CIA had 'warned of Barcelona attack'
Questions raised whether van attack that killed 13 and injured more than 100 in tourist zone could have been prevented
BARCELONA: As Spain reels from a vehicular attack in Barcelona that left 13 dead and more than 100 injured, it has emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had warned two months ago that the city's tourist magnet, Las Ramblas, could be a terrorist target.
Local newspaper El Periodico said that the agency's warning came after a spate of similar attacks in Europe.
"The CIA warned Los Mossos (Catalan police) two months ago that Barcelona, and in particular Las Rambla, could be the scene of a terrorist attack like the one that occurred," Fox News quoted the report as saying.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for Thursday's 5pm attack, where a van ploughed into a crowd in Las Ramblas before its driver, believed to be a teenager, fled on foot.
A manhunt is underway for him and his accomplices.
The victims were reported to be from more than 30 countries. Among them is a seven-year-old Australian boy who is missing after he was separated from his injured mother, who is in a coma, The Telegraph reported.
A second terror attack in Cambrils, a seaside town about 100km south of Barcelona, early yesterday was foiled by the police, who killed five terrorists, said to be linked to the earlier attack. One woman died and six other people, including a policeman, were injured.
An explosion in a house on Wednesday evening in the town of Alcanar, about 200km from Barcelona, might have spared Spain an even more devastating attack.
The police believe that the suspects in the twin terror attacks had been using the house to make explosive devices.
"They were preparing one or several attacks in Barcelona, and an explosion in Alcanar stopped this as they no longer had the material they needed to commit attacks of an even bigger scope," said Mr Josep Lluis Trapero of Catalonia's police, referring to a blast that caused one death.
A leading terrorism expert, Professor Anthony Glees, has described Barcelona - and Las Ramblas in particular - as sitting ducks for a terrorist attack.
The director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Britain's University of Buckingham told China's Xinhua news agency that a question that needed to be answered was whether security in the tourist hot spot had been too relaxed.
"Las Ramblas particularly was a sitting duck for this kind of attack, in which a truck is used to kill or main people," he said.
Millions of people are expected to visit Barcelona this year, and most head for Las Ramblas because of its market stalls, bars and restaurants.
Prof Glees said ISIS had last year "issued a threat that it intended to re-colonise this area of Spain, to retake it as a Muslim country".
A florist in Las Ramblas, Mr Jose Moya, whose stall narrowly escaped being hit by the van in the attack, said he wished the police had put more thought into how to protect the area.
"We have always said Las Ramblas is an easy target," he told Reuters.
"What happened is an atrocity. I am not saying it is the police's fault... Maybe you can't put in bollards, but if we are on high alert, you could have police vans stationed there blocking the way. It would have saved lives."
The authorities in Catalonia said that attacks such as Thursday's were hard to prevent.
"Absolute security is impossible, it would mean giving up our freedom and shuttering ourselves up in our homes," Barcelona's mayor, Ms Ada Colau, told Catalan television.
Mr John Cohen, the former principal deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC News that attacks on so-called "soft targets" are difficult to prevent and relatively easy to carry out.
"ISIS promotes these types of attacks because they are easy," he said.
"You can take people who have received no training, who are using items that are easy to acquire. And they can still commit mass murder."