Inspector Lluís Paradell Fernandez is the head of the Central Analysis Unit, Intelligence and Counterterrorism Service, Catalan Police – Mossos d’Esquadra. He has served on the police force since 1992 and between 2003 to 2012 managed the Strategic Analysis Unit focusing on gang violence at the Security Cabinet of the Department of Interior of the Generalitat de Catalunya (government of Catalonia).

Deputy Inspector Xavier Cortés Camacho is the current head of the Counterterrorism Central Area at the Catalan Police – Mossos d’Esquadra. Deputy Inspector Cortés joined the Catalan police in 1994, where he has commanded several specialized units in criminal investigation including relating to homicides, robberies, and human trafficking.

CTC: Both of you have been heavily involved in counterterrorism efforts for the Catalonian police force, Mossos, during your career. Can you explain the role you play and the role your respective units play in analyzing, identifying, and countering terrorists and violent extremist threats?

Paradell Fernandez: Much of my career has been devoted to these challenges. One thing I’d like to point out at the start is that while we have a strong relationship with other police forces in Spain and organizations such as Europol, we can only speak to the situation in Catalonia.

In 1996, with three colleagues, I started the first analysis unit within our Department of Intelligence and Counterterrorism. I remember we traveled to the U.S. in order to know better how this task of intelligence analysis worked in the U.S. We participated in a meeting hosted by what was called IALEIA, the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts, and we received some advice in how to start a new intelligence unit in a police force—just some basic tips in order to build our own model in Catalonia. This was my starting point dealing with this issue. I worked on issues relating to street gangs between 2002 and 2012 and then in 2012 came back to my previous position as chief of the Central Analysis Unit within the intelligence and counterterrorism service, and that is the position I hold right now. We are divided into three units. One is devoted to operational analysis. A second is devoted to strategic analysis, and the smallest and newest one is devoted to the radicalization processes of all kinds and also focuses on what we call manipulation groups—people who use psychological techniques to modify beliefs.

Cortés: My profile is quite different from Lluis’. I’ve been working as a police officer for 28 years, and I joined the counterterrorism services in 2018, just after the [August 2017] terrorist attack in Barcelona.1 I’ve been running units for 22 years related to organized crime here in Mossos d’Esquadra, so my expertise is as an investigator. The reason why I have been working since 2018 in the counterterrorism services is because my bosses, after the experience of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, asked me to join this service with the idea of trying to transform it into an advanced investigation service. There are two different ways of dealing with terrorism from the perspective of the police forces: One is the classical approach—the pure information, the intelligence, what Lluis is dealing with; and the other one is to investigate. One thing became very clear after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, which is that you need to turn all the information that you develop into legal evidence. If not, you don’t have the opportunity to put all those people in jail. That was the reason why I was moved to this service four years ago. So my profile is quite different from Lluis. My duty is to fight the terrorist groups that are acting against the Catalan interest in the field. Obviously, I’m working hand-in-hand with Lluis because he’s offering me all the information they have and all the support they can offer to me, and I’m working to obtain the evidence.

Paradell Fernandez: Just to make you aware of the level of cooperation, one of my team members who belongs to the operational analysis unit is embedded in his unit. He sits next to the investigators, not in my office or in the office with other analysts. And this is the change, in the sense of being hand-in-hand in order to work altogether.

Cortés: Exactly. We are part of the same machine.

CTC: How did the threat environment in Barcelona evolve after 9/11 and in the years before the 2017 attack in Barcelona?

Paradell Fernandez: 9/11 underlined to us that Islamist terrorism was a threat to all Western countries and the 2004 Madrid bombings underlined that it was specifically a threat to Spain, and we focused on it at the same level as we’d been dealing with other threats like the ETA threat for many years in Spain.

The Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in 2014 was a turning point in the sense that it had a powerful effect in spreading their narrative around the world. We have five threat levels. When in September 2014 the Islamic State’s Abu Muhammed al-Adnani issued his declaration pushing for attacks in the West, we raised the threat level from 2 to 3. After the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher market in Paris in January 2015, we raised the threat to 4. We have remained at this level since then to stay alert.

In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, we made changes to let our patrols deploy with different kinds of weapons to respond in case of a similar attack. Fast forward to August 2017, and this meant that when the terrorist cell that had just targeted Barcelona was about to launch a follow-up attack in the village of Cambrils, our patrols were positioned in a very crucial place and well equipped, and it was the place where the attackers, the terrorists, entered the city. This made a difference because they were able to neutralize four of the five people that were in the car. Only one was able to get out of the car and to attack other people, and he was neutralized almost 500 meters later.

