Brussels bombers ‘initially planned to target France’

Terrorists changed target after Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam’s arrest, prosecutors say

Mohamed Abrini:  admitted to Belgian police he was “the man in the hat” who had been captured in CCTV footage alongside two other Brussels Airport bombers minutes before two explosions at the city’s airport on March 22nd. Photograph:  Belgian federal police/AFP/Getty Images

Mohamed Abrini: admitted to Belgian police he was “the man in the hat” who had been captured in CCTV footage alongside two other Brussels Airport bombers minutes before two explosions at the city’s airport on March 22nd. Photograph: Belgian federal police/AFP/Getty Images

 

The terrorists who launched twin attacks in Belgium last month had initially been planning to strike France, but changed their target to Brussels following the arrest of Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam, according to Belgian prosecutors.

In a statement, the federal police said that “the terrorist group initially had the intention to strike in France again”, but they were “surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation” and instead took the decision to strike in Brussels.

The statement came after police charged Mohamed Abrini, a key suspect in the Paris and Belgium attacks, with involvement in the Brussels attacks.

Announcing the development, police said the 31-year-old Belgian had told investigators that he was the “man in the hat” who had been captured in CCTV footage alongside two other Brussels Airport bombers minutes before two explosions at the city’s airport on March 22nd.

But some security analysts questioned the veracity of Abrini’s claims, arguing that his behaviour did not match the behaviour of the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for both the Paris and Brussels attacks. Security specialist Pieter Van Ostaeyen told Belgian TV that the reported confession by Abrini did not correspond with the behaviour of someone with his function in Islamic State, with suggestions that he may have been covering for someone else.

Arrest warrant

Known to police for involvement in armed robbery, Abrini is believed to have spent time in Syria, along with his younger brother, who is understood to have died there while fighting for Islamic State, also known as Isis.

Police on Friday also arrested a man known as Osama K, who is believed to have been caught in video footage alongside the Maelbeek metro bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui on the day of the attacks.

Two other men arrested by police following raids on Friday were charged with offering assistance to Abrini and Osama K. One of the men was identified as a Rwandan national, the other as a 27-year-old man, though his nationality was not disclosed.

Almost three weeks since three bombs in Brussels left 32 people dead and more than 300 people injured, the arrest of Abrini represents a breakthrough for Belgian police who have been sharply criticised for their handling of the terrorist threat in Brussels.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13th, which were masterminded by Belgian jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Belgium has been on high alert for terrorist activity. The Brussels attacks took place four days after Paris attack suspect Abdeslam was arrested in the suburb of Molenbeek in the Belgian capital.

Friday’s arrests took place after police released CCTV footage which showed the route taken by the third airport bomber after he fled the airport just after two bombs exploded on March 22nd.