Rogue police officer’s claim about Barcelona terror strike triggers anger

Defendant tells court intelligence service knew about jihadist cell

The government of Catalonia is demanding an investigation after a controversial former police officer claimed that Spanish intelligence services knew about the activities of a terrorist cell ahead of a deadly attack it carried out.

Fourteen people died on August 17th, 2017, when a van driven by Younes Abouyaaquob deliberately ploughed into pedestrians in central Barcelona. Abouyaaquob stabbed and killed another person soon afterwards and five other members of his jihadist cell ran over and killed a woman in the town of Cambrils, also in Catalonia. All six terrorists were eventually shot dead by police.

The former police officer, José Manuel Villarejo, who is currently on trial for a series of crimes including bribery and extortion, appeared to suggest that the CNI intelligence service knew not only about the terrorist cell but also about its plans. He told the high court that the then head of the CNI, Félix Sanz Roldán, made “a serious mistake” with regard to the terrorist cell because “he miscalculated the consequences of causing a bit of a scare in Catalonia”.

The 2017 attack took place just a few weeks before the Catalan government oversaw a chaotic referendum on independence, in defiance of the Spanish courts. Some pro-independence Catalans have maintained ever since that the attack was somehow linked to the Spanish state’s efforts to thwart the secessionist movement.



“If Villarejo’s words are true, then we need an explanation immediately,” wrote Catalan president Pere Aragonès on Twitter. “We knew full well how the state sewers work, that is why we demand that there is an investigation to bring the truth to light.”

On Tuesday night a group of pro-independence Catalans held a demonstration in Barcelona in response to Mr Villarejo’s comments.

The former policeman is a deeply contentious figure who has been widely credited with involvement in unlawful activity on behalf of the Spanish state over several decades. He has also embarrassed an array of politicians, judges and other prominent figures through accusations and secret audio recordings he has made.

On Wednesday, outside court, he sought to clarify his comments, saying that “the [CNI’s] intention was probably absolutely not to cause any kind of attack, but to give the appearance of risk so that Catalonia would see the need for state protection.”

Mr Villarejo’s shady image has led many to dismiss his claims outright.

“Villarejo is a gangster and a mafioso and his comments have to be seen in that light,” said David Cid, a member of the regional parliament for the left-wing Catalunya en Comú party. “Confronted with an attempt to use the pain of victims, it’s important to act with rigour and transparency to rule out any declaration which seeks to cast a shadow of doubt on the attacks.”

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain