When the investigation began into the November terrorist attacks in Paris, which claimed 130 lives and was carried out by ISIS, the authorities hunted for 10 perpetrators. Now that they’ve captured one of those suspects, Salah Abdeslam, they’ve realized the network behind the attacks was much larger than they thought.
“After the terror attacks in Paris, I said to one TV channel in the U.S. that we were searching for around 10 people with heavy weapons,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, according to CNN. “We have far more than that since November, and not only in Belgium but also in France. For the moment we have found more than 30 people involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are sure there are others.”
They have learned this sobering fact since talking to Abdeslam, whose involvement in the Paris attacks has been unclear. According to the Independent, it’s believed the terrorist helped build explosives, hire cars, rent hideouts, and drive the attackers around in preparation for the attacks.
And since he’s started talking, investigators have identified and are now hunting for another terrorist involved in the Paris attacks: Najim Laachraoui.
Abdeslam’s DNA was found on a suicide belt on the street after the attacks on restaurants, shops, and a concert venue on November 13. Paris prosecutor François Molins said on that night, the terrorist was supposed to ignite his suicide belt outside the Stade de France but “backed out”; it’s believed that he dropped off suicide bombers at the stadium.
He’s since spent four months on the run and was captured after a gun battle in a suburb of Brussels called Molenbeek. Since then, investigators have linked DNA found in numerous houses used by the terrorist network to Laachraoui, BBC News added.
The identification illuminates another aspect of the Paris attacks, revealing its depth and breadth, Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw indicated in a press conference.
“We have a certain number of pieces of the puzzle and some pieces have found their place, but we’re far from having completed the puzzle.”
Laachraoui’s puzzle piece fits somewhere between Abdeslam and the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. In September last year, officials believe Laachraoui traveled with Abdeslam to Budapest while using the alias Soufiane Kayal. This same person had called Abaaoud with directions leading up to the Paris attacks. The name has also been linked to a villa in southern Belgium used by the attackers.
Officials are asking for the public’s help in locating this new suspect, however, they warned he’s armed and dangerous. They’re also looking for a previously ID’d accomplice of Salah’s, named Mohammed Abrini, who may have driven him to Paris for the attacks.
This new revelation in the investigation is showing police that the network that supported Salah in the months after the Paris attacks is much bigger than anticipated, evidenced by the fact that he was able to remain a fugitive for four months. Authorities believed he’d left Belgium.
“We don’t know what he did for these four months. Did he stay in Brussels the whole time, or did he travel around?” said Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon.
Apparently, the terrorist was looking ahead to plan more attacks in the wake of the one in Paris. Reynders said he “was ready to restart something from Brussels, and it’s maybe the reality.” The stash of heavy weapons previously discovered and the “new network of people around him in Brussels” mean investigators are taking the threat seriously.
“We know that a number of people are possibly on their way to Western Europe, with the intention of conducting an attack — to, with the ‘jihad mentality,’ do damage to Western democracy,” warned Belgian State Security Chief Jaak Raes.
Meanwhile Salah’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said his client “can be of invaluable worth for different parties.” And for those who lost family in the Paris attacks, his worth is priceless.
“We hope [his arrest] will help us in the search for truth,” said one support group.
[Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP]