Monday 26 September 2016

Brussels terror attacks: ‘If I give myself up, I’ll end up in a cell,’ bomber’s final will found

Two suicide bombers who carried out the attacks in Brussels airport and Metro identified as brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraou

Cahal Milmo, Leo Cendrowicz and Sarah Collins

Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30

Ibrahim (left) and Khalid El Bakraoui, and Najim Laachraoui (right)
Ibrahim (left) and Khalid El Bakraoui, and Najim Laachraoui (right)
Injured people are seen at the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport. REUTERS
Blown out windows are seen at Zaventem Airport in Brussels after coordinated bomb attacks on the airport and the Metro system brought terror to the Belgian capital.. Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Authorities in Belgium are searching for a man pictured at the Brussels airport with two apparent suicide bombers after 34 people were killed and more than 200 injured in Tuesday's terror attacks.

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The manhunt comes amid growing suggestions that the bombings of Zaventem airport and the Brussels Metro were the work of the same Islamic State (IS) cell that attacked Paris last year.

IS, which was behind the Paris attacks, also claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings.

Belgium is in the midst of three days of mourning, and government offices, schools and residents held a moment of silence on Wednesday morning to honour the dead.

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic

They marked the moment in a mood of defiance mixed with anxiety that others involved in the attacks may still be at large.

Police conducted raids overnight and circulated a photo of three men seen at the airport wheeling trollies that presumably contained explosives-filled suitcases.

Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men thought to be connected with the Brussels attacks, who is believed to be on the run. Federal Police/PA Wire
Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men thought to be connected with the Brussels attacks, who is believed to be on the run. Federal Police/PA Wire

Belgian state broadcaster RTBF identified two of the attackers as brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui, and said they are believed to have blown themselves up.

According to the report, which did not say who its sources were, Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment that was raided last week in an operation that led authorities to top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.

Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men believed to be connected with the Brussels attacks. Federal Police/PA Wire
Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men believed to be connected with the Brussels attacks. Federal Police/PA Wire

Brahim El Bakraoui, one of the airport suicide bombers, left a will on a computer found in a bin in a Brussels neighbourhood, according to Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw.

The note read: “I do not know what to do. I am on the run, people are looking for me everywhere. If I give myself up I will end up in a prison cell."

Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men believed to be connected with the Brussels attacks. Federal Police/PA Wire
Undated handout CCTV stills issued by the Belgian Federal Police of one of three men believed to be connected with the Brussels attacks. Federal Police/PA Wire

The note - described by Belgian authorities as a will - was left on a computer found in a rubbish can in a Brussels neighborhood.

Mr Van Leeuw told reporters that investigators raided Schaerbeek after the attacks and found a computer in a bin on the street including a note from Brahim El Bakraoui saying he felt increasingly unsafe and feared landing in prison.

The prosecutor also said one person detained in one of the raids remains in custody and is under questioning.

One of the men pictured at the airport is at large. Authorities have not identified him, but Belgian newspaper DH reported that he might be Najim Laachraoui, whom Belgian authorities have been searching for since last week as a suspected accomplice of Abdeslam.

Passengers at Brussels Airport this morning
Passengers at Brussels Airport this morning

Laachraoui is believed to have made the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks, a French police official said, adding that Laachraoui's DNA was found on all of the vests as well as in a Brussels apartment where they were made.

Abdeslam was arrested on Friday in the Brussels neighbourhood where he grew up, a rough place with links to several of the attackers who targeted a Paris stadium, rock concert and cafes on November 13. Those attacks killed 130 people.

A Belgian official working on the investigation said that it is a "plausible hypothesis" that Abdeslam was part of the cell linked to the Brussels attack.

French and Belgian authorities have said in recent days that the network behind the Paris attacks was much larger than initially thought - and developments this week suggest the same group could have staged both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Belgium's justice minister said on Wednesday that the country will remain at its highest terrorism threat level until further notice. That level means there is a threat of an "imminent" attack.

The aftermath of the explosions this morning
The aftermath of the explosions this morning

The airport and several Brussels metro stations remained closed on Wednesday.

Security forces stood guard around the neighbourhood housing the headquarters of European Union institutions, as nervous Brussels residents began returning to school and work under a misty rain.

As befits an international city like Brussels, the foreign minister said the dead collectively held at least 40 nationalities.

"It's a war that terrorism has declared not only on France and on Europe, but on the world," French prime minister Manuel Valls told Europe-1 radio.

Mr Valls, who planned to visit Brussels later on Wednesday, urged tougher controls of the EU's external borders.

"We must be able to face the extension of radical Islamism... that spreads in some of our neighbourhoods and perverts our youth," he said.

Najim Laachraoui
Najim Laachraoui

The Paris attackers were mainly French and Belgian citizens of North African descent, some from neighbourhoods that struggle with discrimination, unemployment and alienation.

In its claim of responsibility, IS said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the Metro.

IS warned of further attacks, issuing a statement promising "dark days" for countries taking part in the anti-IS coalition.

Mr Valls said on Wednesday that big events, be they sports or cultural, must not be put on hold for fear of attacks.

He said that includes the Euro2016 football tournament, a month-long event being held in France that starts in June.

Meanwhile, the Belgian football federation announced that it was calling off an international football friendly match against Portugal next week because of the attacks.

The Brussels airport announced that it will remain closed to passenger flights for at least another day, right up to the start of the busy Easter weekend.

Airport officials said they would have to cancel some 600 flights each on Wednesday and Thursday.

Prosecutor Mr Van Leeuw later added that investigators have found 15 kilograms of TATP explosives at the house from which the suspects in the attacks left for the airport.

He said a cab driver who took the three suspects to the airport led authorities to the house in Brussels.

Mr Van Leeuw said a special squad found the explosives inside the house, along with other chemicals that are commonly used to make bombs.

Meanwhile, dozens gathered for a moment of silence outside the European Commission, hoping to show solidarity with the victims and be with their fellow citizens in a time of crisis.

Among them was Alessandro Prister, 56, who works for Eurocontrol. He said that he "felt it was my duty to show solidarity with all the victims" and to offer testament that this kind of attack should never happen again.

Mr Prister was saddened that such things could happen in Brussels and said: "I couldn't be in any other place today."

2016-03-22T222.jpg  

Belgian media which earlier reported the arrest of the prime suspect in yesterday's bomb attacks in Brussels said the person detained was not Najim Laachraoui.

La Libre Belgique newspaper said another person had been arrested. DH, which first reported the story, also said the man detained in the Anderlecht district had been misidentified.

Bomb-maker Laachraoui is also suspected of having played a "decisive role" in the Paris terror attacks, French media has reported.

He is an accomplice of Paris terror suspect Salah Adbeslam, who was arrested in Brussels on Friday.

Laachraoui is a suspected Isil commander who made the suicide bombs used in last November's Paris terror attacks and travelled to Hungary with recently captured prime suspect Salah Abdeslam.

A Belgian national, Laachraoui is arguably Europe's most wanted men who gave police the slip last year when he returned from Syria.

Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure said Laachraoui is the third man pictured in a CCTV image taken at Brussels airport.

Yesterday prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said two of the three suspected "probably" committed a suicide attack, while the third is "actively sought".

Khalid, under a false name, had rented the flat in the Forest borough of the Belgian capital where police killed a gunman in a raid last week, RTBF said.

Investigators found after that raid an Islamic State flag, an assault rifle, detonators and a fingerprint of Paris attacks prime suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested three days later.

Both brothers have criminal records, but have not been linked by the police to terrorism until now, RTBF said.

Earlier this week, Belgian prosecutors said that DNA evidence had identified the 24-year-old as being one of the accomplices of Salah Abdeslam, who was involved in the Paris attacks which killed 130 people at sites including the Bataclan Theatre and Stade de France last November.

The DNA of Laachraoui, who used the pseudonym Soufiane Kayal according to French newspaper Liberation, is reported to have been found on "several explosive belts", as well as a house in Auvelais and one in Schaerbeek which was used to prepare explosives and hide Abdeslam, French media reported.

Laachraoui grew up in Schaerbeek and had set up at least one bomb-making factory there in the weeks before Paris. It is thought he was the mastermind behind the latest outrage after suggestions the same kind of explosive - dubbed "Mother of Satan" - was used in the attack on the Belgian capital's transport hub.

An Iraqi intelligence source claimed the attack, which had been planned by ISIS for three months, was shifted to Brussels and brought forward after the arrest of fellow Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam last Friday.

Police moved on the Schaerbeek district hours after the attacks and discovered a bomb containing nails, chemical products and an Islamic State flag at one address.

Factories

A former Catholic schoolboy and electromechanics student, Laachraoui was stopped by police in September last year, weeks before the Paris attacks, as he made his way across Europe from Syria. He was in a car with Abdeslam on their way from Budapest to Brussels when they were stopped. But police waved them on after they convinced officers they were tourists on a trip to Vienna.

Because they were travelling on false identities, police were unaware that an international warrant had been issued for him in March 2014 under his real name.

Laachraoui was only publicly identified as a Paris suspect on Monday and Brussels was targeted less than 24 hours later. He had left Belgium for Syria in February 2013 where he received terror training before returning to Europe posing as a refugee.

He was picked up in Budapest in September last year by Abdeslam and taken to Brussels. He was also given the fake identity of Soutane Kayal which he then used to move across Europe.

Under his fake identity, Laachraoui rented a house in Auvelais, near the central Belgian city of Namur, used by some of the Paris killers, and at another suspected hideout in the rue Henri Berge in Schaerbeek.

Laachraoui's DNA was later found on two of the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks. It was also found in the addresses raided in Schaerbeek and Auvelais.

Laachraoui was already suspected of recruiting others to fight in Syria and was linked to Abdelhamid Abaaoud - the Belgian mastermind behind Paris.