Lluís Paradell Fernandez

CTC: In August 2017, in the space of nine hours, members of a 10-man cell of Islamic State-inspired terrorists from the Catalonian town of Ripoll carried out vehicle and knife attacks in Barcelona and the Catalonian town of Cambrils, killing 16.2 The attacks were rapidly improvised after their ‘bomb factory’ exploded, forcing them to abandon plans to blow up vans containing high amounts of explosive. Many of our readers are fellow counterterrorism practitioners. Can you describe what it was like to respond to and investigate this attack? According to an analysis published in CTC Sentinel, “Considering the lethal resources assembled by the terrorists and their lethal intent, the death toll could have reached hundreds had they not accidently blow up their bomb factory in Alcanar.”3 What were you able to establish about their initial attack plans? Has any evidence come to light that the Islamic State had any role, for example through a cybercoach, in directing the attack? What have been the key lessons learned?

Cortés: There was not any kind of evidence establishing links between the offenders in this case and the Islamic State. Obviously, the attackers were inspired by the Islamic State, but there were not direct links between them or to any kind of terrorist organization abroad.

CTC: So there was no ‘cyber-coach’ from Islamic State territory directing them?

Cortés: No, not in this case. We have other investigations made recently in Catalonia when we have a lot of evidence establishing direct contact between the Islamic State, [but] not in this case. This case was very, very local.

CTC: What was it like to respond to the attack?

Paradell Fernandez: Even though we had developed a well-planned strategy in order to respond in case of an attack, it was of course shocking. Those colleagues that were on vacation that day, including me, immediately came into work. I was at the office 30 minutes later. The attack provided many lessons learned and helped us improve our procedures.

With regard to the terrorist cell’s initial attack plans, they had aspirations, rather than concrete plans, to attack the Sagrada Familia,a Barcelona’s football stadium, the Ramblas, or even the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Their intention was to place a lot of explosives inside big vehicles, and this could have produced a massacre if they had succeeded in these intentions.

CTC: What has been described as the cell’s ‘bomb factory,’ where they were making TATP,4 exploded, forcing them to improvise lower-tech attacks.

Paradell Fernandez: It was not as elaborate as a ‘bomb factory.’ We were lucky that it was not a bomb factory, because if there had been a bomb factory, they would have succeeded in their intention to execute the attacks, using all the explosives they were manufacturing at that moment. They didn’t take into account certain safety measures. Just today, I was talking with a colleague who is an expert in this field, and he told me what they were trying to achieve was very difficult. You need the correct premises, the correct procedures, and safety measures in order to succeed.

Cortés: The bottom line is they did not have the professionalism or ability to do it in a proper way.

CTC: You mentioned there were many lessons learned.

Paradell Fernandez: Compared to what we had faced from the ETA organization or even the GRAPOb organization from the far-left, anarchist end of the spectrum, the paradigm change was that the Ripoll cell was not directly connected to an established terrorist organization. They were not trained by anybody who was an expert in this field, but they decided to commit a major attack. Their intentions were really high. The cell’s ringleader, Abdelbaki Es Satty [a preacher from Morocco who had settled in Ripoll],5 was the one who legitimized the attack through the framework of jihadi salafi ideology. Ripoll did not have a significant Islamist presence like some other parts of Catalonia. This was a case of a group radicalizing themselves. The key lesson for me is the need to invest in detecting and preventing violent extremism not just in the case of Islamists but also for the far-left, the far-right, and for gangs.

Cortés: I agree. The first lesson was that the most important thing is prevention, always prevention. And in fact, one of my current responsibilities inside my area is to deal with a plan, which is called #PREV, to prevent radicalism and violent extremism. This effort grew a lot after the Barcelona attack.

In detecting radicalization and preventing the kind of attacks we saw in Catalonia 2017, information from the community is a vital element. We have sought to establish a strong relationship with imams and the Islamic community in Catalonia. We have deep contacts with the schools, where we help teachers understand what to look out for. We also need to closely monitor the prison community—both those convicted of crimes related to terrorism and those convicted of ordinary crime but that are vulnerable to radicalization.

When it comes to investigations, obviously you need to hurry a lot when you are trying to neutralize a threat. But you have to take your time after a terrorist attack has already been committed. Time is on your side from this point on, and you should use it to develop information that could prevent other threats in the future and to build the strongest possible case to secure convictions.

The Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona, Spain, on August 19, 2017, two days after a terrorist vehicle attack there. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

CTC: Lluis, you have had a lot of experience countering gang violence. Many of those involved in Islamic State activity in Europe have been involved in gangs and petty theft, with the Islamic State itself described as “a sort of super-gang” that attracted those involved in gangs and legitimized their violent street credo.6 What for you are the crossovers between gang violence and other forms of crime and jihadi terrorism? What lessons have you learned from addressing gang violence that is relevant to the counterterrorism enterprise?

Paradell Fernandez: In general, the perspective is that they share more or less the same triggers, you could also say the same kind of vulnerabilities.

When it comes to countering violent Islamist extremism, we have a set of different programs to get to the roots of the problem. In fact, the objective is not just to detect the terrorist or the radicalized person, but it is to avoid this process of radicalization. It’s to detect these factors that can lead somebody to radicalize. We started working with the prison system on this back in 2008. In 2012, we also established a program within our police force devoted to the jihadist threat to help our police officers differentiate between Islam, Islamism, and jihadism.

In 2016, we began a program in schools to prevent the radicalization process.

CTC: Shifting gears a little bit, how has Mossos worked to improve information sharing and cooperation with federal counterterrorism agencies in Spain and with counterparts across Europe, and what is the value of your relationships with the CT community in the United States?

Cortés: I can say that a very important part of my time has always been dealing with my colleagues from the national police and security services in Spain. One of our aims is always to have good contact with the international community in terms of sharing information. It’s important to note that we are a regional police force focused on Catalonia, but if I’m in the middle of an investigation, a judge can open the door to engage with colleagues from overseas.

Paradell Fernandez: As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, we are not a national police force, so we coordinate with other law enforcement agencies and mainly through the Intelligence Center for Counter-Terrorism and Organized Crime, the state body, in order to guarantee this kind of coordination. And we have almost daily participation with them in different aspects of the threat assessment, for example; Xavier is responsible for this coordination in different investigations in his field. And we are also participating in other working groups. But we have to use some Spanish points of contact in order to relate with other organizations, like Interpol or even Europol, in practical day-to-day use. Things have improved a lot in recent years but in my mind can still improve further as we would like to work with all tools available at every moment. And I have to say that the cooperation and the coordination with the national bodies is really good in this moment. For example, as Xavier mentioned, there’s a national court that is responsible for terrorist investigations. We have direct access to this national court.

With regard to engagement with colleagues in the United States, we feel that there’s very good contact and quality, and they appreciate also our work and our cooperation whenever they have made requests. I have to say, we look at the law enforcement in the United States, agencies like the FBI, as more or less the model because of the capacity they have, the resources, the level of specialization in every kind of threat and this is also really very important for us.

Cortés: There’s an important point that should be stressed: Although we are a regional police force, we are the main police force in Catalonia. So if you need something, if you need information, if you need to act in the field, in Catalonia you have to deal with us. So obviously, we are inside the country of Spain, but if the United States’ law enforcement wants to obtain information about what is happening in Catalonia, they come to us.

CTC: In May 2020, authorities disrupted an Islamic State-linked drone attack plot in Barcelona. Mohammed Yassi Amrani, a former barman, was convicted of the plot in October 2022. According to media reporting, after being very quickly radicalized, Amrani was contacted online by an Islamic State recruiter who instructed him to fly a drone packed with explosives over Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium during a soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid and then detonate it.7 What for you were the takeaways from this case involving fast radicalization, a cybercoach, and a drone attack plan?

Paradell Fernandez: In our analysis, this case in some sense proves what we are always taking into account, that the bad guys are always thinking how to improve their methods, and at that time, we were aware that in Syria, in northern Iraq, some of the ISIS groups were using drones in order to attack their targets. Also, this kind of modus operandi was appearing in different kinds of propaganda that they were spreading out all around the planet. So this is something that we have been taking into account for a long time. We don’t have any case where they succeeded in using this kind of method. But it’s likely that they can use it or are trying to use it. I’m not so sure about the level of development of this particular plot.

CTC: What is the current threat picture in Catalonia across the ideological spectrum?

Paradell Fernandez: We face the same threat from jihadi terrorism as elsewhere in the West. The last significant jihadi terror attack in Europe was the November 2020 Vienna terrorist attack.8 Since then, there have been various attacks, but they have been carried out by a single person acting by himself without any kind of relationship with members of ISIS or al-Qa`ida and using really very, very simple methods—for example, using knives or a car—that don’t require training to cause mass damage. We are working to avoid these kind of attacks, which are less dangerous in terms of causing casualties but are more difficult to detect. So we are in a continuous process of ensuring our colleagues are aware of the latest developments with regard to this kind of threat.

