A massive manhunt was underway Sunday across Spain for the driver of a van that slammed into a crowd of tourists in Barcelona last week as evidence emerged of an even more deadly terror plot.
Catalan regional Police Chief Josep Lluis Trapero said a dozen members of an Islamic extremist cell had stashed more than 100 gas canisters and had planned to use them in vehicle attacks, Spain's El País newspaper reported. The plot was inadvertently thwarted, however, when the house in which the butane gas was stored blew up Wednesday, Trapero said.
At the time, authorities suspected some sort of gas leak was responsible for the blast.
A day later, 13 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when a van crashed into pedestrians in Barcelona's Las Ramblas promenade. The same group was blamed for a van assault early Friday in the Spanish tourist town of Cambrils that killed one person and wounded several more, Trapero said. Five suspected terrorists were fatally killed by police in the Cambrils attack.
Authorities soon made a connection between the house explosion, which Trapero said killed least two suspected terrorists, and the van attacks. Trapero said the extremist cell had been planning attacks for more than six months and that four members were in custody. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Trapero declined to confirm that Younes Abouyaaquoub, 22, was the driver in Thursday's tragedy and the subject of the manhunt, but acknowledged to the Associated Press that "we are working in that line."
AP, citing another police official, said three vans tied to the investigation were rented with Abouyaaquoub’s credit card: The one used in the Las Ramblas attack, another found in the northeastern town of Ripoll, and a third found in Vic, on the road between the two.
The cell members were from Ripoll, 65 miles north of Barcelona.
“Our thesis is that the group had planned one or more attacks with explosives in the city of Barcelona," before the house explosion scuttled the larger-scale plot, Trapero said.
Also Sunday, the Australian government confirmed that Julius Cadman, a missing 7-year-old with dual Australian-British nationality, was among the fatalities in Barcelona.
"I send my sincerest sympathies to the family of Julian Cadman and all those who loved him," tweeted British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. "His death is a tragedy."
The lone American to die in the attack was Jared Tucker, 42, who was wrapping up a European vacation with his wife, Heidi Nunes-Tucker, marking their first anniversary. She told NBC News her husband had left their table at a cafe seconds before "all mayhem broke out and people were screaming and crying and running."
When she couldn't find him, she went to the police who told her he was killed.
“I'd found my person, truly the love of my life," she said. "And I don't know that you find that again, and I don't know that I want to."
In Ripoll, a town of about 10,000 people, some residents expressed shock that their neighbors were linked to the brutal attacks.
Halima Hychami, the weeping mother of Mohamed Hychami, an attacker believed to have been killed by police, said he told her he was leaving on vacation and would return in about a week. She told the AP she hasn't heard from Mohamed's younger brother, Omar, since Thursday.
“We found out by watching TV, same as all of you," she said. "They were normal boys. They took care of me, booked my flight when I went on vacation. They all had jobs. They didn’t steal. Never had a problem with me or anybody else. I can’t understand it."
© 2018 USATODAY.COM