terrorism as before were hit other cities around the world,” Rajoy said in a televised address from the city.

On the economic side, Spain is the world’s biggest tourist destination after France and the U.S. and the Catalan city of Barcelona is among its star attractions. Spain received more than 75 million foreign visitors last year and tourism is a key provider of jobs.

“London, Brussels, Paris, and other European cities have suffered this experience," Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, told reporters. "And today it has happened to Barcelona.”

— With assistance by Chris Kingdon, Nour Al Ali, Rodrigo Orihuela, and Macarena Munoz Montijano

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