The Catalan and Spanish governments —and, by extension, their respective police forces-- knew since May that there had been a warning about a hypothetical attack on La Rambla in Barcelona. Joaquim Forn, Catalan Home Seretary, admitted as much yesterday, as did Enric Millo, the Spanish government's representative to Catalonia. According to Forn, as with many other warnings that are received about possible attacks on places of worship, concerts, and tourist sights, this was looked into, and the Catalan police (Mossos d'Esquadra) concluded that it had "very little credibility". The Minister said yesterday that it was also checked with the Spanish authorities via political channels and that the response was that the warning was not regarded as "genuine".
The existence of this warning was not officially acknowledged until yesterday, following an article published by Barcelona daily El Periódico, but both Forn and the head of the Mossos, Josep Lluís Trapero, ruled out any connection with the attacks of August 17th. Both said that they have received "dozens" of similar warnings about other locations, and that this one was analyzed as are all such warnings. At the meetings to evaluate terrorist threats on May 25 and June 8, the warning was not even discussed; nor was it at the meeting of the Catalan Security Council on July 10.
When asked by this newspaper, yesterday the Catalan Home Secretary refused to comment on the May warning. But Millo did admit yesterday that the alert “existed"; that it, the Spanish government was aware of it. That no extraordinary measure was taken reinforces the argument that the Spanish government didn't deem it credible. In contrast, Forn explained that, despite not viewing the warning as credible, security on La Rambla and in other key locations in Barcelona was tightened. As this newspaper has been able to confirm, on August 17 -- at the time of the attack-- there were two vans from the Mossos' mobile brigade, each with eight police officers, present on the Rambla. One was at the top of the boulevard and the other at the lower end, and these agents were dedicated exclusively to reinforcing anti-terrorist monitoring. Also present were the police monitoring public safety on La Rambla.
Trapero explained that the first direct communication between the Mossos and Spanish police forces concerning this alert was "after the attack" on the Rambla. The head of the anti-terrorist division of Spain's Anti-Terror and Organized Crime Intelligence Center (CITCO) called the head of information for the Mossos to ask if the warning had been received, explained Trapero. And he added that CITCO itself then discounted that the May warning had anything to do with the Rambla attack.
Inconsistencies with the attack
It must be noted that, according to the investigation, the terrorists' original plan was not to carry out the massive van attack on pedestrians on the Rambla. They were building explosives in a safe house in Alcanar where they had collected more than one hundred butane canisters with the intention of blowing up monuments, including the Sagrada Família. The accidental explosion at the house on the night of August 16-17 forced them to change their plans, and it was only then that they committed the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. In contrast, the May warning didn't mention attacks with bombs involving monuments or the Sagrada Família. It's hard to believe that a warning about this group would have omitted the original plan and instead included the Plan B-- probably improvised-- that the terrorists ended up using.
According to El Periodico, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warned the Mossos, the Spanish Policía Nacional, the Guardi Civil, and Spain's National Intelligence Center (CNI) of the threat on May 25. The alert was based on "uncorroborated information of unknown veracity", but said that the target was "specifically the Rambla". Spain’s EFE news agency later confirmed this information citing "anti-terrorism sources". But in a press conference Home Secretary Forn and Major Trapero denied any type of contact with the CIA. “We have said this time and again and we will say it once more: we have no direct communication line with the CIA”, said Forn. The newspaper maintains that the CIA alert was received via the US National Counter-Terrorism Center, but the Minister and the Major also denied any contact with this body. Neither of the two clarified the channel through which the warning was received.
A dubious note
Forn and Trapero had harsh words yesterday for Enric Hernàndez, editor of El Periódico, who signed the article. The Catalan Minister criticized "the defamation and smear campaign" being carried out "from some sectors" against the Mossos. "The document is a fabrication which the editor himself admits was pieced together from different sources", insisted Forn in reference to the note in English that the daily published on its front page, as if it were from the CIA.
Following the doubts circulating around the authenticity of the alleged CIA note published by El Periódico, which included errors in its use of English and format errors that didn't fit with this type of communication, Hernàndez kept changing his argument throughout the day. In an interview on Catalunya Ràdio, he said that the message had arrived "digitally and encoded", and that the text was literal, but that "some typographic changes" might have been made. On Spain’s La Sexta TV he later explained that the source had asked them not to print the full document and that they changed the typeface so as not to give away the source. In the evening, the Barcelona daily published "the original note", where it was clear that it was not addressed to the Mossos but rather to CITCO. The Mossos were not approved to join CITCO until July.
Trapero yesterday defended "the honor of the Mossos". He said that he wished that Hernàndez was present at the press conference, and asked why anyone should believe the document published in the morning, which did not even bear an official stamp. "I would ask him who dictated that to him"--he insisted. "I have many doubts about him, his information, and his sources".
Fabricated information, according to Wikileaks founder
Wikileaks and its activist founder Julian Assange cast doubt yesterday via Twitter on the information in El Periódico, shortly after the publication of the story. Assange said that the alleged note from the US intelligence agency published by El Periódico appeared to be "modified" or directly "fabricated", due to the use of lower quote marks-- which are not used in the US-- instead of upper quote marks. He added that the editor of the paper, Enric Hernàndez, "should resign his position" due to "a clear attempt to mislead the public". The Wikileaks Twitter account said that the newspaper had published "a US intelligence document that is highly suspect" regarding the Islamic State's attack in Barcelona "before the Catalan referendum". It re-tweeted its own post four times, making mention of the daily's twitter account to ensure that they would receive it. The Wikileaks twitter account also re-tweeted messages from the Mossos and the Catalan government denying the article in El Periódico, as well as news about the controversy.