Friday 23 August 2019

Paris Terror Attacks: Hunt for terror cell follows the trail from Syria to Brussels

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Belgian police guard a street in Brussels where arrests were made linked to the attacks in Paris

Gordon Rayner

A Belgian parking ticket found inside a rented Volkswagen Polo has turned an investigation of seven dead suicide bombers into an international manhunt for a cell of up 20 terrorists involved in the Paris attacks.

In the hours after the wave of co-ordinated attacks on Friday night, French police reassured Parisians that all of the Isil terrorists had either blown themselves up or been killed.

But the investigation was turned on its head when officers examined the Belgian-registered VW Polo, left parked near the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were murdered.

A parking ticket inside the car was from the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels, which is notorious as a crucible of Islamic fanaticism. It led to the discovery that the car had been rented by the brother of one of the dead terrorists and the realisation that more jihadis may have been involved.

By last night, seven men were in custody, another was being hunted urgently and intelligence agencies fear up to five more men could be involved.

The Belgian connection

As well as the black VW Polo, police found a black Belgian-registered Seat Leon abandoned in the suburb of Montreuil, three miles from the locations of the attacks. Inside the Seat were three Kalashnikov assault rifles, five magazines of bullets and 11 empty magazines.

A third Belgian car, a grey VW Golf, was stopped by French police at Cambrai, near the Belgian border, on Saturday morning, but police found nothing suspicious, took the occupants' names and allowed them to carry on.

It was only later on Saturday that the VW Polo was linked to Salah Abdeslam, whose older brother Ibrahim was among the seven terrorists who died in the attacks. Computer checks on Salah Abdeslam showed that he was one of the three men inside the VW Golf stopped at Cambrai. Belgian police were immediately alerted and at 4pm on Saturday three men were arrested near Brussels' Osseghem station. Armed police operations continued yesterday, leading to four further arrests and the seizure of the VW Golf.

Two of the seven suicide bombers from Friday's attacks were Frenchmen living in Brussels and one of the seven being held was also French and living in the Belgian capital.

The Abdeslam brothers

Salah Abdeslam (26) became Europe's most wanted man yesterday when French police issued an international arrest warrant for him, warning the public that he is dangerous and therefore "do not intervene yourself".

The 5ft 7ins tall suspect had slipped through the fingers of French police when they let him and three alleged accomplices go on their way after stopping their car in Cambrai.

He and his brothers appear to be at the heart of the terrorist cell behind the attacks. Ibrahim (31) blew himself up at Le Comptoir Voltaire restaurant on Friday. The third, Mohammed, was one of the seven men arrested in Belgium.

Salah Abdeslam had rented the VW Polo that led police to the cell, while Ibrahim had rented the Seat Leon used in the attacks. Police in Belgium were granted another 24 hours yesterday to question Mohammed Abdeslam.

The 20 plotters

With seven suicide bombers dead, seven others under arrest and one man on the run, 15 men have so far been linked to the Paris attacks. But Belgian intelligence officials have suggested that up to 20 people may have been part of the terrorist cell that planned the attacks, meaning a total of six people could be on the run.

The Syrian passport

A Syrian passport found beside one of the Paris suicide bombers has raised the possibility that one of the attackers may have masqueraded as an asylum seeker to infiltrate Europe.

The passport found after the attack at France's national stadium was used to enter Greece less than two months ago along a route used by hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants this year.

Last night authorities said the passport was a fake. Bearing the name of Ahmad Almohammad (25), it was used by an asylum seeker who registered on the island of Leros on October 3.

He reached Leros after his makeshift boat from Turkey carrying around 70 migrants foundered off the coast and he was picked up by Greek coastguards. He reportedly applied for asylum in Serbia on October 7 before travelling on to Croatia, Hungary, Austria and then, it is believed, France.

The owner was allowed to proceed through Serbia and Croatia because he passed what is essentially the only test in place: he had no international arrest warrant against him, police in both states said yesterday.

The bomber trained in a Syrian terror camp

A French suicide bomber who blew himself up during the attack on the Bataclan concert hall is believed to have trained at an Isil terrorist camp in Syria.

Ismael Omar Mostefai made contact with the extremists in Syria after travelling through Turkey in late 2013.

The 29-year-old was identified by DNA taken from one of his fingers found at the scene of the deadliest of the Paris attacks. Mostefai is thought to have returned early in 2014.

His DNA was already in France's national DNA databank because he had been arrested and convicted of a string of petty crimes while growing up in the Paris suburb of Courcouronnes, although he was never jailed.

He was flagged up as a potential security threat in 2010 after being radicalised in Chartres, a cathedral town south-west of Paris, reportedly by a Belgian imam.

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