Eduard Sallent: "The investigation has not sufficiently clarified Es Satty's link to Daesh"
Commissioner and member of the Mossos d'Esquadra's leadership team
SabadellCommissioner Eduard Sallent is the number 2 within the Catalan police, known as the Mossos d'Esquadra, serving under Josep Maria Estela. Sallent worked in the intelligence department five years ago, so we ask him to look back on that fateful August 17 , what we learnt and how anti-terrorist surveillance is carried out now in Catalonia.
You were in the intelligence and analysis department in 2017. How did you experience 17-A?
— I was then the head of intelligence. I was at home and they called me telling me that there had been an attack in Barcelona and I had to report for duty. The commissioner was away in Madrid because he was at a terrorist threat assessment meeting and I had to immediately join the central Joint Coordination Centre to lead efforts.
It was a first.
— Catalonia had been subjected to ETA terrorist attacks but it had barely happened since the Mossos were responsible. It was the first major attack that the Mossos d'Esquadra had to deal with, but the force was prepared. We had carried out a very intense activity, in which people had been arrested who belonged to groups that wanted to carry out attacks or who had committed crimes related to terrorism.
How did the coordination with the Spanish intelligence services and the rest of the State security forces go?
— We work permanently with what we call an intelligence community, where we exchange information with each and every one of the police forces and intelligence services and external operators who can provide relevant information. In this case it happened naturally and we were working, from the first moment, at different levels: meetings and calls to exchange information about the people we were identifying as part of the cell and facts that could be relevant to manage the terrorist attack.
Why did relations become strained and was there too much noise?
— Since the Munich attack, it was clear to us that a communication plan had to be prepared, but it is true that the context in which the attack took place introduced certain external elements which, if not hindering, certainly made the atmosphere tense. Everyone rose to the occasion, but there are isolated actions that are really difficult to understand.
What do you mean?
— I am referring to the famous note and the front page of El Periódico [which claimed Catalan police had been warned by the CIA but failed to act]. This can only be understood in that context: the fabrication of a note with the intention of denigrating the Mossos' action up until that moment. For me, surely, out everything that happened, it seems to me this was the only action that crossed the line of what could be healthy competition between corps to obtain information or a more relevant position in the judicial investigation.
Did you feel ignored?
— No. We had no doubt we were the leading organisation and would solve the incident and that we were the ones who really carried the weight of that investigation. We did not feel that we had been ignored.
Was it necessary to rebuild trust?
— The goal of counterterrorism is to protect people and prevent an attack, and these issues [the note] are quickly put aside because the mission is very important. However, on September 20, the Catalan Finance Ministry was searched by Spanish police, on October 1 the referendum was held in Catalonia and subsequently the Catalan Government was disolved. The mistrust that was generated had a much greater impact because of managing this context of the clash between the Generalitat and the State than because of the situation that occurred with some people due to the 17-A attack.
Not many months ago we still heard former commissioner Villarejo saying the attack was "a serious mistake" by the Spanish secret services to "give Catalonia a scare". How was it received?
— Objectively, we have to say that there is no element to support Mr. Villarejo's words. The relationship we had at that time with the CNI gives me the conviction that this information does not conform to reality.
Do you feel, however, you are missing some information on the role of the imam of Ripoll?
— In anti-terrorist activity, a source relationship or an approach to a person linked to an attack in Iran or the Jackal case in Vilanova would not have been strange. Es Satty is interesting because of his connection with Daesh and Islamic State. I believe the investigation has not sufficiently clarified the international connection to Daesh. We set October 2016 as the time the will to commit the attack was born. In November the first searches for explosives are made, in December two cell members make a trip to Paris and Brussels, Es Satty makes two long stays in Brussels which coincide with the attack on the airport using a similar explosive to the one they manufactured in Alcanar and a trip on August 11 and 12, 2017 to Paris with possible connections with people who have never been identified. For me what remains to be proven is whether this is a cell inspired or directed by Daesh. It is an element that we have not yet resolved. The same goes as to whether they intended to carry out an attack in Paris.
