Due to other requirements on my time, I was forced to sit back for a few days and watch as things unfolded in the aftermath of the Brussels bombings. Thankfully, this was so, because we’ve seen raid upon raid and arrest after arrest since late last week with little clarity added to the picture since then. All that seems to be apparent is that the situation is far more complex and worrisome than authorities have either believed or made known to the public before now.
One of the most important searches that took place was on Wednesday at rue Max Roos 4 in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek. In a fifth floor apartment rented by the El Bakraoui brothers, investigators discovered a relatively bare dwelling housing some very dangerous materials: 40 gallons of acetone and 8 gallons of peroxide, the easily obtainable components of the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), 33 pounds of TATP itself, detonators, and a suitcase full of nails and screws. Outside the apartment they discovered a laptop belonging to Ibrahim El Bakraoui in a trash bin.
Authorities also conducted a raid at rue du Busselenberg 64 in the Brussels district of Anderlecht. An individual named Oussama A. was detained but released later in the day. It is unclear what, if any, connection he had to events.
By late Thursday, officials announced the arrest of other individuals, and for the most part we know little about them as of yet: Rabah N. in rue de Mérode, Saint-Gilles, an associate of Reda Kriket, who had just been arrested outside of Paris; Aboubakar A. in Jette; Tawkif A. in rue de Belgrade, Forest; Abderamane Ameroud, shot at the tram station on avenue Rogier in Schaerbeek; and Faycal Cheffou, allegedly “the man in white” whose bomb did not detonate at the airport.
Abderamane Ameroud is an interesting piece of this story, because he has already spent time in jail for terrorism offenses. He was convicted in 2005 for his role in providing logistical support to the Tunisians who assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud. What he has to do specifically with current events is unknown, but his past experience puts him in the thick of French-speaking jihadism. The assassination of Massoud and its tentacles may serve as a good article for this blog in the near future.
The case of Faycal Cheffou, unfortunately, reflects the dangers inherent in a high-visibility case like this. Cheffou was identified in the media as “the man in white.” Reports had previously identified him as Najim Laachraoui until DNA evidence proved otherwise. He was then briefly linked to the missing Mohamed Abrini, before news reports quickly switched to Cheffou. Cheffou was described as an independent journalist, and a July 2014 video of him quickly surfaced criticizing the government’s treatment of refugees at the Steenokkerzeel detention center near Zaventem. He was charged with participating in a terrorist group, in terrorist murders and in attempted terrorist murders. Yet, by Monday he was released citing a lack of evidence. Brussels authorities are already under intense scrutiny by the public over their handling of the terrorist threat, and this just added to the pressure. It is unclear if Cheffou has no relation to events whatsoever, or if it is simply a matter of the evidence not being strong enough. It seems hard to imagine that he would have been arrested out of the clear blue, without some connection to the jihadist-salafi scene in the city.
Other raids/searches took place (the word “dozens” has been used), but I have not been able to find many details. For example, a security perimeter was set outside the rue de Pavillon 20 in Schaerbeek and a search conducted of the 2nd floor left apartment, but nothing further was given. Thirteen raids were conducted on Sunday (4 raids in Mechelen, 1 in Duffel, 3 in Brussels, 1 in Molenbeek, 1 in Anderlecht, and 3 in Laeken). Of the nine people detained, five were released after questioning.
Amidst the general unease surrounding the attacks, three Syrian men were detained on Friday at the Hôtel Mercure de Pont-a-Lesse in Dinant. Authorities initially checked out a suspicious package that was reported, but determined that it was not dangerous. Nevertheless, the three men because they could not speak French and could not explain why they were there.
Breaking with the news of Cheffou’s release was the announcement of charges against three more individuals: Yassine A., Mohamed B. and Aboubaker O. The information has not been confirmed by Belgian authorities, but the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Yassine A. is 29-year-old Yassin Attar, a nephew of the El Bakraoui brothers. A last will and testament on a laptop belonging to Ibrahim El Bakraoui pointed investigators to Attar. Traces of explosives were found in his hair and on his clothes, but officials inexplicably have released him, relying on an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements.
To top everything off, the country is preparing to begin a major trial against the targets of the January 2015 raid in the town of Verviers, a cell part of an earlier plot by Paris attacker Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
French police arrested Reda Kriket in Argenteuil on Thursday. Kriket, born January 17, 1982, was well-known to both French and Belgian authorities as a jihadist fundraiser who traveled himself to Syria in 2014. He was convicted in the “La filière syrienne” trial in Belgium last year with Abaaoud, recruiter Khalid Zerkani (Papa Noël), and a host of other foreign fighters—some of whom are already dead. Other associates, like Rabah N. above and Anis B., have also been arrested in the past week. Authorities claim that Kriket and his associates are being arrested for involvement in a separate plot.
Dutch police arrested a French national in Rotterdam, identified as Anis B.*, on Sunday. Three other men were also detained at the corner of Van Oosterzeestraat and Gerrit van Lindestraat in Rotterdam West at the time of his arrest, two Algerians in their forties and one completely unidentified man. Anis B. is a 32-year-old Algerian born in Montreuil, a Paris banlieue. He is now refusing extradition to France, meaning that he will not be moving in the next 90 days as his appeal is being adjudicated. Authorities searched two related locations in Rotterdam: Burgemeester Meineszstraat 8 (8-96 by the entrance according to online photos) and a location in the apartment bloc Mathenesserweg 136A-164C.
Germany arrested three Kosovans near the Austrian border driving a car with Belgian plates last Tuesday morning based on a tip. They were eventually released, declared to have no connection to the Brussels attacks. Two other individuals were arrested later in the week: a 28-year-old Moroccan asylum seeker in Giessen and a known individual from the Salafi scene in Düsseldorf named Samir E. The asylum seeker was found to have non-matching identification documents after returning from Brussels. Authorities have been analyzing his mobile phone and have asked a judge to issue an extended arrest warrant. Der Spiegel has reported that a man arrested in Giessen received text messages that included the word “fin” — French for “end” — three minutes before the attack at the Maelbeek metro station.
On Monday, Italian police arrested Djamal Eddine Ouali, a 40-year-old Algerian, in the southern city of Bellizzi, for providing fraudulent documents to Najim Laachraoui. Ouali’s workhop contained digital photographs of three of the Paris attackers in addition to Laachraoui.
A New Major Suspect
Media reports on Friday revealed a major new suspect in the terrorist plots unfolding in Europe. Naim al-Hamed, a 28-year-old Syrian from Hama, was named as a suspect in Brussels bombings. According to a report in Le Monde on Saturday, his DNA was found in the rue Max Roos apartment. He arrived in Europe on September 20, 2015, with Mounir Ahmed Alaaj, aka Amine Choukri, aka Sofiane Ayari, the man who had fled the rue du Dries apartment with Abdeslam and was later caught with him at his aunt’s apartment. Al-Hamed and Ayari had confirmed contact with Abdeslam in Ulm, Germany, on the night 2-3 October 2015.
Murder of a Nuclear Security Guard
One last story that broke over the week was the murder of Fleurus nuclear research centre guard Didier Prosper. News reports stated the Prosper was murdered just days after the Brussels attack and had his credentials stolen. Belgian officials have strenuously denied any link to terror, however. They have also denied that his credentials were stolen. No information has been given, that I’m aware of, as to how the terror angle has been ruled out.
*The press revealed the full name of Anis B. on March 30th as Anis Bahri [3/31/2016]