After Ramblas trauma, Barcelona attack witness Aamer Anwar defies far-right trolls

British human-rights lawyer Aamer Anwar narrowly escaped harm on Las Ramblas on Thursday only to come under heavy fire from far-right extremist trolls online.

Pascal Guyot, AFP | Mourners stand near flowers, candles and tributes to the victims of the Barcelona attack, on the Las Ramblas boulevard in Barcelona on August 19, 2017.

Anwar walked away from Las Ramblas last Thursday afternoon just “ten seconds” before a van driven by an Islamist terrorist ploughed through a crowd of Barcelona locals and holidaymakers, killing 13 and injuring 120. But, incredibly, in stepping off Barcelona’s famed leafy strip and out of the path of the killer vehicle, Anwar, who is Muslim, walked into the cross-hairs of far-right social media trolls who said it was a “shame he didn’t get hit by the van.”


Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is among those who have come out in defence of the Glasgow-based Anwar, calling the abuse he has faced “sickening”.

From Las Ramblas, the lawyer escaped with his life, horrific mental images of the chaos around him and two brief phone videos of the first emergency vehicles arriving at the scene with their sirens wailing. He posted the clips to Twitter minutes after the attack. Broadcasters around the world, keen for pictures and information in the fog of those early moments, picked up the footage en masse, doubtless reassured by the fact that Anwar is a verifiable public figure. Named Lawyer of the Year in Scotland for 2017, Anwar was recently elected rector of the University of Glasgow.

Hours after the attack, Anwar tweeted that he was “shocked and lucky”, saying he had “walked on [10 seconds earlier] because it was so busy -- sea of humanity on La Ramblas that these cowards attacked.”

Visiting Barcelona for a conference, Anwar told television interviewers that he had been walking down the ill-fated Ramblas, considering stopping for a bite to eat, but moved on because it was too crowded. Instead, Anwar explained in his slight northern British twang, he decided to look for the Barcelona football kit his nine-year-old son back in Glasgow had asked for as a souvenir.

“All of a sudden, I just sort of heard a crashing noise and the whole street just started to run, screaming. I saw a woman right next to me screaming for her kids,” Anwar told Sky News.

“People were running into shops, families were screaming for their kids, they were taking them out of prams, police officers were on the scene literally within seconds, guns were out, ambulances,” he told the BBC.

The 49-year-old Anwar, whose parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan the year before he was born and raised their children in Liverpool, told the TV reporters that he eventually crossed paths with a Bengali shopkeeper in the Las Ramblas chaos who told him in Urdu that a van had driven into passersby.

On Friday morning, the lawyer returned to Las Ramblas, heartened to see “people back, laying flowers where there was carnage yesterday”, he tweeted, adding, “Hate can’t win and won’t win.”

Anwar told CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, that those lighting candles, singing songs and turning out by the thousands to pay their respects a day after the attack were defying the terrorists. “It is a message of defiance because I think these people, what they hate is our freedom of expression, our culture, our music, our art and what I described was a sea of humanity; they detest that and they wanted to destroy it and they haven’t destroyed it,” he said.

But on social media, Anwar’s nightmare had only begun. Just two hours after the attack, Tommy Robinson, a co-founder of the far-right, anti-Islam English Defence League, mischaracterised both Anwar and the Barcelona attack itself to his 368,000 Twitter followers: “Aamer Anwar, Lawyer for ISIS terrorist ‘Aqsa Mahmood’ today narrowly escaped being killed by Barcelona kosher restaurant Jihad truck attack.”

(Anwar, in fact, represented Mahmood’s family in Scotland when it criticised as counterproductive a travel ban imposed against the young Glasgow-born jihadist woman who had run away to Syria. In a 2015 statement, Anwar said, “Aqsa’s family remain full of rage at her activities, which they describe as a twisted and distorted perversion of Islam, but they had always hoped that one day she would see ISIS [Islamic State group] for the barbaric death cult it is and return home.”)

Online, responses sympathetic to Robinson’s tweet were swift, threatening and ugly, wishing Anwar harm or accusing him of involvement in the Barcelona attack.

“Seems a bit too convenient. Authorities should question him. He could have been scouting the locale for them,” one said. “U get what u sow. I would have been very happy had he broken his legs,” another said. One suggested darkly that Anwar would be a “really good target for any new vigilante group”. Another asked, “The question is, had he been killed, as a lawyer for jihadi, would he be a martyr? There’s 72 virgins in it for him.”

Unbowed, Anwar compiled the derogatory tweets in an Instagram slideshow set to the tune of Bob Marley’s 'One Love'.

He has also retweeted support from Sturgeon and others, including Scotland’s Justice Secretary and Minister for Transport. Back home in Glasgow, he shared a photo of himself hugging his mother, appending the hashtag #NoTincPor -- “I am not afraid” in Catalan -- which appears set to become the “Je suis Charlie”-style rallying cry after the Barcelona attack.

Ironically, Anwar addressed the subject of Islamist terror and the fact that Muslims, too, can be caught up in it, in his April inaugural address as rector of the University of Glasgow, a role he took over from the controversial US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Let me make it clear, as a Muslim I am repulsed and angry at the barbaric nature of each cowardly attack carried out in the name of Islam, whether it be in Paris, Brussels, London or Karachi,” the lawyer told the University of Glasgow assembly. “But I do not believe my community has to apologise for the actions of a handful of maniacs. Over 15 years after 9/11, there is a failure to understand that our children and families live and work in the same communities, we walk, travel and fly on the same transport as others, and our loved ones are just as likely to be the target of terrorist attacks.”

Indeed, in an interview with Scotland’s Sunday Herald after the abuse he received online, Anwar added a detail he appears to have left out of his eyewitness TV interviews last week. “The woman I saw screaming for her children, whose voice I can’t get out of my head, was wearing a hijab,” he said. “Every race, creed and colour was represented that day.”

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