Do you think it's a closed case?
— Very thorough work was done and, today, there is little left to go on, but this type of investigation does not break off, if there is another anti-terrorist action it is possible that part of the investigation could be resumed. We are waiting for what may happen to complete this puzzle.
Is the figure of Es Satty still the most shadowy?
— He is the oldest person and the more complex and, therefore, it would be interesting to have more information. But I think that the process of radicalisation of the leaders of the cell, of the three older brothers, is an interesting element of reflection: they are integrated families, who live with economic difficulties, but not in precariousness, and who are apparently integrated.
In the trial at the High Court one of the accusations questioned Es Satty's death. Do the Mossos consider it is a proven fact?
— The police investigation works relying on evidence. To us, the evidence obtained makes us think – and this is what the court also believes – that Es Satty is dead. If someone, later on, comes up with a piece of evidence to the contrary, we will be there to contrast it and investigate.
Could there be any other members or collaborators of the cell?
— So far no other person related to the network has been proven. We have seized over 100 belonging to many people who have been under investigation and 180 pieces of electronic equipment have been searched, and thousands of documents have been examined.
What is your assessment of the High Court sentence?
— Positive, insofar as it proves that the investigation carried out by the Mossos d'Esquadra went in the right direction, it provides evidence of the different types of crimes, from the collaboration of the person who left the van, to more serious types of terrorism. And it is positive for the victims because it is a form of reparation for a loss that no one will ever be able to reverse.
On the other hand, the victims themselves and society as a whole have found it difficult to understand that there have been no convictions for murder.
— It is not up to us to make assessments. We provide evidence and it is the court who, on the basis of this evidence, rules on the penal form that best suits the facts that occurred.
Now the Mossos have access to the higher police databases and are part of CITCO. Would these elements have helped at the time?
— The Ripoll cell is truly unique, because it is an closed group built from four families. Therefore, it is difficult to say that access to other databases or collaboration through CITCO would have made it easier. However, the Mossos d'Esquadra's management of the attack and investigation gives us credit as a top level police force, which makes us comparable to any police force in the world. It is true that entry into CITCO and the decision by the Ministry of the Interior to make the Mossos the reference police force in the case of a terrorist attack would have made the management of the attack much simpler than it was.
Is there also a before and after in the control of explosive precursors?
— In little more than a month and a half, the cell bought in eleven towns material to make 500 kilos of TATP, the largest amount ever seen in Catalonia. Therefore, it is clear that control of this material is very important and, in this aspect, sufficient progress has been made in terms of communication of purchases and shops' awareness.
But at that time was it at the necessary level?
— This is one of the areas for improvement, no doubt
How has the way in which the Mossos investigate jihadism changed since 17-A?
— 17-A brings a new pattern of jihadist cell; therefore, it is not so much how investigation but detection changes. We learnt to identify a new type of cell formed by four families, very hermetic and with certain characteristics. And it had immediate consequences in the elaboration of patterns to seek out people and environments and scrutinise these patterns to rule out that people with homologous situations were in processes of radicalisation or, even if they were, had an intention to carry out an attack.
What is the current level of alert and what is worrying in Catalonia?
— Lone actors, above all. What has changed compared to 2017 is the context. Then the Islamic State caliphate had territorial capacity and financing. Al Qaeda also had a lot of operational capacity then. Today the Islamic State has virtually no territory and no director of communication. Their narrative is no longer triumphalist and our counterterrorism capacity has increased tremendously: we know the environments better, we carry out many operations at an early stage. But there continues to be a global jihadist threat and radicalised individuals who may have the will to attack. The most likely way we believe an attack could be committed today is by an individual perpetrator carrying out a poorly planned action with the means at his disposal.
You have announced a new intelligence directive. Why is this so important in terms of counterterrorism?
— The generation of intelligence in an activity such as policing is very important. Anticipating scenarios and making political and organisational decisions is crucial. Knowing where we stand and what the trends are allows us to project the future, and this allows us to order police training processes and intervene in the criminal reality we face.