We are also concerned about the threat coming from racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism and white supremacism, white nationalism, and associated conspiracy theories. We have been detecting this kind of activity in social networks in Catalonia. Two years ago, we stopped a terrorism plot by arresting two far-right extremists. One of them was a U.S. citizen. They were connected with other people in other parts of Spain. We had to arrest them because they were about to commit an offense that had nothing to do with this terrorist threat and so we don’t know whether they would have succeeded to recruit more people, but we detected them and we were after them. The investigation was a good example of cooperation. We conducted this operation jointly with the Guardia Civil, because there were people involved in Catalonia, but they were involved with people from other regions in Spain. These individuals made references to Brenton Tarrant in New Zealand,9 Anders Breivik in Norway and the Buffalo, New York, attack,10 and had been spraying this message through the networks.

For us, this extreme far-right threat vector, this leaderless resistance ideology is really a very, very serious threat at this moment.

CTC: So the far-right extremist threat has being going up in the last few years?

Paradell Fernandez: Yes. Not just in terms of attacks in Europe. In France several months ago, a 17-year-old was arrested because he was detected when he was trying to buy a weapon through the internet. He had a lot of connections with these kind of far-right extremist groups, and he was convinced to conduct an attack in Europe.

At the same time, when it comes to violent anarchism, we have been really vigilant over this kind of threat because it has some kind of Mediterranean dimension. There’s a connection between Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal less so, and some Latin American countries like Chile or Mexico.

These days, whether it’s anarchists, jihadists, or far-right extremists, the paradigm now is ‘propaganda by deed.’ Without being connected to an organized group or receiving instructions from such a group, people decide to commit an action. At the moment in Europe, we are really concerned about one of the most important anarchist leaders who is in jail in Italy, Alfredo Cospito.11 He was on a hunger strike.12 If he had died, there would have been some kind of reaction. What we had expected in Catalonia was not for a reaction that involved major attacks or bombings, but we expected some kind of a demonstration on the streets and trying to break windows of banks and so on. It’s not the main threat, but the anarchist terrorist threat is still there.

Cortés: I’m almost totally focused on jihadism nowadays. For us, we think that the main threat nowadays, as Lluis said, is the lone wolf, using unsophisticated weapons, but from time to time, we are really concerned about a very similar threat and this is people with mental health challenges. We are monitoring a group of people that have mental health challenges, who are playing with the ideology of jihadism. So they are not really people concerned with this ideology, but they think they are concerned. So the threat is almost bigger because they are not under any kind of personal control and they very usually have problems with people in the street, so they could act with a knife or something similar at any moment. So we are making, we could say, almost a list of those kinds of people, and we are monitoring them day by day because they are one of the main threats nowadays. So we are moving from the big organizations in the past, and now we are monitoring people with mental health challenges who could carry [out] what could appear as a terrorist attack, but it’s not. For example, in Algeciras in January 2023,13 there was an attack that was initially considered a terrorist attack but now it seems to not have been so because the perpetrator had mental health challenges.

The other threat that is very important for us is related to terrorist convicts being released from prison after serving their sentence. Over the years, we made a large number of arrests of individuals who were involved in propaganda, indoctrination, and support for terrorist groups. They tended to be given prison sentences of five or six years, and they are now back on the streets or due to be released in the near future. In Europe, as in the case of the Vienna attacker, some of those responsible for terrorist attacks have been people that have been released from prison after being sentenced in relation to terrorist crimes.14 So we are monitoring this group of people as well, which is a very important part of our work.

There are also some kinds of threats that are not so well-known. For example, an investigation we worked on for three, almost four years, that was called Alexandria. In about 2017, we stopped a group of Algerian people that were plotting to carry out a bombing in Barcelona. They were preparing a terrorist attack against Russian interests in Barcelona; at that time, Russia was carrying out operations against the Islamic State in Syria. We got a lot of information that they were monitoring some yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs here—those yachts most of time are in the Barcelona harbor—and that was the target. As a result of our three-year investigation, there were some very interesting final conclusions. We have a lot of evidence that there was a deep relationship between common robberies in the center of Barcelona and the financing of terrorism groups abroad—in this case, in Algeria.

