Two brothers and the suspected bomb maker in the November Paris massacre were named as the suicide bombers in this week’s Brussels attacks as more evidence emerged that the perpetrators of the attacks in both cities were linked – a likely confirmation that a terrorism network had emerged in northern Europe.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said Ibrahim El Bakraoui blew himself up at Zaventem airport at 7:58 a.m. on Tuesday. About an hour later, his brother, Khalid El Bakraoui, did the same at the crowded Maelbeek metro stop in the centre of Brussels.
Late on Wednesday, Associated Press and other media, citing officials who could not be identified, reported that Najim Laachraoui, a Belgian national, was the second terrorist who died in the airport attack. Belgian police believe he was the bomb maker in the Paris carnage, which killed 130 people, and had been looking for him since last week. Several reports said that he was identified by his DNA, which was found on explosive material used in the Paris attacks and in several hideouts used by the Paris terrorists.
The brothers, both Belgian citizens, were known to police and had criminal records, though not for terrorism-related offences.
The holes in the Belgian police’s anti-terrorism investigations were highlighted on Wednesday when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that one of the Brussels attackers, later identified by Mr. Erdogan’s office as Ibrahim, had been caught in Turkey in June, 2015, and deported to the Netherlands. Mr. Erdogan said Turkey reported the deportation to Dutch and Belgian authorities a month later, adding that Belgium “ignored” Turkey’s warnings that the man was a militant.
Mr. Van Leeuw put the death toll from the attacks at 31 and said that “unfortunately the number could rise in the coming days” because of the severity of victims’ wounds. The number of injured was 270, he said. More than 60 remained in intensive care. Islamic State has claimed credit for the Brussels attacks, as it did for the Paris carnage.
Speaking in Flemish at a news conference in Brussels, Mr. Van Leeuw said Ibrahim had been identified as one of the three men involved in the airport attack. In the now-famous image captured by airport CCTV on Tuesday morning, he is the man in the middle wearing a black glove on his left hand, possibly to conceal a detonator.
Mr. Van Leeuw did not identify the second suicide bomber, on the left in the photo, also wearing a glove, though media reports now say he was Mr. Laachraoui.
It is the third suspect, on the right, wearing a light-coloured jacket and dark hat, who has not been identified and is thought to be on the run. He is now the most wanted suspected criminal in Europe and the subject of a massive manhunt.
Both the French newspaper Le Monde and the Belgian broadcaster RTBF had identified Mr. Laachraoui as the fugitive bomb maker in the Paris attacks, which hit a theatre, a stadium and several bars and restaurants. Various reports said he went to Syria in 2013 and was travelling with Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspected perpetrators of the Paris attacks, when their car was stopped at the Austrian-Hungarian border last September, two months before the Paris attacks.
Mr. Abdeslsam was arrested in a raid and shootout in Molenbeek, the Muslim neighbourhood of Brussels, on Friday. He is in prison and due to appear in a Brussels court on Thursday.
A taxi driver who drove the three suspects to the airport on Tuesday morning gave the police information that has helped the manhunt. He led police to a residence in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood a few hours after the attack, police confirmed. There, police found a nail bomb, chemicals that may have been ingredients for explosives and an Islamic State flag.
Police also found a note written by Ibrahim El Bakraoui on a laptop computer left in a bin nearby. It said: “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 cell.”
The manhunt came as flags flew at half mast throughout the country in memory of the victims of the attacks, 20 of whom were killed in the subway explosion. The Belgian king asked for three days of mourning and a minute of silence was held at noon Wednesday as a tribute to the victims.
Brussels remained under the highest level of security alert on Wednesday. Police blockades were still in place near the Maelbeek subway station and soldiers patrolled the main streets and square. The main airport continued to be closed, although some international train routes, such as between London and Brussels, were operating again.
Some residents of Brussels expressed dismay that their city was attacked even though it is widely known that the Paris attacks were plotted in Brussels.
At the Place de la Bourse, the Brussels square that filled with mourners, candles and flowers after the attacks, Vincent Bonnet, a director at the European libraries bureau, said: “I never thought we would get hit, otherwise you cannot live; you cannot live with a sword hanging over your head.”
Another mourner, Mohamed Masribatti, a Belgian health care counsellor, also said he had not thought that Brussels would come under attack. As a Muslim, he is worried that the city’s Islamic community will come under intense scrutiny. “My religion is one of peace, not one of politics and ideology,” he said. “The consequences? I am afraid for my children and their future. I am afraid there will be racism against him.”
Samir Benelcaid, a Molenbeek resident of Moroccan descent and an Arabic radio host, said he feared that Muslims would be smeared as terrorists because of the Brussels and Paris attacks. “Many Muslims died in the attacks and I will not apologize,” he said. “It’s not collective responsibility. … We are happy that these guys [the perpetrators] are getting captured.”
BRUSSELS — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2016 6:38AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2016 11:59PM EDT