The Islamic State struck again on Aug. 17, when a van ran over people in downtown Barcelona, killing at least 13 and leaving over a hundred injured. Then in the early hours of Aug. 18, police killed five suspected terrorists after they plowed into people in the city of Cambrils, killing one person. Investigations are underway after the two terrorist attacks in Spain's Catalonia region. Security forces have arrested four suspects, and they are trying to determine whether the driver of the Barcelona van was among them.
The attackers' original intention was probably to conduct a large truck bombing in Barcelona. In fact, a safe-house in Alcanar (about 203 kilometers or 126 miles south of Barcelona) exploded on Aug. 16 while at least two people were making the explosives for vehicle bombs. The vehicular assaults were deadly, but the bomb attack could have potentially been far more damaging. This was also the largest cell of Islamic State operatives in Europe since the attacks in Paris and Brussels in late 2015 and early 2016. Given the resources they expended in this plot, it seems likely the attackers received financial support from the Islamic State.
The attacks took place during the peak of Spain's summer season and in one of the most important tourism destinations in the world. The location of the Barcelona attack, the popular Rambla pedestrian street, suggests that the attackers sought a high number of causalities. People from more than 30 nationalities were killed or injured in the attack. German, Belgian, Italian and Portuguese nationals were reported among the dead, along with a few Spanish nationals.
According to the Spanish media, security forces arrested four men of Moroccan descent, all of whom resided in Catalonia. Spain has not seen the same levels of anti-immigration sentiment that has developed in other European nations. However, Spain has seen an increase in the arrival of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries in recent weeks. According to the United Nations, almost 10,000 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea since the start of the year, three times as many as the previous year. Should the trend continue, Spain may push for better controls on the European Union's external borders and join the likes of Italy and Greece in demanding a redesign of the EU's migration rules, according to which asylum seekers should make their applications in the country of first entry to the bloc.
The terrorist attacks occured against the backdrop of a complex political situation in Spain. The Catalan government plans to hold an independence referendum on Oct. 1, a proposal that the central government in Madrid rejects. The Spanish government considers the referendum illegal and has said it will not let it happen. On Aug. 18, Catalan regional President Carles Puidgemont warned against using the terrorist attacks for political gain and declared that recent events will not affect the "independence road map." While the central and regional governments will probably tone down their heated rhetoric for a few days out of respect for the victims, bilateral frictions will probably return soon after.