(AFP) – Belgian investigators are struggling to build a clear picture of the jihadist team that bombed Brussels airport and metro, releasing the only suspect charged over the attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.
As links between cells in several countries emerge, police across Europe have stepped up efforts to unravel extremist networks on the continent.
Just four months after the jihadist carnage that killed 130 people in Paris, investigators in France say they have foiled another major attack there, swooping on two addresses in the capital’s suburbs and seizing an arsenal of weapons.
There are few details about the plot, except that it may also have involved people in Belgium and the Netherlands.
– Brussels manhunt –
Police have released a new video of the third suspect in the March 22 Zaventem airport attack — the so-called “man in the hat” seen with the two suicide bombers — who fled after his own bomb did not go off.
A suspect named as Faycal C. was charged with terrorist murder and investigators had thought he was the man in the hat, but he was released Monday after suspicions “were not substantiated”.
Najim Laachraoui, one of the two airport suicide bombers, is believed to have made bombs for both Brussels and November’s Paris attacks.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor revealed Friday that Laachraoui’s DNA was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, and on a bomb at the Stade de France stadium.
– Thwarted attack in France –
French police said they halted an attack by 34-year-old Reda Kriket after arresting him Thursday and discovering an arsenal of weapons in the Paris suburbs.
In one apartment, police found five Kalashnikov assault rifles, a machine gun, seven handguns and explosives — including TATP, the improvised explosive favoured by IS jihadists.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said a planned attack at “an advanced stage” had been foiled, without giving further details.
Belgian authorities arrested two men Friday on suspicion of involvement with the plot.
Kriket was convicted in absentia in Belgium last year at the trial of a jihadist network linked to Syria in which another of the defendants was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks.
The network was led by Khalid Zerkani, a 41-year-old from Brussels, described by authorities as Belgium’s “largest recruiter of aspiring jihadists”.
Among those who went to Syria through the network were Abaaoud and another Paris attacker, Chakib Akrouh.
Zerkani is also thought to have been a mentor to Laachraoui.
The two men held in Brussels, suspected of working with Kriket on plans for a new French attack, have been named as Abderamane A. and Rabah N. They have been charged with “participation in a terrorist group”.
Abderamane A., who police shot in the leg after a stand-off at a tram-stop in Brussels’ Schaerbeek district, appears to be a jihadist veteran.
He was convicted in Paris in 2005 at the trial of a network accused of providing logistical support to the killers of legendary Afghan resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated in 2001.
– Rotterdam raids –
Dutch police found ammunition in the house of a French national arrested Sunday in Rotterdam in connection with the new French plot.
The man, a 32-year-old identified as Anis B., is thought to have previously travelled to Syria.
No explosives were found during the raid in which a total of four men, including two suspects of Algerian background, were arrested.
Anis. B is expected to be handed over to France after an extradition hearing in Amsterdam.
– The Italian connection –
An Algerian held in Italy as part of a probe into fake ID documents used by the Paris and Brussels attackers was interrogated Sunday but has refused to answer questions.
The suspect, named as 40-year-old Djamal Eddine Ouali, was detained under a European arrest warrant near the southern city of Salerno on Saturday, and questioned in prison by prosecutors.
Italy’s ANSA news agency reported that the forgery ring created fake papers used by Najim Laachraoui as well as Salah Abdeslam — prime suspect in the Paris attacks — and Mohamed Belkaid, who was shot dead by Brussels police on March 15.
Investigators think Laachraoui and Belkaid were in phone contact with several of the Paris attackers on the night of France’s worst ever terror attacks.