Hunt for cell behind Islamic State attacks extends across Europe

People in Brussels gathered "Place de la Bourse" for a minute of silence on Thursday to pay tribute to the victims of the terror attacks. (Photo for The Washington Post by Capucine Granier-Deferre)

BRUSSELS - The investigation into last week's deadly attacks in Brussels extended farther across Europe on Sunday after Italian police arrested a new suspect believed to have helped Islamic State militants slip into western Europe unnoticed.

Italian police said late Saturday that they had arrested an Algerian man suspected of helping several of Islamic State plotters obtain false identification, allowing them to evade authorities as they laid plans for attacks in Belgium and France.

"The Algerian arrested today in Salerno is part of a network of forgers of residency" documents, police said in a message on Twitter.

According to Italian news agency ANSA, 40-year-old Djamal Eddine Ouali had been the subject of a Belgian arrest warrant since January. ANSA said he was believed to have provided falsified papers to Salah Abdeslam, arrested this month in Belgium for involvement in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks; Najim Laachraoui, believed to have been one of the men who detonated a suicide package Tuesday at the Brussels airport; and another man killed by Belgian authorities in a raid this month.

Belgian police could not immediately provide additional details Sunday.

The arrest might provide additional clues about how the cell of Islamic State supporters planned the coordinated assaults that killed 130 people in Paris and, on March 22, killed at least 31 more in suicide bombings in an airport terminal and in the Brussels subway.

A series of new arrests in recent days might help ease tensions across a city that remains palpably on edge five days after its worst attacks since World War II. On Saturday, Belgian authorities urged postponement of a planned solidarity rally because, they admitted, they could not provide adequate security.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State remains defiant even as it faces pressure from the United States and its allies from the air, and from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad on the ground. On Saturday, the Syrian government claimed to have recaptured the historic city of Palmyra, under Islamic State control for months. Over the weekend, militants continued to celebrate attacks that they said demonstrated the weakness of western defenses.

In a video released Saturday, a Dutch-speaking fighter, identified as Abu Hanifa al-Beljiki, addressed the government of Belgium.

"You learned nothing from the lessons of Paris, because you continued fighting Islam and the Muslims," he said, according to a transcript from SITE Intelligence. "For this I want to tell you that the attack in Brussels is reaping what you had sown with your own hands."

The video followed an announcement Saturday that Belgian authorities might have found the most-wanted remaining suspect in Tuesday's attacks. It was a welcome development for the Belgian government, which has come under widespread criticism for failing to chase down leads that could have prevented the attack.

Authorities say the man, identified by a European official as Faycal Cheffou, may be the third attacker at the Brussels airport. It's believed that his explosive-laden suitcase did not go off.

The arrested man appeared before a judge after he was detained Thursday night while sitting in a car in front of the Belgian prosecutor's office. He was charged with "participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist murders and attempted terrorist murders."

A spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office, Eric Van der Sypt, confirmed that the man identified by his office only as "Faycal C." was being investigated as the possible third airport attacker. But he said the link "cannot be confirmed yet."

"We have to be 100 percent sure," he said. "These are very heavy charges."

Belgium's Le Soir newspaper reported that Cheffou was third airport attacker, citing an unidentified source who said that a taxi driver who took the attackers to the airport the morning of the bombings positively identified him.

Belgian media reported that Cheffou has in the past identified himself as "an independent journalist" and has a history of advocacy on behalf of radical Islamist causes. He was reportedly once arrested for trying to recruit refugees in a public park and later received an order to stay away.

The website of Flanders News posted a video that it said featured Cheffou reporting in front of an asylum center, where he tells viewers that mealtimes for detainees were not altered to account for Ramadan, when Muslims must fast during daylight hours. "This goes against human rights," he says in the video.

Unlike the other two airport bombers, the third man's bag never detonated. The first two wore black gloves on their left hands that authorities believe concealed the detonators. The third man did not wear gloves.

The prosecutor's announcement comes just a day after investigators revealed that they may have missed a crucial opportunity to disrupt plans for the Tuesday killings. In the days before the attacks, investigators were questioning Abdeslam, the last living direct participant in November's Paris terrorist attacks. He had been arrested in Brussels only four days before the Belgium attackers struck.

But the investigators focused their inquiries on the Paris attacks and on the procedures for extradition rather than press Abdeslam on plans for future strikes.

French newspaper Le Monde published in Saturday's edition what it claimed were excerpts from a transcript of prosecutors' questioning of Abdeslam. At one point, they show him photos of the two brothers who days later would attack the Brussels airport and subway, Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui.

"I did not know them," Abdeslam replies, according to Le Monde. The prosecutors move on, even though they had already uncovered Abdeslam's fingerprints in an apartment rented by Khalid el-Bakraoui.

In addition to Cheffou, two others were also charged Saturday with terrorism-related offenses, though they were not directly linked to Tuesday's attack.

Prosecutors said they charged a man identified as "Rabah N." with "participating in the activities of a terrorist group" in connection with a Thursday raid in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil that French leaders say foiled an imminent attack on France.

Also connected to that plot is a man who was detained in a raid in Brussels on Friday, Abderrahman Ameroud, several Belgian media outlets reported, citing unnamed police sources. Ameroud, an Algerian, was sentenced in 2005 in France to seven years in prison for recruiting jihadists to fight in Afghanistan as part of a case tied to the 2001 assassination of anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Another man, identified as "Aboubakar A.," was arrested and charged Saturday with a terrorism-related offense. But prosecutors did not specify whether he was involved with one of the known plots.

Belgium's federal crisis center increased its estimate of the number of wounded to 340 on Saturday, and it said 27 of the 31 thought to be dead had been identified. Nearly half of the victims were foreign, and they came from eight countries, the center said.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the status of Americans overseas, said that about a dozen U.S. citizens were wounded in the attacks. At least two Americans were killed.

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The Washington Post's Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.

Authors Information:

Michael Birnbaum is The Post's Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.

Missy Ryan writes about the Pentagon, military issues, and national security for The Washington Post.

Griff Witte is The Post's London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper's deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Michael Birnbaum, Missy Ryan · WORLD, EUROPE, MIDDLE-EAST · Mar 27, 2016 - 6:41 AM

 
 

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