Here are the facts as they currently stand with respect to perpetrators of Tuesday’s attacks, and they are somewhat surprising if you’ve been paying attention. At least four people were involved—three according to CCTV footage from Zaventem airport, and one at the metro station at Maelbeek. Authorities have confirmed the identity of one of the bombers at the airport and the one who bombed the metro station. They are the El Bakraoui brothers who the media had briefly speculated were the two individuals who had fled the raid in Forest, which kicked off the whole chain of events with respect to Salah Abdeslam’s capture and this week’s attack.
As I sit here writing, I’m reading reports that the second bomber at the airport has been identified as Najim Laachraoui, aka Soufiane Kayal. He is the individual on the left of the picture below:
On the face of it, the individual doesn’t look at all like the Laachraoui/Kayal from the Western Union CCTV footage or the B/W passport image we have of him, but I’ve seen a couple of other screen grabs from the airport CCTV where you could make the case that it’s him. And I’m sure the authorities must have DNA proof for them to report this. The man on the right was said to have fled the scene, and authorities are still trying to work out his identity.
As I wrote previously, the El Bakraoui brothers are known violent criminals in Brussels. Ibrahim, the bomber in the middle of the airport footage, was involved in a January 2010 robbery of a Western Union, in which he engaged in an exchange of gunfire with police as he and his accomplices fled. He struck one injuring them and was given a 9-year sentence in October of that year, although it is unclear how much of this constituted prison time. Khalid, the Maelbeek metro bomber, was not to be outdone. He was sentenced in February 2011 to 5 years of probation without prison for his role in car-jackings. His accomplices included a couple of men who were notorious for their armed escape in 2009 from the Brussels Palace of Justice.
How they became involved in the global jihad is a story that has yet to be told. But somehow they did. It is tempting to reach for the explanation of prison radicalization, but it is not clear how much time either of them ever spent in prison. Khalid received probation only for his publically-known offense, and Ibrahim clearly did not spend the full nine years of his sentence in prison. In fact, we learned today from Turkish President Erdogan that Ibrahim was detained in Gaziantep in June 2015 and returned to Europe on 14 July. That should have been a huge red flag, but like so many others, he slipped through the cracks after that. Khalid has recently shown up on Interpol’s website as a red notice. It is not clear when he appeared there, but if the URL of the page is any indication, his profile was created sometime in 2015.
Najim Laachraoui was born on May 18, 1991, in Morocco but grew up in Belgium. He attended in the Sainte-Famille Catholic school, graduating in 2009, after which he began studying electromechanics. He was known to be a good student, but interrupted his studies in February 2013 to go to Syria as a foreign fighter, where he became known as Abu Idriss. We do not know how many times he has returned to Europe, but we do know Salah Abdeslam drove him and Mohamed Belkaïd across Europe in early September 2015. He and Belkaïd seemed to serve as coordinators for the Paris attacks and were involved in logistical matters, such as procuring a safe house and wiring money for further plots.
As events have unfolded and more information has come to light, a number of questions have been gnawing at me.
- I’ve always been under the impression that Belkaïd (Bouzid) and Laachraoui (Kayal) were two of the more important cogs in the Islamic State’s attacks. Yet, Belkaïd was killed by a sniper as he provided covering fire for the escape of two others from the apartment in Forest, and Laachraoui apparently killed himself in the attack on Zaventem. Are they less important than I believed to operations?
The remaining questions have to do with the brothers El Bakraoui.
- When and how were they radicalized?
- On a more cynical note, why were they even free men? Surely, they serve as a demonstrable example of the laxity and failure in the Belgian legal system.
- Why wasn’t Ibrahim El Bakraoui watched after being returned from Gaziantep in the summer of 2015?
- Given the brothers legal run-ins, how were Khalid’s prints not matched to the safe house he had procured in Charleroi under the name Ibrahim Maaroufi? If they had been, why was the public not alerted to his involvement long ago?
- Even if the brothers were not the ones who fled the apartment in Forest, why did the authorities not alert the public to their potential involvement? It is inconceivable that the media came to associate them with that raid without a government source to seed the fact.