He was recently tried in absentia for involvement in a network of Belgians who left for Syria, in which the prosecutor called for him to be handed a 15-year prison sentence for persuading several of his friends to join the ranks of Isil. The verdict will be pronounced in May.

A manhunt was under way last night for Laachraoui , now confirmed as the third member of a team of attackers responsible for bringing carnage to Brussels airport yesterday, as the Belgian capital suffered a string of bombings by jihadists that left 34 dead.

Belgium shut down its airports and train network in response to the attacks and stepped up security at its nuclear power plants. The Belgian authorities warned against all travel to its capital.

Days after the Belgian authorities ended their four-month hunt for the Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam, a new pursuit began as police issued a CCTV image of three men pushing heavily laden luggage trolleys into Brussels Airport shortly before its departure hall, crowded with travellers, was devastated by two explosions at 8am.

The discovery of an unexploded suicide vest at the international hub led to speculation last night that Laachraoui may have pulled out of the assault at the last moment.

An hour after the attack, a third device detonated on a train at the central Maelbeek metro station, killing 20 and injuring more than 100.

As a European capital once more became the scene of choreographed murder, Isil claimed responsibility for the atrocity. Brussels had been living in fear of such an event since it emerged that the city had been the base for the attacks on Paris last November.

There was speculation that the attackers may have been prompted to strike swiftly because they feared police may be closing in on them, after the revelation on Monday by Abdeslam's lawyer that his client was "collaborating" and "communicating" with police. Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an expert on Islamic radicalism in Belgium, said: "These guys acted because of last week, the arrest of Salah Abdeslam. They needed to kill immediately before they would be identified. It is not in retaliation over the capture. It is rather that their cover might have been blown."

The Belgian Prime Minister acknowledged that fears of further attacks on home soil had come true.

Kalashnikov

A sombre Charles Michel said: "What we feared has happened. In this time of tragedy, this black moment for our country, I appeal to everyone to remain calm but also to show solidarity."

After a day in which Brussels, the base of the institutions of the EU as well as the headquarters of Nato, was put in lockdown, federal prosecutors confirmed last night that raids in the Schaerbeek area of the city had led to the discovery of an explosive device containing nails, chemical products and an "Islamic State" flag.

At least one Kalashnikov - the weapon used by the Paris attackers - was recovered from the attack on the airport. Doctors treating the injured said they had recovered nails from survivors, suggesting the bomb or bombs had been packed with additional shrapnel.

Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said two of the three men in the CCTV photo had "very likely committed a suicide attack".

But questions were being asked about the timing of the attack and whether it was linked to publicity surrounding the arrest of Abdeslam in a shootout on Friday.

Ministers and officials were barely able to conceal their relief at the capture of the Belgian-born jihadist, who appears to have spent the four months since participating in the bloodbath hiding in his native city. One minister tweeted: "We got him."

But revelations from prosecutors that they believed the jihadist may have been plotting further attacks and confirmation from his lawyer that his client was co-operating with investigators led to concern that the killings were the work of members of the same or a linked jihadist cell who believed security services were close to tracking them down.

Mr Van Ostaeyen said yesterday's bombs followed the same logic of previous attacks: kill as many people as possible, without discrimination.

He added: "I'm afraid that the police are just a few steps behind. They were very convinced that they stopped something big last week. And Isis probably wanted to show they can hit the heart of Europe at any time."

Witnesses described hearing shouts in Arabic and gunshots moments before a heavy detonation blew out windows at the airport, bringing down a rain of ceiling fittings and water from ruptured pipes on the bodies of passengers who had earlier been queuing at check-in desks.

The bombing at Maelbeek station took place some 100 metres from the headquarters of the European Commission. Dazed and injured commuters spilled out on to the streets in scenes reminiscent of the 7/7 attacks on London.

Within minutes of the assault, the Belgian capital was placed in a state of lockdown with all public transport suspended and workers ordered to remain in their offices and pupils in their schools. Security was also tightened at Belgium's nuclear power plants.

Meanwhile, a small number of terror suspects based in Ireland are being "monitored closely" in the wake of the Brussels terror attack.

Threat

The Government has said an attack here is "not likely" but we cannot consider ourselves "immune from the threat".

Taoiseach Enda Kenny ordered an emergency meeting of the little-known National Security Committee yesterday to assess the risk to Ireland from terrorists.

The committee is chaired by the Secretary General of Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, and includes the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Mark Mellet, and Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan, as well as officials from several other government departments.

Security was stepped up at airports across the globe yesterday. In Britain, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, told the Commons home affairs select committee that Britons should be "alert but not alarmed", and disclosed steps to boost security at ports and airports.

Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, announced 1,600 additional police officers would patrol air terminals and other key sites.

Thomas de Maiziere, his German counterpart, also revealed security measures would be increased at "critical infrastructure" and along the country's borders. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands followed suit and New York intensified policing at its three main airports, bridges, tunnels and on public transport.

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs has advised that Irish citizens planning travel to Brussels are "advised to delay non-essential travel until the situation has stabilised".

For more information on the Department's advice, see here

Irish Independent

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