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Investigation Continues Into Spanish Attacks

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Spanish Interior Ministry says police are optimistic they've broken the terrorist cell that killed 14 people in two vehicle attacks there this week. And they believe there is no imminent threat of further attacks. Authorities say the cell had at least 12 members, most of whom are either now dead or in custody. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in a town north of Barcelona, where many of the cell members lived. Ripoll - is that how we pronounce the name, Frank?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yes, it's Ripoll. You got it just right.

SIMON: All right. These attacks, in their separation but coincidence, were confusing. They happened in different places. There was also a massive explosion. How did police put together the series of events?

LANGFITT: Well, Scott, what they think is - here's their theory. They think this was actually a bomb - a botched bomb-making scheme. This terrorist cell was working with butane gas canisters in a house in a place called Alcanar. It's a town down the coast from Barcelona. They planned to load them into a couple of vans and another vehicle and detonate them, try to kill as many civilians as they could. If it had succeeded, it probably would have been devastating because - well, what happened on Wednesday this week is some of the bomb makers actually blew themselves up. They leveled a house.

And so we know that this would have been a much worse kind of attack. Once the cell realized they had failed, they decided to do these vehicle attacks in Barcelona and another in a tourist town down the coast in a place called Cambrils. And police are still searching for three people, including the driver in the Barcelona attack.

SIMON: What more do we know about this cell?

LANGFITT: Well, police sources are telling Spanish media the guys were in age from 17 to 34, all but one born in Morocco, many of them came from right here in Ripoll. It's a mountain town about two-hour train ride up from Barcelona.

SIMON: Please tell us about Ripoll and what you're seeing there now.

LANGFITT: Yeah. It's really striking. You know, you never know what you're going to get when you go on these assignments. This is really surprising. It's a quaint town of 10,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I'm just 30 miles south of the French border. I'm looking at old Spanish buildings, wrought-iron balconies. It's really a lovely town. And earlier, there were people out selling vegetables. It was market day. And, you know, you look around, you think it's kind of the last place you might find a terror cell and, certainly, the last place you'd try to hide one.

SIMON: Yeah. Any sense emerging now of how the people who may have been involved in this attack were radicalized?

LANGFITT: Well, we don't know yet. I mean, what's interesting today that happened in the town earlier is police went and searched the apartment of an imam who'd been renting an apartment to one of the attackers - actually renting apartments through this imam in the last few months. The landlord told Spanish reporters that he was going on vacation on Tuesday. The landlord hasn't heard from him. Police were going through his apartment today. But still, when you talk to people here, they're very surprised by this. They said some of the ones that they knew - some of the terror - terrorists were very pleasant, well-integrated, polite guys.

SIMON: So it doesn't seem like a town or a group of people that would necessarily be a part of this.

LANGFITT: No, not at all. People are really, really puzzled here. And this is going to be a big question for Spanish police is, how did they radicalize people in a small town up here in the mountains?

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Ripoll, Spain. Frank, thanks so much for being with us.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.