This group was composed of people related to gangs carrying out petty thefts in the center of Barcelona. We got information it was sending more than €300,000 in a year as a result of the robberies, especially robberies of tourists, in Barcelona, to people in Algeria. We have some confidential informants, collaborating with the judge, who got direct information about what they were doing with that money. They were sending that money in order to finance terrorist activity. But it’s not easy to obtain information from some other country—in this case, Algeria. In my case, I made a trip to Algeria to try to obtain that information, but it was impossible. We knew the names, we knew the telephone numbers of the people who were receiving that money, but we did not have, in terms of legal evidence, proof that they were doing that activity. But we have confidential informants that had been offering that information for us and for the judge. So it’s clear that it’s not a question of our imagination.

After making the arrests, we got evidence that this group had more than 50 direct contacts with the Islamic State through the internet—in this case, through the dark web.

So we think it’s a new paradigm that people who could appear in front of our eyes as simple pickpockets in our country are in such sophisticated and current contact with the Islamic State in order to prepare a bombing in the city. We have to deal with these two dimensions of the threat. On the one hand, the day-by-day monitoring of people with mental health challenges with the potential to carry out lone wolf attacks. On the other hand, we have people that don’t have the appearance of being terrorists, but when you look deeply at the information they have in their houses or electronic devices, you can see that they are really deeply connected with these international groups. So we have to open our eyes to threats we might otherwise miss.

CTC: Is there anything you would like to add?

Paradell Fernandez: For us as a police service, a big challenge is the growing polarization in our societies. The concern is this will fuel more support for violent extremism. We need to do our best to try to improve the social equation. The way we act as the police and the rest of society looks at the police is going to be important. We have to build bridges between those providing social services and the police because there is some distrust between them. There needs to be a joined-up effort in working to prevent violent extremism. In our analysis efforts, we need to make sure not to confuse the effects of some problems with the causes. Using an example from my period dealing with street gangs, there were stabbings in the streets, fights, but these were the effects of a bigger problem—what some experts called ‘wicked problems’ that don’t have an easy solution. And in one of the first reports we wrote when we assessed the appearance of this phenomenon in Catalonia, we identified that in order to be effective in responding to this kind of phenomena, a level of coordination is needed between different practitioners and different services. This is the real challenge, to be able to work together in a coordinated effort to face this kind of phenomenon or threat.

Cortés: The most important thing is prevention. Always prevention. Every time an investigator like me gets involved after an attack, it is always the result of a failure to prevent it.CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The Sagrada Familia is an iconic unfinished Catholic church in Barcelona that receives millions of visitors each year. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

[b] Editor’s Note: GRAPO, Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre (First of October Anti-fascist Resistance Group)

[1] Editor’s Note: For more on this attack, see Fernando Reinares and Carola García-Calvo, “‘Spaniards, You Are Going to Suffer:’ The Inside Story of the August 2017 Attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils,” CTC Sentinel 11:1 (2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Editor’s Note: See Ibid.

[5] Editor’s Note: See Ibid.

[6] Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard, Brussels Federal Police,” CTC Sentinel 8:8 (2015).

[7] “Man jailed in Spain over planned drone attack at Barcelona-Real Madrid match,” Local, October 24, 2022.

[8] Editor’s Note: For more on this attack, see Johannes Saal and Felix Lippe, “The Network of the November 2020 Vienna Attacker and the Jihadi Threat to Austria,” CTC Sentinel 14:2 (2021).

[9] Editor’s Note: For more on the Christchurch attacks in New Zealand, see Graham Macklin, “The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[10] Editor’s Note: For more on the Buffalo attack, see Amarnath Amarasingam, Marc-André Argentino, and Graham Macklin, “The Buffalo Attack: The Cumulative Momentum of Far-Right Terror,” CTC Sentinel 15:7 (2022).

[11] Editor’s Note: For more, see Francesco Marone, “The Prisoner Dilemma: Insurrectionary Anarchism and the Cospito Affair,” CTC Sentinel 16:3 (2023).

[12] Viola Giannoli, “Alfredo Cospito interrompe lo sciopero della fame. E ricorre a Strasburgo contro il 41 bis,” Repubblica, April 19, 2023.

[13] Al Goodman, “Spanish authorities believe fatal machete attack suspect acted alone,” CNN, January 26, 2023.

[14] Editor’s Note: For more on the case of the Vienna attacker, see Saal and Lippe. For more on this topic, see Robin Simcox and Hannah Stuart, “The Threat from Europe’s Jihadi Prisoners and Prison Leavers,” CTC Sentinel 13:7 (2020).

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