Sagrada Família in Barcelona in 2011 (photo via Wikipedia Commons)

The terror cell responsible for the vehicle attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils last week were planning a much larger, deadlier one that involved filling three vans with explosives and detonating them at three of Barcelona’s busiest sites. One, as a suspect revealed yesterday in a Madrid court, would have been the Sagrada Família, the towering Roman Catholic church designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The second, as El Español reported, was Las Ramblas avenue, where a driver plowed a van through crowds last Thursday, killing 13 people and injuring over 100 others; authorities speculate that the third target may have been along the city’s busting port.

Interior of Sagrada Família in 2013 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The conspirators — at least 12 of them — were building the bombs in a house in Alcanar, 200 miles southwest of their home base of Ripoll. An accidental detonation last Wednesday, however, which killed two members of the group, forced them to scale back the attacks.

The terrorists instead rammed hired vehicles into the busy streets of Las Ramblas and then again in Cambrils, where one pedestrian was killed and several others were injured. Police killed all five men responsible for the Cambrils attack that Friday morning; the driver of the van in Barcelona was shot by police on Monday after a weekend manhunt.

The potential loss of human lives in the failed, large-scale bomb attacks is unimaginable, and the events could have marked one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in Europe’s history. The Sagrada Família alone attracts major crowds: as perhaps the most visited monument in Spain, it drew over four million visitors just last year; countless others swarm the plaza around it to observe its stunning architecture. As a construction project that has spanned 134 years and costs about €25 million (~$29.5 million) a year to build and maintain, any destruction to the church would have also inflicted considerable harm to the city’s cultural heritage and economy.

Mohamed Houli Chemlal, the suspect who described the group’s original plan to the court, was one of two suspects who have been charged with murder, membership of a terrorist organization, and possession of explosives. A third, Salah al-Karib, has been detained by police pending further investigation, and the fourth, Mohamed Aalla, was released on bail. Authorities believe the cell was organized by Abdelbaki Es Satty, a Moroccan imam from Ripoll, who was one of the two men who died in the accidental bomb explosion.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...