Spain: The Barcelona Attack Was Preventable

Spain: Barcelona Attack Was Preventable


  • The measures to place bollards or planters in public areas were never implemented in Barcelona because the leaders of the Catalan independence movement did not want to be seen as taking orders from the central government in Madrid.
  • Far more difficult to explain is why no one reported suspicious activity at the chalet.
  • Although some Catalans are having second thoughts about the wisdom of promoting Muslim mass immigration as a strategy to achieve Catalan independence, at least 10,000 Catalans with links to the separatist movement have actually converted to Islam in recent years.

As details emerge of the August 17 jihadist attack in Barcelona, the evidence points to one overarching conclusion: the carnage could have been prevented if a series of red flags had not been either missed or ignored.

The failure to heed intelligence warnings, enhance physical security and report suspicious activity are all factors that facilitated the attack, which had been in the planning stage for more than six months.

The attack was also enabled by the idiosyncrasies of Spanish politics, especially the tensions that exist between the central government and the leaders of the independence movement in Catalonia, the autonomous region of which Barcelona is the capital.

Failure to Install Bollards on Las Ramblas

The Barcelona attack could have been prevented had municipal officials complied with an order to install bollards, vertical poles designed to prevent car ramming attacks, on the Rambla, the city’s main tourist thoroughfare.

On December 20, 2016, one day after a Tunisian jihadist drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56, Spanish National Police issued a circular ordering all central, regional and municipal police departments in Spain to “implement physical security measures to protect public spaces” to prevent jihadist attacks “in places with high numbers of people.” The circular advised:

“Municipalities should protect these public spaces by temporarily installing large planters or bollards at access points to hinder or prevent the entry of vehicles.”

The measures were never implemented in Barcelona because the leaders of the Catalan independence movement did not want to be seen as taking orders from the central government in Madrid.

After receiving the directive, Catalan autonomous police, known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, accused the central government of “alarmism” and insisted that it would not order municipalities in Catalonia to implement this “indiscriminate measure.” The Mossos also claimed to have the jihadist threat under control, that local police were trained to “detect symptoms or radicalization,” and that there were “no concrete threats.”

After the Barcelona attack, Deputy Mayor Gerardo Pisarello blamed the absence of bollards on the Catalan Interior Ministry. “The City of Barcelona has never refused to install bollards. Whenever it has been requested, we have done so,” Pisarello said. Ada Colau, Barcelona’s leftwing mayor, however, has repeatedly refused to “fill Barcelona with barriers,” insisting that it must remain “a city of liberty.”

El Periódico de Catalunya, a paper based in Barcelona, elaborated:

“The total absence of police collaboration between the Mossos d’Esquadra, which is the police force deployed on the ground, and the National Police and the Civil Guard translates into huge security deficiencies. The relationship between police forces — influenced by the political situation — is terrible and, in the case of the Mossos and the National Police, it is open war.

“The result is that the information services of the Mossos, on the one hand, and those of the National Police and the Civil Guard, on the other, do not exchange information. The cooperation is reduced to the personal relationships of individual agents who, without the knowledge of their superiors, exchange information and put safety first.”

On August 19, hours after the jihadist attack in Barcelona, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido repeated that it would be “appropriate” for all municipalities to comply with the December circular. His ministry issued a new letter calling on municipalities to install safety measures in the neuralgic points of cities. It remains to be seen if Catalan officials will now implement the recommendations.

Too little, too late.
Police officers line the street on Las Ramblas on August 18, 2017, near the scene of the previous day’s terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Failure to Heed Warnings

In June, the CIA reportedly warned Catalan police that Barcelona was being targeted by jihadists: “Two months ago the Central Intelligence Agency warned Catalan police of a threat to Las Ramblas,” according to El Periódico.

Additionally, on June 30, two weeks before the Barcelona attack, a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State warned of an impending attack against al-Ándalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France occupied by Muslim conquerors from 711 to 1492. Many jihadists believe that territories Muslims lost during the Christian Reconquest of Spain still belong to the realm of Islam and that Islamic law gives them the right to re-establish Muslim rule there.


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About the author

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.  Follow Soeren Kern on Twitter and Facebook