Authorities have linked this week’s attack in Brussels to the one in Paris last November and are desperately trying — and possibly failing — to prevent another ISIS-inspired assault on European soil as a key terror suspect linked to both events has stopped talking.
Salah Abdeslam, 26, was captured on Friday after a gun battle in a Molenbeek hideout mere steps from his childhood home. Though he initially hinted that he was “ready to restart something from Brussels,” the terrorist has since stopped cooperating.
Lawyer Sven Mary, who is representing Salah Abdeslam, told the media that his client “didn’t know” about the bomb attacks against the Zaventem airport and metro station in Brussels that killed 31 and injured more than 200. He has not cooperated with investigators since the attack, Newsweek reported.
“I don’t want him to close up again. If he closes up again, we will be facing more cases like Zaventem and the Bataclan… the Bataclan concert hall was hit in the Paris attacks.”
Evidently, Salah Abdeslam is anxious to be extradited to France, where Mary said he “wants to explain himself.”
According to the New York Times, investigators believe Salah Abdeslam is the link between the two ISIS-inspired assaults against soft targets in both European cities; he may have played a logistics role in Paris. Further, evidence is emerging that links two suicide bombers who exploded themselves on Tuesday to the November carnage.
The link is a safe house used just before the attacks in Paris. Salah Abdeslam used the residence and one of the two brothers implicated in the strikes in Brussels — identified as Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui — used it as well, CNN added.
A senior ISIS operative named Mohamed Belkaid also provided cover fire for Abdeslam as he escaped his Belgian hideout on Friday. Belkaid and another man, named Najim Laachraoui, reportedly coordinated the Paris attacks from Brussels. Laachraoui’s DNA was found in a bomb factory where the devices that killed 130 people in France were made; he also may have been the second suicide bomber at the airport Tuesday.
As Salah Abdeslam remains tight-lipped in Belgium, investigators are also on the hunt for a second suspect involved in Tuesday’s deadly strike.
All told, five terrorists carried out the bombings, CNN reported. Three were at the airport, one of them identified as Ibrahim El Bakroui and the other Laachraoui. A third suspect is on the run; he placed the “heaviest” bomb at the airport and left and it was later detonated safely by authorities. The second at-large suspect was involved in the attack on the metro station.
One of those suicide bombers has already been identified as the second El Bakroui brother, Khalid. But security footage has spotted another man carrying a large bag at the station. Right now, investigators don’t know whether he was among the 20 dead or escaped.
Officials also believe that Tuesday’s assault was supposed to be much deadlier, but was rushed after the capture of Salah Abdeslam. One hint is a strange will left behind on a laptop by Laachraoui, the airport suicide bomber/bomb maker. In it, he expressed fear at being caught and the need to “rush.”
Investigators think Salah Abdeslam was initially part of the Brussels attack, and though his “node” of the network was taken out, a second was rushing forward with its plans as security services moved in. The rushed attack was, therefore, smaller.
Now, authorities are trying to prevent the next strike, but CNN analyst Bob Baer thinks that is impossible, given the number of ISIS followers and the extent of their armaments.
“I think Britain is to follow, with more attacks in France. They’re finding so many bombs in the more apartments that they take down. I think they’re shocked by the amount of armament and the number of followers and how big the network was connected to Paris and now Brussels.”
Authorities still don’t know if the Tuesday attackers acted alone or if they had help from another terror cell. A number of terrorists, therefore, may still be at large, and their “tight-knit” communities are impossible to penetrate, explaining why Salah Abdeslam hid in plain sight for so long.
“Belgium has been trying to hold back another force of nature: A disaffected, disassociated youth, warped and wrapped in ISIS’s corrosive ideology,” Baer said. “Their numbers have been too great for Belgian counterterrorism efforts to cope.”
[Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP]