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The lost kids of Ripoll: Spain's young jihadists

© AFP / by Laurence BOUTREUX with Diego URDANETA and Marianne BARRIAUX in Madrid | The small Spanish town of Ripoll is reeling from the discovery that many of the suspects in last week's attacks lived among them

RIPOLL (SPAIN) (AFP) - 

In the small Spanish border town of Ripoll, a seven-year-old Moroccan boy suddenly found himself without his big brothers at home -- two had been gunned down by police as suspected jihadists, the other arrested.

"They were addicted to the imam," said the boy, repeating what he heard about his brothers from adults around him.

Five days after a van ploughed into pedestrians on Barcelona's busy tourist boulevard Las Ramblas and a similar assault in the seaside resort town of Cambrils, Ripoll is reeling from the discovery that many of the suspects lived among them.

Most of the 12 men in the alleged terror cell grew up or lived in the town of around 10,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Pyrenees.

Despite their horror over the carnage, the people of Ripoll affectionately describe the youths as "the kids" and say they were "completely integrated" into the town, whose population is about five percent Moroccan.

- 'Distorted Islam' -

"Two of my sons -- Youssef and Said -- are dead because an imam taught them distorted Islam," said the seven-year-old boy's father Brahim Aallaa.

"They couldn't even speak Arab. They spoke Catalan, Spanish, Berber," the Moroccan textile factory worker told AFP in an interview in a square in the old town.

"The other son, Mohamed, will go to prison because he lent his car to his brother."

Said was shot dead by police in Cambrils, along with three of his childhood friends, in the Audi he apparently borrowed from Mohamed and which was used to run down pedestrians in the resort. A fifth suspect was gunned down as he fled the scene, stabbing one woman to death.

Aallaa, who arrived in Spain in 1999, said he still does not know for sure how Youssef died.

The Spanish press has reported that Youssef was blown up in an accidental explosion in the suspects' bomb factory in Alcanar where 120 gas canisters were later discovered by police.

But his death has not been confirmed by investigators who are still running DNA checks.

Police said the blast probably changed the plans of the jihadists, who were plotting one or more attacks in Barcelona, as it deprived them of the bombs they were building.

- 'I taught them addition and division' -

Known for its monastery founded in the 9th century, Ripoll fiercely champions its Catalan identity, with "yes" flags for regional independence fluttering on several balconies.

Tucked under the tree-lined mountains about 90 kilometres north of Barcelona, the village had no clue that the insidious tendrils of jihadism had crept up on it.

Nuria Perpinya said her "blood freezes over" when she looks at charts in the press listing the suspects.

"These are terrorists but it makes my heart break. It's a contradictory feeling," said the social worker, 36. "Some are my children, I taught them addition and division."

Until 2015, Perpinya worked for a regional programme battling exclusion and admits having "good memories of these normal boys, who were totally integrated".

?? Nevertheless, she acknowledged that some of them "didn't have much personality but were most vulnerable".

- 'Good neighbours' -

In a small but neat building at the entrance of Ripoll, Moussa Oubakir, 17, lived with his mother.

He is one of five siblings, including an older brother, Driss, detained on suspicion he was part of the terror cell.

"People talking about Moussa would never use a negative word to describe him. He is considerate, well brought up, joyful," said the deputy mayor in charge of integration, Maria Dolors Vilalta.

But on the social network Kiwi, where he was actively participating two years ago, Moussa sent two flirty messages, punctuated by a chilling one in which he vowed to "kill infidels and spare only Muslims who practise their religion".

In the early hours of Friday, he was gunned down by police in Cambrils.

Houssaine Abouyaaqoub, also known as "Houssa", also a minor, was killed at the same time.

On Monday, Houssa's big brother Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, was gunned down by police after a massive manhunt for the Moroccan suspected of the Las Ramblas rampage and who went on to stab to death a man while hijacking his car to get away.

"Houssa and Younes were very good neighbours," said Perpinya.

Tour guide Cesar Garcia, 53, whose son went to school with the younger brother, agreed.

"Houssa was a bright and responsible boy. You wouldn't be worried if you knew your son was heading out for a party with him," he told AFP.

Bucking the pattern of often disenfranchised youths who have a record of petty crime before turning to bigger assaults, the Ripoli boys came neither from poor nor marginalised families in a town where there are no ghettos.

Among their fathers, "most are forestry workers, others have jobs in the metallurgy industry," said Vilalta.

And at least two of the older young men have a job in the textile or metal industries, according to those who know them.

"There has never been any problems on integration" in Ripoll, said mayor Jordi Munell.

"Some (of the suspects) had jobs, cars, mobile phones, computers, plans for their future."

- 'Praying day and night' -

Brahim Aallaa said that "during Ramadan, they (his sons) said they were out praying with the imam all day and night".

"After that, Youssef changed. He took his brother's car and left, saying he was looking for work."

Three pairs and a trio of brothers were part of the cell, the younger siblings likely following their big brothers.

Investigators had focused on Abdelbaki Es Satty, an imam in Ripoll accused of recruiting and brainwashing the youngsters.

Satty, a Moroccan who arrived in Ripoll in 2015, was killed Wednesday in the Alcanar blast.

Ripoll is only now learning details about the imam's life, including his imprisonment from 2010 to 2014 for drug trafficking.

But worshippers in the local mosque insist he preached only the Koran there, nothing more.

by Laurence BOUTREUX with Diego URDANETA and Marianne BARRIAUX in Madrid

© 2017 AFP