ISIS Attackers in Barcelona May Have Had a Bigger Target: The Eiffel Tower

A police officer holds roses during a demonstration against the last week's terrorist attacks on August 26, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos/Getty

A cell inspired by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) that plotted and executed the attack on the Spanish city of Barcelona in August 2016 may have had a bigger target: The Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The group of radical Islamists that carried out two vehicle attacks in Barcelona and the nearby town of Cambrils left 16 people dead. ISIS claimed the attack.

But the number of victims could have been much higher if a large cache of explosives the cell had acquired had not detonated at their safehouse in the town of Alcanar a day before the attacks took place.

"The existing evidence indicates the terrorist cell had planned a far more ambitious and potentially more deadly operation," reads a new issue of CTC Sentinel, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, as first reported by the New York Times.

"Considering the lethal resources assembled by the terrorists and their lethal intent, the death toll could have reached hundreds had they not accidentally blown up their bomb factory," it continues.

Several members of the cell, which largely operated out of the Catalonian town of Rippoll and was guided by an Imam known as Abdelbaki Es Satty, made trips to North Africa and Europe before the attacks.

One was Driss Oukabir, one of the initial suspects in the vehicle-ramming on the Las Ramblas boulevard, who travelled to Morocco for more than a week just before the attack.

The cell had plans to launch an attack that killed as many people as possible, with authorities finding in the safe house a stash of almost a thousand liters of a solvent known as acetone and the bleach known as hydrogen peroxide, two key ingredients for triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a key ingredient in suicide vests known as the "Mother of Satan." The attackers had also amassed some 120 butane gas canisters.

But their target may not have been in Spain. Some of the men travelled to Paris, buying a video camera and filming the Eiffel Tower.

Extremists planning an attack can sometimes surveil the target of their plot beforehand, even filming it to give them a rewatchable mapping of an entrance or exit at a target site.

"The French government assessed that Paris could have also been a target of the Ripoll cell, and this prompted the decision to install a glass fence around the Eiffel Tower to protect the area from terrorist attacks utilizing firearms and vehicles," the report reads.

Investigators also uncovered a video at the Alcanar safe house shot in Paris in which a member of the cell holds explosives and says "Spaniards, you are going to suffer" in Arabic.

U.S. intelligence had earlier warned the Mossos d'Esquadra regional police that the famous Las Ramblas street in the northern Spanish city could be a target for an extremist attack. After vehicle attacks in Nice, Berlin and several in London, the CIA in June told Catalan police in a notice that the Barcelona boulevard was at risk.

Survivor of the Alcanar explosion, Mohamed Houli Chemlal, told a judge following the attack that the group had planned to use explosives to bomb monuments such as the city's famous Sagrada Familia church. One of the cell's mobile phones showed Google Maps searches that included the Sagrada Familia, as well as the soccer stadium of Barcelona F.C., known as the Nou Camp.

ISIS has threatened Spain with attacks because of its membership in the anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States, which is currently bombing the group's positions in Iraq and Syria. The jihadi group also seeks to reimpose Islam in previously Muslim-ruled areas of the world—Spain and Portugal were formerly known as Al-Andalus, a region ruled by Muslim caliphs in the medieval period.

The group has committed several large and small-scale attacks in France, particularly in Paris, where its deadliest attack in the country took place. A cell killed 130 people in November 2015 in a series of suicide bombing and shooting attacks.